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Oil, Sand, and Sun: Energy Geographies across Arabia

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011


Rania Ghosn

Rania Ghosn is currently a postdoctoral associate at Boston University, where she organizes an interdisciplinary seminar on Energy Transitions. She has completed her doctorate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her dissertation, entitled Geographies of Energy: The Case of the TransArabian Pipeline, Spatializes large-scale energy systems through the history of a pipeline across the Middle East. Rania holds a bachelor’s in architecture from the American University of Beirut and a master in geography degree from University College London. She has held research and teaching positions at The American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University, and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is a founding editor of the journal New Geographies, which focuses on contemporary issues of urbanism and architecture, and is editor-in-chief of the journal’s Landscapes of Energy.

Oil, Sand, and Sun: Energy Geographies across Arabia

The triad of energy, economy, and environment is once again at the forefront of design concerns.

In architectural publications, green technologies are increasingly being proclaimed as the guarantor of sustainability, economic growth, political independence, and an intrinsically more just world. However, the euphoric tone of contemporary energy studies is noteworthy for its consistency with a nearly unbroken attitude of wonderment, extending from the advent of steam power through the spread of fossil fuels. Amid the popular rush to endorse alternatives, the renewed visibility of energy represents an opportunity to examine the social, political, ecological, and economic repercussions of all energy –whether labeled conventional or alternatives. This essay supports the claim that studying a material infrastructure—it being spatially constructed as well as its shaping the environment—yields crucial insights into the history and development of energy technology and into the spatial planning for subsequent energy transitions. More specifically, I want to argue that a critical understanding of the role oil has played in the spatial configuration of the Middle East is most crucial as the region is planning for it post-oil age and has already embarked on many notable projects of renewable energy. For that, I share some of the research that I have been undertaken in my doctorate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and which materialized in my dissertation entitled Geographies of Energy: The Case of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline and a volume of the New Geographies journal, entitled Landscapes of Energy.

I propose to reflect on the spatial conditions of the age of oil by exploring the geographies of an oil pipeline across the Middle East. Throughout the course of the twentieth century, the growth of oil into a global commodity has brought the Middle East and its oil infrastructure on the agendas of foreign policy and international trade and marked the space of the region from extraction fields, through transportation routes and into refineries-ports. Early in the century, the discovery of oilfields in Masjid-i Suleiman (Iran, 1908) and Mosul (Iraq, 1918) constructed the region as a European.

During the interwar period, British oil companies inscribed their control through exclusive agreements and a material infrastructure of pipelines and terminal ports. At that time, American multinational companies were a minor player and have only acquired significance in the wake of the Second World War. In late 1943, an American governmental mission, headed by the geologist DeGoyler, made an inspection trip to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East and projected that “the center of gravity of world oil production is shifting from the Gulf-Caribbean areas to the Middle East, to the Persian Gulf, and is likely to continue to shift until it is firmly established in that area.” The idea of an all-American pipeline running from the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia to a port on the Mediterranean was thus launched in 1943 as a government wartime project and implemented as a postwar private infrastructure. In the context of newly discovered reserves in Arabia, TAPLINE, a subsidiary of four American oil companies, carried part of its sister company’s crude from the Aramco wells in Saudi Arabia across Jordan and Syria to a Lebanese port on the Mediterranean. The 1,000 mi cross border pipeline operated across the Middle East between 1950 and 1975. Due to regional disturbances, competition with tankers, the development of alternative pipeline routes, and the nationalization of Aramco, Tapline was eventually abandoned in the mid seventies. Through the history of the pipeline, I address some of the spatial repercussions of the age of oil and highlight the repercussions of the transport of energy on the organization of spatial and political relations across scales.


Fig1. The Trans-Arabian Pipeline



Fig2. Tapline                            Fig3. People Education. T.F. Walters. Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA jpg


As the pipeline was built to avoid the double voyage by tanker around the Arabian Peninsula and the Suez Canal Toll, it was referred to in Company publications as the ‘short-cut in steel’ and represented as a free-floating pipe that merely overlays the land to vanish into the horizon. Although essential to high-energy, the infrastructure of transport remains largely

unaddressed, and partially rendered invisible ¬–opaque, locked underground, or crossing “far and empty” sand dunes. Although space is essential to energy conversion, the spatial discourse has contributed to eclipsing the role of geography in the production of such value, by internalizing benefits and accruing them to the city and externalizing costs, sliding them out of sight. However, the physical continuity of the conduit between crude geographies and the refined world hints at how the Metropolis and the Empty Quarter are intimately connected by the urban condition. The cross-border pipeline did not overlay the terrain; its operation required material interventions that inscribed the infrastructure’s territory into the Arabian landscape. The pipeline comprised an extensive system to map, build, service, inhabit, and secure the line. It was first built in exploration trips and mappings of alternate routes, international relations and foreign diplomacy, finance, conventions, procurements of rights-of way, settling of transit fees, and engineering drawings. Then, the erection of such a large engineering project involved resolving labor availability, training, and expertise, capital and technological conditions: deciding on the movement of local populations, on procurement of pipes and machinery to unserviced lands; on whom to employ to construct and operate it, and how to secure it. It extended service roads, telecommunication links, water provision, company towns, and airstrip fields. Throughout, it was built in public relations, in glossy brochures, colorful photos of -communities and landscapes, and promises about positive impacts on people along the route. The pipeline-operation deployed thus a set of discursive and material technologies to inscribe the flow of oil into the landscape.


Fig4. Reconnaissance Report. 1946

In Saudi Arabia, and as TAPLINE and Aramco interests were closely intertwined, TAPLINE played a developmental role in the Northern Province of Saudi Arabia similar to that of Aramco, its sister company, in the Eastern province. The Pipeline Company contributed to stabilizing the northern frontiers of the Kingdom and supported the settlement within its political boundaries of tribes that had seasonally migrated in search of water across the arid region and into Iraq. The pipeline company drilled 52 groundwater wells, provided free medical services in its clinics along the right-of-way, It planned the towns adjacent to the pumping stations of Turaif, Rafha, Ar’ar and Qaisumah, built their public facilities and schools, and supported a home ownership plan for its employees. However, to say that Tapline and the Kingdom needed and reinforced each other on some fronts does not imply that they were in consensus over all operations or to ignore disaccords between visions of the state and visions of the oil company. Water troughs were a micro-political cosmos of the political process: international Tapline officers made available the valuable natural resource, local emirs regulated access, and different tribes, no longer confined to their territorial boundaries and water wells negotiated, sometimes violently, access to water.

At the moment of birth of the Tapline, oil was celebrated as a true guarantee of democracy and justice for the developing and developed worlds alike. Since, it has shed its utopian promises. However, rather than a close critique of the demands of high-energy urbanism, the age of oil is dismissed with sweeping politico-phobic propagandas while the promises for a better tomorrow are reincarnated in promotions of sustainable modes of energy. What this research called on, as well as the recently published issue of Landscapes of Energy, which I have edited, is a material and spatial examination of the infrastructures of energy. Let me say a few words about the premises of the journal and of Geography as a paradigm. The journal was born in response to a condition in which designers are increasingly compelled to address and transform larger contexts and address problems that had been confined to the domains of engineering, ecology, or regional planning. The need to address the ‘geographic’ aspects has prompted designers to re-examine their tools and play the synthesis role that geography had aspired to play between the physical, the economic, and the social opening up a range of technical and formal possibilities for design. In line with the premises of the journal, Volume 2 wants to bring the geographic to effectively bear on the role and practices of design linking together attributes –for this issue attributes on energy, which are understood to be either separate from each other or external to their disciplines. It calls for a spatial examination of energy systems, maps some of the physical, social, and representational geographies of oil, in particular, and reflects on the premises and concerns of contemporary energy speculations. By making visible this infrastructure, Landscapes of Energy is an invitation to articulate design’s environmental agency and its appropriate scales of intervention. It asserts that discussions of clean energy ought not purge once again soiled matters of geography.

Fig5. Badanah Pumping Station Town. Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA jpg                             Fig6. Tapline Water Troughs

Fig7. Landscapes of Energy


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