The provisioning of potable water was a microcosm of the late Ottoman state’s incomplete projects of technopolitical modernization on the Arab frontier. Water questions sat at the intersection between international pressures surrounding cholera, drought, Wahhabi and Bedouin disorder, and the inability of the state to impose its will on the semi-autonomous Amirate of Mecca. To be sure, Ottoman public health reforms and increased attention to water infrastructure were partly a product of the intense international attention generated by the hajj’s role in the globalization of cholera. However, like other projects with more overt military and strategic implications, most notably the Hijaz telegraph and railway, the Ottoman state also saw an opportunity to harness the environmental management of the hajj to serve a broader set of efforts to consolidate the empire’s most vulnerable frontier provinces.
This talk also seeks to tell a larger story about the evolution of state building, development, and expertise in Arabia, one that would otherwise be obscured without reference to its Ottoman, Saudi, American, and global connections. By viewing the evolution of hydraulic management in the Hijaz as a continuous process unfolding across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we gain a new perspective on the role that Ottoman modernization played in shaping the Saudi state that eventually succeeded it. We find that the quest for water security and environmental dominance in the Hijaz played a critical role in setting the stage for the discovery of Saudi Arabia’s massive petroleum reserves. In turn, I argue that the production of oil and water have become completely interdependent. After the kingdom’s embrace of large-scale desalination technologies in the 1970s, oil has become the necessary ingredient in the peninsula’s water production. Thus, through the magic of turning oil into “infinite” water the Saudi state has arguably cast its most awe-inspiring and terrifying spell over its subjects.