KC McGinnis | October 29, 2015
Disease outbreaks and drought during pilgrimages were important factors in the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the late 19th century, according to recent research by Iowa State University history professor Michael Christopher Low.
Low’s recent essay published in Comparative Studies in Society and History outlines how the discovery Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves came in part as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s desire to find potable water in the region. After years of drought and an extensive cholera outbreak in the late 1800s, the Ottomans saw the discovery of clean water in the Arabian peninsula as a way to prevent the spread of disease following annual pilgrimages to Mecca. This search for water eventually went underground, where explorers instead found historic petroleum reserves.
In an ISU News Service interview Low noted a degree of irony in this discovery in light of Saudi Arabia’s current dependence on oil for desalinization, where the state gets most of its drinking water. He said that 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil goes to desalination facilities, without which the state would be unable to function.
Low’s historical research has implications for today as several U.S. states including drought-stricken California consider ocean water desalinization as an option for the future of clean water. These plants, which discharge waste water with even higher salt content back into the oceans and many of which depend on fossil fuels, could have compound negative effects on marine ecosystems and the atmosphere.
Either way, Low’s research shows that historical inquiry can inform current policy, especially around connected resources like petroleum and water.