“Brought to you by the House of Benson and Hedges in Arabia”: How Big Tobacco Used Modernity and Islam to Conquer Saudi Arabia

By Sean Foley
Submitted to Session P4448 (Widening the Net: New Sources, Methods, and Insights in the Arabian Peninsula, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Rentier states are often portrayed as powerful actors, with the ability to radically transform their societies, especially when oil prices are high. Drawing on archival and field research conducted in America and in Saudi Arabia from 2013 to 2015, this paper depicts the opposite story: namely, the failure of the Saudi state during the oil boom in the 1970s to deter a concerted campaign by multinational tobacco companies to make Saudis smokers. Overall, this paper and the unique sources it employs help us better explore the factors that limit the ability of even the wealthiest oil-funded rentier states to shape the behavior and national identities of their citizens.

For decades, multinational tobacco companies viewed Saudi Arabia as a hostile territory in which senior foreign dignitaries were banned from smoking in public. But after the oil boom created a new middle class in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, American companies came to view the Kingdom as a lucrative untapped market. Starting early in the decade, they commissioned Western social scientists to undertake the types of detailed surveys that had been successfully used in other parts of the world. Thanks to these surveys of Saudi and expatriate attitudes towards smoking, tobacco executives realized that they could win a new generation of smokers with marketing campaigns that linked smoking to American freedom and modernity but also tied tobacco companies with conservative Islam. In particular, innovative promotions, such as Benson and Hedges’ limited-edition pendent celebrating the new Islamic century in 1979, allowed tobacco companies to introduce their products to Saudi consumers while circumventing restrictions on advertising cigarettes. These advertising campaigns were sufficiently successful that they not only increased tobacco use in the Kingdom, but they also defeated an initiative to ban smoking supported by senior members of the royal family and the religious establishment. By 1995, 53 percent of Saudi men smoked, and U.S. tobacco companies dominated the Kingdom’s market.

Ultimately, this paper sheds new light on smoking in Saudi Arabia—a little discussed but important aspect of contemporary Saudi society and the U.S.-Saudi special relationship. These events are especially important today as Saudi leaders again seek to curb smoking to (a) improve public health and (b) blunt the desire of pious Saudis to join the Islamic State, which prosecutes smokers and is creating the type of society in Iraq and Syria that much of the outside world assumes already exists in Saudi Arabia.