Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East

Abadan Refinery from the air, Feb. 1958 Provided by Paul Schroeder.
Nelida Fuccaro
[ From: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
Volume 33, Number 1, 2013
pp. 1-6 ] In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content by “Project Muse”

The grand narrative of oil development in the Middle East has been enacted largely on an urban stage, as exemplified by a glitzy global metropolis like Dubai that now stands as one the main symbols of late oil urbanism. The collection of essays in this special section of CSSAAME explores Middle Eastern oil urbanism from a historical perspective, taking as its point of departure the argument that both at the onset of oil exploitation and in more recent times, cities and urban environments constituted the primary setting where oil modernity unfolded. These articles have been conceived and written in the spirit of retrieving from obscurity forgotten histories of early urban modernity and transformation in three areas that played a crucial role in the history of the Middle Eastern oil industry: the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Iraq. Covering the period from the interwar years to the nationalization of the various petroleum industries in the 1970s and 1980s, they propose an ethnographic reading of oil as the principal agent of urban change in two main contexts: the new company towns and labor camps that proliferated around the oil fields at the onset of oil exploitation, and the old urban settlements that became the central places of oil-producing countries in the following decades.

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, this collection of essays identifies urban milieus as the critical nodes of the architecture of early oil life. The milieus are explored as the recipients of oil’s transformative powers and as part and parcel of the constitutive process of the redefinition of polities and societies under the shadow of this extractive commodity. Gyan Prakash has suggested that the city should be approached “as a spatial form of social life and power relations, not just a site of society and politics.” Following this premise, urban environments are here presented as physical sites of political, social, and cultural interaction and exchange and as spaces that framed oil modernity as a new set of practices at the micro level of the urban experience. In parallel, these articles scrutinize the symbolic and ideological value conferred upon urban milieus since the 1950s. In this period cities and towns featured prominently as rhetorical instruments used by oil companies, local governments, and city planners to impose particular visions of oil modernity upon indigenous populations.

Retrieving the urban histories of oil also responds to contemporary concerns. It reclaims landscapes that are often no longer in existence as the storehouses of collective memory and serves as an integral part of the public history and culture of the countries concerned. In short, these essays aim to contribute to the restoration of “the power of place” to the oil equation, a power that the literature on oil development in the Middle East has often concealed. The historical impact of the discovery and exploitation of oil has been underresearched. This is particularly evident when considering the period before the 1973 oil boom, which had the effect of suddenly transforming the oil-producing countries of the Middle East into major players on the international stage. Only in the last few years have a handful of studies investigated the first decades of oil development from an urban perspective and with a focus on questions of modernity. Following the progressive nationalization of oil industries and the emergence of so-called petro-states after the 1970s, oil development has consistently attracted the attention of economists and political scientists. In spite of the general recognition that urban change has been the most tangible (and visible) outcome of oil wealth, these studies have largely approached the city as a mere accessory of state power, as an appendix to the national and global oil economies. The scarce attention devoted to the history of urban spaces, societies, and cultures under the shadow of oil reflects broader trends in the study of the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Iraq in the twentieth century. With the exception of Iraq, scholarship on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf has tended to display a problematic relationship to scale, giving precedence to tribe, state, and British Empire as the principal analytical tools to understand historical change. In the case of Iran and Iraq, the historical literature has certainly been…

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