The Role and Rule of Experts in Establishing the Oil Complex

Abadan Refinery staff  1950-51 
Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

While the initial D’Arcy Concession of 1908 was the product of crafty and remarkably amoral negotiations and deals between British and Iranian statesmen and speculative investors (chapter 2), the actual work of discovery of oil and setting up the oil complex soon became the purview of professional experts. These ranged from geologists, engineers, surveyors, physicians, labor managers, accountants, corporate directors, security experts, urban planners, public health experts, chemists, and so on. As will become clear in the subsequent chapters, the boundaries between soldiers, diplomats, colonial officers, and technical experts in the employ of private oil business were rather fluid and ever shifting. However, the research in this dissertation reveals that they all played a defining role in assembling the oil complex in Khuzestan, and contributed significantly to shaping the oil habitus. Thus, rather than viewing the social history of oil and of labor in oil as defined primarily by frictions between labor, capital, and the state, I accord an equally important role to the mediation of middle class professional experts in this story. The role of experts was not limited to practical and technical affairs only. They were also instrumental in mediating political negotiations, contractual deals, and planning the long-term development of the oil complex by introducing ‘the social question’ (chapter 4) into the equation. This meant that in the defining interwar period, the question of social engineering, or of the active making of a permanent labor force in the oil industry and its cooptation through various strategies of coercion, as well as cooptation through class compromises and social policies, became a central tenet of APOC and the Iranian central government80.
The following chapters will return to this theme and further expand on the role of technical experts. Here I would like to sketch out briefly the role of a few individuals as an outline of the arguments to come. Arnold T. Wilson is a recurring character in this dissertation. As a young man from a middle class background (his father was a church minister), he went to a modest public school before joining colonial military service in India. Soon he was posted to Iran in 1907 as a young and inexperienced lieutenant heading of a force of 18 Indian Suwars (mounted cavalry) to guard oil explorers in Khuzestan who were under threat by local tribes. His intelligence, energy, and competence saw him rapidly elevated to act as British Consul in Mohammareh, to map and identify possible railroad routes in Iran as well as survey the possible location of the refinery in Abadan, before being appointed as acting head of the Boundary Commission charting the Iranian Ottoman border, once the actual Commission head was taken ill. During WWI he was posted to Basra as an administrative commander for the British military forces fighting the Ottoman army and local tribes. He was then rapidly elevated to the Acting Commissioner of British forces in Mesopotamia, serving as de-facto Viceroy of the new British protectorate of Iraq, an invented nation-state carved out by Britain, through a Mandate by the League of Nations, from three Ottoman provinces. Soon after the 1920 Arab Revolt in Iraq, for which he was partly blamed, Wilson left the military service and became the APOC Director in Mohammareh, in which capacity he was instrumental in the negotiations with the new Iranian central government that finalized the status of the oil complex in 1926.
Wilson was a prolific and talented author, and a remarkable individual. He wrote memoirs, and produced copious and detailed geographic, social, and political analyses of local populations, economies, and physical resources of southern Iran, that became the basis of British policymaking, as well as APOC operation[81]. Although an exceptional character, he was not unique but personified the growing trajectory of a new social class of technical experts who straddled the older world of Victorian and Edwardian colonialism, but now were becoming essential to the operations of modern corporate industrial capitalism in the era of Fordism, as well as the developmental institutions of the modern nation state.
The framing of Khuzestan as an “empty land and a people without history” in the period of oil explorations and the establishment of the oil industry during wartime (1908- 1921) was a discursive production of Wilson and other literary and technical experts like him, British, Europeans, as well as Iranians. In their writings, analyses, and policy proposals, Arnold Wilson and his colleagues emphasized the impending decline of the local social order in Khuzestan due to its many shortcomings. What they regularly failed to recognize or acknowledge was the historical and political context, and the connections between this state of affairs and the imperial policies of Britain and Russia, the political fallout from the upheavals of the Constitutional Revolution, the devastations of WWI, and the paradoxical impact of commercialization of southern Iran that had begun with the penetration of British merchant capital, and was about to expand into a whole new dimension with the establishment of the oil complex in Khuzestan (chapters 2, 3). They recognized that these momentous events were affecting local conditions, but they failed to acknowledge they were partially culprit in the current state of affairs. Wilson was a representative of a generation of post-Victorian British colonial agents during a transitional period of paradigmatic global change. He went on to become part of the core of the technical experts that established the next, decisive phase of the oil complex in Khuzestan (see chapters 4 and 6). After its chaotic and haphazard beginnings, the consolidation of the oil complex began to demand an evergreater degree of planning and coordination, technical as well political and social. The task of this coordination fell to professional experts: men (for they were all men) with certain credentials (formal education, maybe a university degree, military service, corporate experience, etc.) who began the task of planning for the successful operation of the oil complex amidst daunting difficulties. The modern “rule of experts” relies on isolating and categorizing selected aspects of the world into systems of specialized knowledge, which are then correlated into technical practices that first define certain issues as problems that can be classified, measured, and understood as obstacles and anomalies, before being overcome and resolved through the formulation of scientific and technical solutions. Once these solutions are professionally implemented some form of productive ‘normality’ is expected to be attained, otherwise the cycle may resume[82]. Systems of implementing scientific and technical expertise, such as urban planning, public health, industrial management, or economic development, in turn become the basis of praxis to shape the world according to the criteria they have pre-established as scientific and objective.
Other equally significant figures of (more or less) Wilson’s generation who played a key role in establishing the oil complex in Khuzestan, and who will figure in the following chapter include Percy Cox (chief British diplomat and negotiator in the Persian Gulf, later Minister (Ambassador) to Tehran, C.J. Edmonds (who was acting consul and de-facto governor in northern Khuzestan in various periods between 19131921); Sir John Cadman (APOC chairman in the 1920s), and J.M. Wilson (the main architect and urban planner of the company areas of APOC, from late 1920s until the nationalization of 1951), and Sir Percy Lorraine (chief negotiator with Bakhtiyaris while a council in Isfahan, and later Minister (Ambassador) to Tehran), among others[83].
These individuals followed a more or less similar personal trajectory: Most came form middling classes and were products of public schools, had stints serving in some official capacity in the colonies (especially India) or had established their carriers there. They seemed to circulate nearly seamlessly between government, military service, diplomatic responsibilities, colonial administration, and corporate professional occupations, across the Empire. This movement made the conventionally accepted boundaries of private/public domain rather murky. A surprising number were dilettante scholars who dabbled in history, poetry, linguistics, and archeology, published travelogues and memoirs, wrote political commentaries, and made public speeches aimed at shaping public opinion, or establishing scientific credentials and contributing to scholarly knowledge[84]. Most combined some form of technical expertise with administrative management and political authority. Their trajectories often crossed as they ran into each other in professional capacities, somewhere in the expanse of the post-Victorian British Empire. Their convictions were often unshakable when it came to the prevailing conception of the world seen through the prism of national interests and the Empire, and their own place in it. They held fast to how they framed the world according to the universal criteria of modern science prevailing at the time, and what they regarded as objective knowledge irrespective of where they were geographically, the indisputable rightness of the market economy, the civilizing mission of the European, and more specifically the English white man[85]. These individuals did not stand out only because of their shared worldviews, social backgrounds, upbringings, and intellectual formations. It was also the geographic trajectories that made them move across the world, within the Empire’s dominions, and amidst hardships that local people, whom they invariably thought of as ‘backward natives’, had long ago found ways to negotiate or to avoid altogether[86]. Most acted effectively as secular missionaries for the cause of European civilization, political influence, and economic enterprise, which they equated unquestionably with welfare for all. In the process they perceived their own role as one of selfless service to scientific progress (chapters 3, 5, 6), disregarding the coercive colonialism that underlay the whole edifice[87].
The shift to what I have called the social question, or the range of social reforms and interventionist projects that used non-market criteria to ensure the relative inclusion of selective segments of the local population within the sphere of technological and material modernity, was the strategy in part conceptualized by these men and others like them. These programs of social paternalism included urban planning, sanitary and public welfare measures, education, leisure programs and facilities, food provision, etc. that together constituted the extensive social engineering that began in Khuzestan from the 1920s, and were intended to facilitate the operation of the oil complex and allow for the smoother accumulation of capital in oil. Although these paternalistic programs were framed as strategies to deal with the political and social obstacles hindering the Company’s operations, they implied great changes in the lives of the people they affected. Some were welcomed; others felt coerced and alienating, and were resisted and fought. As for the professional experts, the pragmatic and utilitarian nature of their formation within the new technical and political habitus meant that upon encountering resistance to implementing their tasks, they sought practical and technical solutions involving the population and the material landscape for overcoming obstacles and planning for long term success of their enterprise, instead of resorting to coercion or limited alliances with local elites, as in the old days. In the post WWI era, the emergence of the social question was a turning point that gave more power to these professional men as versus corporate shareholders, financiers, and politicians. These changes were most clearly reflected not only in the form of the parliamentary compromise that emerged in Britain after the 1926 general strike (see chapter 4), but also abroad, and in the reformulation of the whole paradigm of development. With the
1929 Colonial Development Act the notion of development, and the role of indigenous professional experts from the global south was recast, consolidating the belief that regulating and planning for coordinated and rational development to smooth the path for a more frictionless accumulation of capital was the professional task of technically trained experts[88]. The posing of the social question opened the way for a different strategic approach to the development of the oil complex in the interwar years that allowed greater compromise with local society in the form of expanding social policies that were eventually materialized in the built environment of Abadan.

80. Ehsani, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns.”

81. Arnold T Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941); Arnold T. Wilson, Loyalties; Mesopotamia (London: Oxford University Press, 1931); Arnold Talbot Wilson, Persian Gulf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954); Arnold T Wilson, “The Bakhtiyaris,” Journal of Royal Asiatic Society 13, no. 3 (1926): 205–23; Arnold T Wilson, A Precis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of Arabistan, 1911; Marlowe, Late Victorian.

82. Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books, 1991); Mitchell,
Rule of Experts; Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men; Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
83. I mention these individuals because of the aforementioned similarities, but also because there are published biographies and public records available that reveal personal details of their lives that would otherwise remain in the realm of guess work. John Townsend, Proconsul to the Middle East: Sir Percy Cox and the End of Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); C. J. Edmonds, East and West of Zagros Travel, War and Politics in Persia and Iraq 1913-1921, ed. Yann Richard (Leiden: Brill, 2010); C.H. Lindsey-Smith, J.M. The Story of an Architect (London: Privately Published, 1976; John Rowland,
Ambassador for Oil: The Life of John First Baron Cadman (London: H.Jenkins, 1960); Gordon Waterfield, Professional Diplomat; Sir Percy Loraine of Kirkharle, Bt., 1880-1961. (London: Murray, 1973); Roberta Pearce, “Cox, Sir Percy,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),; Elizabeth Monroe, “Loraine, Sir Percy Lyham (1880-1961),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),; T.A.B. Corley, “Greenway, Charles (1857-1934),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),

84 . See for example Christopher N. B. Ross, “Lord Curzon and E. G. Brown Confront the ‘Persian Question,’” The Historical Journal 52, no. 2 (May 15, 2009): 385–411. One of the most remarkable figures and a rare female example was Ann Lambton who served as embassy staff in Iran, was an intelligence analyst and a spy, before becoming a major orientalist and academic, penning a standard manual of Persian language, and publishing groundbreaking historical studies of the agrarian property regimes in Iran, medieval political institutions, doctrines, and jurisprudence, and so on. See Lambton,
Landlord and Peasant in Persia; Ann K. S. Lambton, The Persian Land Reform, 1962-1966 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969); Idem., Theory and Practice in Medieval Persian Government (London:Variorum, 1980); Idem., Qājār Persia : Eleven Studies, (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1988); Idem., Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia: Aspects of Administrative, Economic and Social History, 11Th-14th Century (Binghampton: State University of New York Press, 1988). As with many of these historical figures, detailed biographical information about Lambton are surprisingly rare to come by. For a slightly conspiratorial semi-official Iranian perspective and obituary see Fatemeh Safavi, “Doushizeh Lambton [Ms. Lambton],” Tarikh-e Mo’aser 5, no. 19 (2007): 85–129.

85. This account follows Edward Said’s approach to the study of orientalists as individuals as well as contributors to discursive exercise of power. Said, Orientalism. I do not intend to exclude women from this account. There are important travel accounts during this period of European women travelers to Southwest Iran and the Bakhtiyari country. In addition, there were remarkable women, such as Gertrude Bell, Elizabeth Ross, or Ann Lambton, who acted as experts and agents of political rule in the region at a time when very few women occupied such roles in Britain. See Safavi, “Doushizeh Lambton (Ms. Lambton).” Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross, A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiyari Land (London: L. Parsons, 1921). Unfortunately, there are very few published sources and biographical information about these women that I am aware of. The same can be said for the pivotal figure of the Scottish Dr Young, the Company physician in Masjed Soleyman.

86. The shared quest for conquering uncharted landscapes, such as mountain peaks or vast deserts, and recording the endeavor as pioneering discoveries was a typical example. See the remarkable examples of Thesiger’s adventures in the Empty Quarter and Iraqi Marshlands, or Layard’s ‘discovery’ of Bakhtiyaris in the Zagros: Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands (London: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1959); Thesiger, Marsh Arabs: Seven Years with the Primitive Tribesmen of a Watery World; Austen Henry Layard, Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, Including a Residence among the Bakhtiyari and Other Wild Tribes Before the Discovery of Nineveh, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1887); Merian C Cooper, Grass (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1925).

87. Said, Orientalism; Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men; Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance; Scott, Seeing Like a State.

88. George C. Abbott, “A Re-Examination of the 1929 Colonial Development Act,” Economic History Review 24, no. 1 (1971): 68–81; M. P. Cowen and R.W. Shenton, Doctrines of Development (New York: Routledge, 1996); Frederick Cooper, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept,” in International Development and the Social Sciences, ed. Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 64–92.

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