Preparing the Ground in Abadan: The ‘Contract” as Instrument of Dispossession


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 land agreements with the Bakhtiyaris were being drawn in Masjed Soleyman the Oil Company was also engaged in making a similar arrangement with Sheikh Khaz’al the Arab ruler of Mohammareh (Khorramshahr), for leasing a strip of land for a refinery on the Island of Abadan. Initially conducted by the Company chief engineer George Reynolds in 1908, they became more successful when Sir Percy Cox, the foremost British diplomat in the Persian Gulf, entered the process and concluded the contract in 1909, once again showing the symbiosis that had been established between the British state and the private Oil Company from the onset[73]. The Company leased an area with a 200-yard frontage on Shatt al Arab, with a strip of land connecting it to Bahmanshir River on the east, and further strips for pipelines, storage, and pumping stations. They obtained from Khaz’al the right to erect buildings and shape the built environment within their leased territories, as they pleased. The annual rent was agreed at £650, paid in ten-year installments, so the Company paid the Ashayer (Tribes) £6,500. In addition, the Company also agreed to pay Khaz’al personally £10,000 nominally as a loan, and to hire local guards. Khaz’al in turn gained the endorsement of the tribal elders, and the contract was signed[74]. Throughout its dealings in Iran the Oil Company was obsessed with contracts. Its relations with all those it encountered were always contractual. When objections were raised contracts were brought out and waived. “The contract” was the legal instrument that paved the way for the oil complex to be established in Khuzestan. Of course, it was always backed up with the threat of force, implied or explicit, military or economic. As we have discussed, Bakhtiyari property relations were also meticulously contractual, as they were in the tribal Arab areas of the province’s southwest[75]. Similar to the Bakhtiyari territories the boundaries of contractual property relationships in these predominantly Arab tribal societies were not as absolute and individualized as they were in liberal private property laws. The physical boundaries were fuzzy and in line with ecological characteristics of the landscape, seasonal variations, and specific and often multiple land uses by different social actors. The rights of alienation and sales were highly curtailed and conditional. Even the abilities of the Sheikhs and Khans to distribute land and resources were not absolute or arbitrary, but an extension of their ceremonial and mediating functions and their official social role in the collective. As Polanyi would say, these were property contracts embedded within an intricate web of redistributive priorities and reciprocal social obligations[76]. Land and territory were on occasion, and within specific bounds exchangeable through monetary transactions. They were considered a vital economic resource, but tribal lands and pastoral territories were not fully commodified or privatized, and nor were they alienable through open market exchange. The property transfer contracts pursued by the Company were fundamentally different. For one, these contracts were meant to clearly define the boundaries of the Company’s absolute sovereignty and clarify the range of activities it could engage legally (see chapter 6). Even more significantly, the contracts with APOC served as a prohibitive instrument: They were ultimately used to exclude and deny alternative claims to land, to time and labor exchanged for money, and to loyalties. Enormous efforts were devoted to draw out contracts, and particular care was taken to make sure the other party understood the content, in order to avoid any future claim of dishonesty. Arnold Wilson’s description of the negotiations and the signing of the contract with Khaz’al are instructive: In May 1909 Cox sailed up the Shatt al Arab to Mohammareh in a British gunboat.
“ He exercised from the onset great influence on the Sheikh of Mohamarah but was careful not to press him unduly…It was my first experience of this kind of negotiation and of the manner in which high British officials did business. Cox was content to sit like the Shaikh on cushions on the floor, with his devoted oriental secretary Mirza Mohammad by his side. He attached great importance in devising forms of words which should not give rise to disputes and invariably drafted a clause in Persian or Arabic, and discussed it in that form…His ideal was that the Persian text should prevail, being that of the weaker party”[77]

Seemingly impeccably fair, courteous in appearance, and procedurally meticulous as this approach may have been within the classic liberal legal framework, where property is defined as a natural right and integral to human liberty and sovereignty[78], the process overlooked and simply ignored the profoundly different notions of property that existed on the ground. Property is a social and historical relationship that, among other things, regulates, facilitates, or curtails access to land and resources by individuals and collectives. Fundamentally, property is a relationship of power and as such is always open to contestation[79]. Social relations of production and reproduction are organized through and around property relations that, as a result, come in various overlapping and often contradictory forms. The legal systems upholding various property claims may include customary, religious, or secular judicial laws. These legal systems may be more or less flexible, institutionalized, or open to negotiations and interpretation, but often they are not compatible. Jesse Ribot and Nancy Peluso who have studied the enclosure of indigenous forest rights in West Africa and Southeast Asia analyze these clashes as conflicts of different claims of access to physical resources[80]. Some of these claims are “rights based” (property claims), others are based on relational and collective mechanisms of access, or altogether reject claims of legality. But each is predicated on sets of social relationships that are historically defined, and require their own mechanisms of administration, enforcement, and knowledge (of boundaries, limits, and selective inclusions or exclusions). Exclusive private property, for example, in principle requires formal records as proof of claim, absolute and enforceable boundaries, and universally applied sets of standard rules administered by a single authority[81].
Tribal territories in Abadan or Masjid Soleyman were not personal assets belonging to individuals to be disposed of as private property by the local magnates. As the legal scholar Carole Rose puts it: “’Acts of possession’ are, in the now fashionable term, a ‘text’; and the common law rewards the author of that text. But as students of hermeneutics know, the clearest text may have ambiguous subtexts”[82]. In this section we will attempt to “read” the new contractual property relations carved out in Abadan, that gave rise to an inevitable conflict of interpretations over different social texts. APOC’s relations with its local allies, as well as its employees, were built on clearly drawn contracts that defined exclusive boundaries of sovereignty over space for each party, despite the inconvenient fact that no such uncontested institutional arrangements existed anywhere in Khuzestan. All parties involved were clearly aware that the contracts just signed were an illusion that would be strongly resisted by Khaz’al’s own subjects as well as the central government. Khaz’al signed the contract in order to guarantee British protection for his continued personal dominion over Khuzestan, “a country as different from Persia as is Spain from Italy. Without a guarantee that we would assist him to the outmost of our power in maintaining his hereditary and customary rights and his property in Persia it would be suicidal for him meet our wishes. The Home Government authorized Cox to give such assurances, and to extend them to his heirs and successors”[83]. The signed contracts then became the basis for displacing what existed there before in order to establish the oil complex.


73. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:118–146.

74. Persia Annual Report 1909, Burrell, IPD, Vol.4, 427–428.

75. Ansari, “History of Khuzistan.”

76. Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

77. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907 1914,9 2–93.

78. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government( London:H ackettP ubC o,1 980).

79. Ehsani, “The Politics of Property in Post Revolution Iran”; Katherine Verdery and Caroline Humphrey, eds. Property in Question: Value Transformation in the Global Economy( New York: Berg Publishers, 2004),e specially“ Introduction:R aisingQ uestionsa boutP roperty” ;D ouglas Hay, “Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law,”i n Albion’s Fatal Tree,e d.D ouglasH ay,e (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 17–64; E. P. Thompson, “Customs, Law, and Common Rights,” in Customs in Common( NewY ork:T heN ewP ress,1 993),9 7–184; Alan Ryan, Property and Political Theory( New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1984); Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,R evised( London:P enguin Classics, 2010).

80. Jesse Ribot and Nancy Lee Peluso, “A Theory of Access,” Rural Sociology 68, no. 2 (2003): 155– 81.

81. Kain and Baigent, The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State; Karen Bakker, “The Commons versus the Commodity: Alter-Globalization, Anti-Privatization, and the Human Rights to Water in the Global South,” in Privatization: Property and the Remaking of Nature-Society Relations, ed. Becky Mansfield (Oxford: Oxford UNiversity Press, 2008), 38–63. For vastly different claims to space in a colonial urban setting see Brenda S. Yeoh, “Street Names in Colonial Singapore,” Geographical Review 82, no. 3 (1992): 313–22.

82. Carol M. Rose, Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory, and Rhetoric of Ownership
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 117.

83. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907 1914,9 3.

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