The Politics of property in interwar Abadan

The Staff Quarter in Abadan 1950's
The Staff Quarter in Abadan 1950’s
Credit: 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)”


Who ‘owned’ this urban land? What was the meaning of property under these changing circumstances? Chapter 3 discussed the incongruence of different notions of property when APOC was making its land deals with the Bakhtiyaris and Khaz’al. In the process of its negotiations APOC had relied on the liberal and Lockean notion of private property as a natural right insured by a free contract, which had led to the privatization of the collective territories of the Bakhtiyari following the collusion of their khans with the Company. The D’Arcy Concession had given APOC the right of free possession of dead (mavvat) and uncultivated (bayer) land. None of these categories applied to Abadan since it had become a boomtown after 1912. “In the Fields population centers had developed in isolated areas. There the Company performs the municipal duties. Abadan is somewhat different. There were some cultivators in the vicinity of the refinery area, but villages and a rapidly expanding town came into being, adjacent to but outside the Company area”[140]

As a result, the Company’s repeated references to residents having signed over their properties in exchange for fair compensation begged the question of what kind of documents had been signed over, who had obtained these titles, from whom, and under what circumstances? From Eftekhari’s memoirs and the petitions of residents we know there were many people renting their residence at a significant share of their meager wages. These renters, in all likelihood most of them oil workers, were also being displaced with little alternative shelter available in the highly congested boomtown. Their claims for a “right to the city” did not figure at all in the contractual game of compensation for formal titles. It was most likely that any titles had been purchased from the patriarchal authority of Khaz’al, who had held control of the Island until he was deposed. But the Central Government had never recognized his authority over what it called “state land” (khalesejat), and now that Khaz’al had been deposed all his legal dealings were considered moot. Consequently, the claim of the Company that it had paid fair compensation for a title issued by Khaz’al met a sympathetic ear from government bureaucrats. In any case, these titles in Abadan were no longer about agrarian land of any sort, so the categories specified in the Concession could hardly apply to them; nor did the clauses referring to the fair local value of cultivated land, since migrants and indigenous people had transformed these areas into urban residential land. Having been dispossessed once from their customary and collective geographic resources to make room for the primary accumulation of extractive oil capitalism, the now urban migrants were being again dispossessed to make room for the built urban environment of oil that would facilitate the accumulation of capital in the industrial processing of oil capitalism. The Company was willing to compromise its desire to take full control of the urban space, and was glad to delegate the politically charged task of evicting and dispossessing the population to the government, so long as its specific requirements for creating a segregated sanitary city were implemented. The state, on the other hand, was faced with the dilemma of citizen demands for fair treatment, justice, and protection, during a period of momentous transition when the institutions and the governmental practices of a new centralized nation state were being erected, legitimized by a nationalist claim of representing the interests of the nation and improving people’s material lives.
The deadlock following these confrontations put the politics of property in the city at the center of the consolidation of the oil complex in the interwar years. Given these mounting frictions, and the generally unstable political situation, the Company decided to withdraw its proposal and bide its time[141].


Notes & References :
140. “Terms and Conditions of Employment; Chapter 6; Municipal Development”, p.34, June 1946, BP 41516

141. “Note on Abadan Bazaar position”, no date, no author (probably A.T.Wilson), BP 71183


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