Tribes, Workers and Unrest in the Oil City


War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike

Rasmus Christian Elling, University of Copenhagen

Published in: Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East


By the 1910s, a modus vivendi had been established between the Company and Sheikh Khaz’al. The former lent the latter recognition, external protection, and loans in return for access to and security on Abadan Island. The Company often used Khaz’al’s tribal forces to quell social disorder and labor. Under Khaz’al, Arab notables profited from the presence of the Company, and a handful of sheikhs enriched themselves as contractors or as bazaar merchants. Others were able to benefit from Abadan’s development, working as guards, servants, or day laborers, while farmers and fishermen sold their produce to the Company. Yet the Company rarely employed Arabs as wage earners, and thus prevented their integration into the oil labor force.

The Company’s—and indeed Britain’s—policy towards the sheikh was ambivalent: on the one hand, they depended on his cooperation to secure their oil output, but on the other they had by the 1920s become wary over his autonomist aspirations. The sheikh revolted against Tehran in 1916 and 1921, even proposing to separate his domains from Iran. Having toyed with the idea, Britain ultimately rejected Arab secession, and in 1925 Reza Khan took Sheikh Khaz’al prisoner and abolished the sheikhdom. A tribal insurgency erupted across Khuzestan, but now the British and the Company supported the state’s clampdown against their erstwhile Arab allies. The unrest in Abadan and Mohammerah was crushed but rural Arabs continued for decades to resist and protest harassment, new taxes, forced conscription, and the expropriation of land, animals and foodstuff by state authorities. The Iranian central government rapidly consolidated its rule by uprooting traditional authority. While tribal communities throughout Khuzestan (and indeed, throughout Iran) were violently subdued, disarmed and forcibly sedentarized, the Arabs were largely marginalized on the new political and social landscape that appeared after 1925. The free movement of families across the previously fluid national borders was curtailed, the use of the Arabic language in public was outlawed, and cities were given new Persian-sounding names—Mohammerah became Khorramshahr, for example. While the Iranian state was now present in Abadan through municipal, juridical, military and police authorities, the Company, backed up by powerful British diplomats, retained much real power. In the event of a crisis, the Company either lobbied for British military intervention or used its own security forces, which operated in a legal grey area.
While pockets of urbanization and modern education appeared across the region, most Arabs continued to live in poverty and illiteracy, barred from influence, and witnesses to a great influx of outsiders. Displacement of Arabs from Abadan had begun with Khaz’al’s land leases in Braim, and continued with the Company-led evictions in the bazaar and in Bawarda in the 1920s and 30s.[10] While some Iranian white-collar workers were able to move gradually into the new middle-class districts in the 1940s, Arabs were mostly confined to the squalid, crime-ridden neighborhoods of Kofeysheh, Koshtargah, and Ahmadabad, located outside the Company’s housing zones, or lived in simple villages on rural Abadan Island. Some resorted to highway robbery, smuggling, and piracy, and memoirs testify to the fact that Arab tribes would still engage in raids against Abadan’s citizens as late as the 1940s.[11] Against this backdrop of inequality, agitation with ethnic overtones spread among the Arabs in Khuzestan in the 1940s. Contrary to popular historical narratives still prevalent in Iran, which present this agitation as completely stage-managed by the British, recent research has demonstrated the development of a genuine Arab movement across the province.[12] The key grievances of this movement included the lack of land rights and the expropriation of Arab property, yet there were also demands for cultural rights, political recognition, and regional autonomy.
British diplomats regularly reported on Persian-Arab tensions during World War II, on Arab distrust of the Iranian authorities, and on the violent treatment of Arab civilians by the Iranian gendarmerie and military.[13] In May 1944, local authorities reported their worries that Sheikh Jaseb—son of Sheikh Khaz’al—was scheming to return from his exile in Basra in order to establish an independent Arab state in Khuzestan.[14] In February 1945, the Iranian army attempted unsuccessfully to disarm Arab tribes on Abadan Island.[15] In January 1946, another of Khaz’al’s sons, Sheikh Abdollah, launched a futile rebellion. Britain did not—as Iranian nationalists at the time feared and have since maintained—back the idea of an independent Arabistan, and it is clear from diplomatic correspondence that the Arab leaders felt betrayed. The Company was not interested either: as a business enterprise, it nurtured no dreams of state-making.
 Faced with rising social disorder, political discontent, and troop withdrawal from Iran in early 1946, British diplomats were particularly anxious about the threat posed by the oil labor movement. The dramatic history of this movement began when Indian migrant workers staged protests and strikes in the refinery in the 1910s and 1920s, to which the Company responded with mass deportations and the use of Arab tribal forces to quell disturbances. By the late 1920s, Iranian workers began to extract concessions from the Company by threatening to paralyze the refinery. In a fascinating account, a Soviet-trained labor activist sheds light on the mobilization leading to the 1929 strike.[16]
Alarmed by Bolshevik infiltration, the Company pressured the Iranian authorities for tighter security while at the same time expanding its own system of surveillance. During World War II, thousands of Iranians were suddenly dismissed from the refinery, and while intercommunal clashes broke out, discontent even spread to British personnel.[17] Underground socialist activism escalated among the oil workers, and by 1946 the Sovietbacked Communist Tudeh Party and its affiliated trade unions were ready to take effective control of Abadan. At that point, the Arabs were practically the only Iranian community in Abadan not to have joined the socialist labor movement. There can be several reasons for this. The Company had from the beginning of its operations viewed Arabs as unreliable labor, and instead preferred Iranians from outside the region or imported labor from abroad. The Arab labor that was employed consisted mainly of day laborers or contractor teams headed by sheikhs. It may be that some Arabs chose to rely on alternative sources of livelihood rather than enduring the grueling work conditions in the oil industry, or—as Arab activists maintained—that the Company in its recruitment discriminated against the Arabs. Either way, Arabs were underrepresented among the Company’s workers, and thus simply did not have the same stake in the labor movement as the mostly “Persian” wage-earners[18].
There are also possible socio-cultural explanations. While others often severed tribal and traditional ties to their birthplaces when they moved to Abadan, Arabs still lived in their customary setting. Tribal power had even been revived in the political vacuum following the forced abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, and the conservative sheikhs were apprehensive of the Tudeh challenge to feudalism and tribalism. It is also likely that some Arabs felt threatened by socialist rhetoric, which was antithetical to local mores, and perhaps alienated by the liberal spirit of new Abadan. Although Tudeh stressed ethnic equality in its propaganda, and translated some of its communiqués into Arabic, the party had largely failed to attract the Arabs. In the summer 1946, intercommunal differences gave way to political violence.

 Note: Author’s pre-print version. reference should be made to the published version in Nelida Fuccaro (Ed.) : Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East  (Stanford,    2016).

Citation for published version (APA):

Elling, R. C. (2016). War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike. In N. Fuccaro (Ed.),Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East (pp. 189-210). Stanford University Press.

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