Abadan: The Rise and Demise of an Oil Metropolis | Urban Politics of Oil and Modernity

Kaveh Ehsani and Rasmus Christian Elling

Originally published in MERIP

Summer 2018

Kaveh Ehsani is assistant professor at DePaul University and a contributing editor of this[MERIP] magazine; Rasmus Christian Elling is associate professor at University of Copenhagen.

[ Second part ]

Abadan island, Refinery & Bawarda housing in the 1920’s / Source: Views Around South Persia / IORC – NIOC documents / Courtesy of Paul Schroeder / The Abadan Times

The story of Abadan is entwined with the turbulent histories of modernity in Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. From its foundation on a sandy island in the Shatt al-‘Arab River bordering Iran and Iraq on the eve of World War I, the city has been at the center of momentous events of global significance, shaped by imperialism, nation building and power struggles over oil. Middle East oil was first discovered in 1908 in the Zagros mountains of southwest Iran. The British government became the majority shareholder in the Anglo–Persian Oil Company (APOC, today BP) in violation of the concession granted in 1901 by Mozaffar ad-Din Shah to an Australian businessman. The decision to build a major refinery in Abadan to supply Britain’s war machine was made on the eve of World War I. While the industrial infrastructure was still being assembled, APOC attempted in vain to control and manage a growing population of migrants and refugees, as did the Iranian government in its later effort to impose control over the city. Abadan’s vast industrial workforce was made up of expatriate Europeans, Indian migrants recruited from outposts of the British Empire, dispossessed and proletarianized Bakhtiyari and Arab tribesmen and Iranians coming from as far as the oil fields of the Caucasus after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The urban politics of Abadan was thereafter shaped by relentless struggles over the right to the city—of living and working conditions and management of social and political life—between the oil company in its various permutations;[4] the autocratic central government; and the growing population developing novel forms of collective resistance and advancing its own claims and demands. Workers in the refinery, port, railways and factories were under constant surveillance and control by employers, but they found support among the general population of the city for their attempts to address social and political concerns.

Some of Abadan’ residents & places in the 1960’s / Courtesy of Gail VanWinkle Lydon / The Abadan Times

These entanglements made Abadan synonymous with oil and all the violent paradoxes and revolutionary transformations associated with it. The establishment of the massive complex of oil extraction and refining in southwest Iran was based on the forcible dispossession of local tribal and agrarian populations, but it also led to the emergence of new urban solidarities among destitute migrants living in the slums of the new oil cities. This new urban geography of oil was characterized by shocking disparities of wealth despite monumental infrastructure development that spurred new models of urban management elsewhere in the country. The oil complex created tremendous pollution and ecological degradation, but this was juxtaposed to manicured European garden-city neighborhoods, segregated social clubs and modern amenities like hospitals, schools and workers’ housing estates. Oil cities like Abadan suffered from heavy-handed corporaterule and constant police-state surveillance and repression, but they also became sites of labor activism, radical politics, and grassroots popular movements. Although highly segregated by class, race and occupation, ethnic and cultural intermingling along with the industrial labor market and urban economy created a cosmopolitan environment where new solidarities emerged to resist discrimination and injustice.[5] By the 1960s new technologies, urban planning practices and consumer products entered Iran through Abadan, with the city giving rise to innovations in fashion, lifestyle and popular culture. Through films, newspapers and posters, the Pahlavi state produced an official image of Abadan as the epitome of Fordist development, where hardworking families could enjoy prosperity and suburban comfort in the shadow of the oil complex.

Second part’ notes

4. First APOC, later Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, then the consortium of multinationals that took charge after the 1953 coup d’état and finally the National Iranian Oil Company after the nationalizations of the 1970s.

5. For a history of Abadan, see Kaveh Ehsani, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns,” International Review of Social History 48 (2003).


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