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New Texts Out Now: Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East

[Cover of [Cover of "Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East"]

Nelida Fuccaro, editor, Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East. Special issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (April 2013).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this issue?

Nelida Fuccaro (NF): It was my interest in the urban history of oil producing countries, combined with the availability of stimulating interdisciplinary research on oil cities, a topic that is relatively new to Middle Eastern studies. I find this research very appealing. First, it challenges standard portrayals of oil development throughout the region, a portrayal that was already identified and critiqued in the early 1990s by Eric Davis and Nicholas Gavrielides in their book Statecraft in the Middle East: Oil, Historical Memory, and Popular Culture. Second, this research turns to cities, and to the multi-faceted properties of oil, in order to offer a critical reading of how the oil industry has created modern urban spaces, societies, and cultures. This is an exciting new field of urban studies that builds on the work of Kaveh Ehsani, myself, and few others. It is now being shaped—as I write—by a new generation of very promising young scholars, including those whose articles are included in this thematic issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (CSSAAME).

My eagerness to contribute to the publication of some of this work was an important incentive to produce this edited collection. When it was in preparation, all contributors were in the late stages of their PhD dissertations; since then, they have moved on to post-doctoral and teaching positions. This issue started to take shape in 2010, when I organized a panel at MESA, and is the outcome of a research network that has developed over some years through my activities as scholar of Gulf cities, and as a mentor and supervisor. The idea of organizing the MESA panel came from Arbella Bet Shlimon while I was part of her PhD committee at Harvard University. It was promptly taken up by Farah al-Nakib, at the time my doctoral student at SOAS. The papers presented at MESA formed the bulk of the CSSAAME collection, which has also benefitted from earlier conversations with Kaveh Ehsani.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the issue address?

NF: The essays deal with different aspects of urban life, politics, and culture in Kuwait, Kirkuk, and Manama, as well as in the newly-built oil towns of Ahmadi, Awali, and Abadan. When I started working on the oil era, I felt somewhat lost as an urban historian. I found that the existing literature was interesting, but quite limited in approach and time frame, primarily concerned with the glitzy metropolis, oil economies, and petro-states that emerged after the 1973 oil boom. This was some years ago, and of course since then, important critical monographs on contemporary Gulf urbanism, such as Ahmad Kanna’s Dubai: The City as Corporation, have been published. Yet because I was aware that company towns, and some state capitals such as Manama and Kuwait, were the central places of oil modernity long before 1973, I thought it was important to look back at the initial years of the oil industry. This focus allowed me to zoom in to the city in order to disclose the different levels of urban experience triggered by the influence of black gold.

What initially helped me to think differently about the “riddle” of oil development was Michael Watts' notion of the "oil complex"—the idea that the oil industry was not only about wealth, rent, and state building, but also unleashed a variety of forces that had a profound effect on society, culture, and the environment, including cities. Seminal work by Fernando Coronil on oil, politics, and modernity in Venezuela, and Mandana Limbert’s recent book on Oman’s oil renaissance, have also been influential. Both highlight the less tangible qualities of oil, particularly its ability to create both realities and myths about progress and the modern world.

On the urban side, this collection addresses new debates on space, politics, and everyday life in modern cities, debates that have thus far not featured prominently in the study of the history of Middle Eastern urbanism in the twentieth century. Several important connective processes that have informed the study of European, colonial, and post-colonial cities have provided analytical tools and comparative dimensions to this collective effort: the relationship between space and public consciousness; the collusion of state, colonial, and corporate power and their close involvement with urban development; and the association between public relations markets and new modes of urban living.

The essays in this special issue make a contribution to our understanding of how, since the 1950s, the ideological, political, and cultural influence of the oil industry fostered the emergence of new forms of public engagement, and, in turn, how these related to processes of urbanization.     

J: How does this issue connect to your previous and future research?

NF: I see this collection as an important step in linking my previous work on the history of cities in the Gulf region and Iraq to my recent interest in the social and cultural history of the Middle Eastern oil industry. The publication of my book on Manama, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (2009), rekindled my interest in the urban life of oil, which I did not have the opportunity to develop in much detail in that book. For the past three years, I have researched the impact of the oil industry on public violence in modern Kirkuk, a project that is still on-going, as part of an international research group on the history of public violence in the modern Middle East.

More recently, I have turned my attention to oil propaganda. More specifically, I am looking at how, after the Second World War, foreign-owned oil companies in Iraq, Kuwait, and Bahrain popularized new ideas of urban and suburban living among their indigenous workforce.

J: What sort of impact would you like this issue to have and who do you hope will read it?

NF: I hope that these essays will be helpful in broadening and adding nuance to standard concepts and histories of modern cities in the Middle East in several ways. I hope it will call attention to in the impact of oil by highlighting the nexus between the transformation of cityscapes, the exercise of state and corporate power, and social experiences of change. With this collection, I would also like to prompt a broad reflection on the importance of using non-Middle Eastern and urban studies literature to study modern oil cities. There is plenty of choice: from the historiography of the colonial city and industrial town across a broad geographical area to theoretical reflections on space and the experience of modernity. I very much hope that this approach will not only attract the interest of students and scholars from different disciplines, but also that of policy makers, architects, and urban planners. This is particularly important given the challenges faced by contemporary metropolises in oil producing regions and beyond.

J: This issue combines theoretical breadth and empirical depth. What are some of the challenges and opportunities in this approach?  

NF: For the reasons explained above, I see many opportunities and advantages in opening up urban history to more interdisciplinary and comparative analysis, particularly when combined with ethnographic and archival research. I find it difficult to think about writing urban history without making use of urban social theory and new evidence, especially when there is little or no secondary literature to fall back on, as is the case for many oil cities. However, sources can be a problem, given the often-limited accessibility of original materials and the scarcity of records, including those of the foreign-owned oil companies that controlled the industry before nationalization. By using variety of documentary, visual, and oral materials, these articles are particularly valuable precisely because they have been so labor-intensive. They evidence that the challenges posed by fieldwork can be overcome with patience, flexibility, and a degree of creativity. 

Excerpts from Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East

From “Introduction: Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East,” by Nelida Fuccaro

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, this collection of essays identifies urban milieus as the critical nodes of the architecture of early oil life. The milieus are explored as the recipients of oil’s transformative powers and as part and parcel of the constitutive process of the redefinition of polities and societies under the shadow of this extractive commodity. Gyan Prakash has suggested that the city should be approached “as a spatial form of social life and power relations, not just a site of society and politics.” Following this premise, urban environments are here presented as physical sites of political, social, and cultural interaction and exchange and as spaces that framed oil modernity as a new set of practices at the micro level of the urban experience. In parallel, these articles scrutinize the symbolic and ideological value conferred upon urban milieus since the 1950s. In this period cities and towns featured prominently as rhetorical instruments used by oil companies, local governments, and city planners to impose particular visions of oil modernity upon indigenous populations. Retrieving the urban histories of oil also responds to contemporary concerns. It reclaims landscapes that are often no longer in existence as the storehouses of collective memory and serves as an integral part of the public history and culture of the countries concerned. In short, these essays aim to contribute to the restoration of “the power of place” to the oil equation, a power that the literature on oil development in the Middle East has often concealed.


The cumulative effects of the magic touch of oil were nowhere more apparent than in the urban settlements that entered the orbit of this extractive commodity or, in Watts’s words, oil’s “different circles of reach.” Brand-new company and native towns and laborers’ camps were the central places of the early petroleum industry. As the administrative, political, and economic headquarters of oil operations, they represented the spatialization of the capitalist/corporate outlook of oil companies. In this respect they can be compared with the mining towns and plantation settlements that mushroomed in colonial Asia and Africa under the control of European enterprises. As elaborated in some of the articles, company and native towns bring the paradigm of colonial urbanism into the discussion of oil modernity. The contributions on Abadan in Iran, Ahmadi in Kuwait, and Awali in Bahrain (Mona Damluji, Reem Alissa, and Nelida Fuccaro) flesh out some of the elements that have characterized the production of space in colonial cities: the creation of gated communities as a result of spatial segregation along ethnic lines and planning and architectural practices that mirrored both racist ideologies and hierarchies of economic and political domination. These articles also hint at some of the features that characterized these oil settlements as industrial towns operating in a late colonial context, particularly the enforcement of corporate hierarchies through urban spatial and social organization. Yet, as Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau have famously advocated, urban space is not only engineered and static geography but also human practice. Crucially, the same articles demonstrate how company towns and labor camps cannot be interpreted solely as colonial/corporate creations that have served as models of modern urban planning and architecture. In different ways, they can be read as representing new life-worlds: Ahmadi as a catalyst of collective memory and nostalgia (Alissa); Awali and Hayy al-‘Ummal as harbingers of new leisure and consumer cultures (Fuccaro); and the native township of Bawarda in Abadan as a visual narrative portraying indigenous modern life through film (Damluji).

Undoubtedly company and native towns came to symbolize the newness brought about by the oil industry, and as such contributed to popularizing the benefits and evils of oil modernity as a Western import. Yet the impact of oil as the “shock of the new” did not stop there, but trickled down to developing oil “conurbations” that came to include local towns and cities. It is here that indigenous modernity was played out on a larger scale, both in terms of the number of people affected and the actors involved. The effects of early oil modernization in these indigenous settlements were predictably uneven, ambivalent, and contradictory. They have to be understood in the context of the political, social, and cultural tensions created in the urban arena by powerful actors: oil companies, local governments, and British imperial regimes.

In her analysis of Kuwait City from 1950 to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Farah al-Nakib identifies the paradox of the urban spectacle produced by state-led projects in terms of the unusable public spaces they generated for residents, particularly in the city center. Here, the contradiction is between the day-to-day urban experience of Kuwaitis and the new ideal of urban development vigorously pursued by the Kuwaiti government as an evolving petro-regime with the complicity of the urban planners and architects on its payroll. Arbella Bet-Shlimon’s discussion of Kirkuk in Iraq before the 1958 revolution approaches the question of urban change from a different standpoint. She sees Kirkuk’s urban affairs as being closely intertwined with the political and ideological tensions resulting from the interplay among the oil company, the British government, Kirkuk’s municipal administration, and labor activists. Her reading of urban modernity follows the trajectories of key development projects in the fields of housing, education, and water supply, emphasizing the provision of public utilities as a strategic device to defuse urban discontent and labor activists.

As key elements in (and instruments of) the domestication and appeasement of early oil societies, planning, architecture, and infrastructural development are central themes in the history of the new and old urban settlements considered in this collection. However, these aspects of the macropolitics of oil development cannot be understood fully without considering them as part of the relational processes that created new social and cultural realities for oil on the ground. Focusing on leisure and consumption, my article on Bahrain highlights the vibrancy of the new urban and suburban cultures that emerged in the 1950s. The transformation of Manama into a modern commercial hub, the influence of the company town of Awali, and the popularity of cinemas, youth clubs, and air travel are singled out as the key developments underscoring the emergence of Bahrain’s new homo urbanus. In her discussion of Ahmadi’s late colonial modernity, Alissa follows a similar trajectory. She explains how the town’s urban, architectural, and social scales combined to provide new models of family and neighborhood life for the Kuwaiti employees of the oil company. She also draws attention to the new role assumed by the Ahmadi wife as the icon of the modern suburban female in Kuwait.

All the essays point to the relevance of representation, reception, and communication as contexts in which to understand the production of different facets of oil’s urban worlds that emerged in the Middle East… This connection is evocatively elaborated in the visible and invisible cinematic spaces of Abadan produced by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the film Persian Story. These spaces are evidence of the unequal power relations embedded in the urban project of oil modernity as it unfolded in Iran and of the key role played by foreign audiences in legitimizing it (Damluji).


These essays have only just started to uncover the rich and textured urban experience of early oil development in the Middle East, an experience that deserves further attention. We hope that this collection will provide some momentum in this direction as a contribution to what is now a fast-developing interdisciplinary field of urban studies on Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. As to oil, it seems vital to expose its nexus with the city in order to understand how people, institutions, and states learned to live with this substance and commodity that has so profoundly influenced their histories.

[Excerpted from Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East, special issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, edited by Nelida Fuccaro, by permission of the editor. © 2013 Duke University Press. For more information, or to order this special issue, click here.]

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