Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).
When the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk became a flashpoint in the 2017 Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, many in the Western foreign policy establishment claimed that history was repeating itself. This struggle for Kirkuk was said to give expression to the same centrifugal sectarian tensions that have always undermined the supposedly uniquely artificial Iraqi nation-state. As Arbella Bet-Shlimon notes in City of Black Gold, even analyses that located the 2017 conflict in a political economy of uneven oil development reduced ethno-sectarian claims to the city to mere instrumentalism. Such accounts obscure the history of Kirkuk as a borderland city defined by its complicated relationship with multiple centers of political authority, as well as its place in the formation of contemporary Iraq.
It is against narratives of eternal ethnic conflict, and in recognition of Kirkukis who have organized themselves around solidarities other than ethno-nationalism, that Bet-Shlimon frames her original and accessible study of twentieth-century Kirkuk. City of Black Gold powerfully argues that state consolidation and oil-fueled urban growth have done the most to ethnicize Kirkuki political culture. The consolidation of ethnic politic—which refers to the forms of sociopolitical affinity and organization that lay claim to ethno-linguistic identity—occurred relatively recently. Prior to the waves of intercommunal violence that followed the 1958 revolution and Ba‘thist policies of ethnic cleansing, Bet-Shlimon contends, the main fault line in Kirkuki politics lay not along communal axes but rather in the question of state centralization. Members of the diverse ethno-linguistic and religious groups in Kirkuk regularly ignored purportedly rigid cultural divides when it came to debates over non/alignment with geographically distant institutions of state power. Indeed, whereas the very term “inter-communal violence” connotes patterns internal to a closed society (urban or otherwise), Bet-Shlimon continually stresses how external interventions provoked episodes of urban conflict.
Those arguments unfold over six chapters, which primarily cover the period between the British occupation of Kirkuk in 1918 and the consolidation of Ba‘thist control over urban institutions in the 1970s and 1980s. Chapter 1 discusses continuities in provincial governance between the late Ottoman and British occupation periods, especially in the simplistic anthropology of ethno-linguistic urban difference between static groups of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians. Other continuities included the cultivation of patronage networks with Kirkuki notables, who often aligned with external authorities in Baghdad, Istanbul, and elsewhere. Patronage politics sometimes triggered outbreaks of “sudden sectarianism” (64) because of the real and perceived clientelistic relationships certain ethno-linguistic groups had with distant political centers. One such episode haunts Chapter 2, which narrates British attempts to incorporate Kirkuk into the Mandate apparatus amid Turkish claims to the territory.
Patronage politics declined in Kirkuk as a result of dynamics triggered by oil production and urban growth, both of which accelerated between the 1930s and 1950s and are the subjects of Chapters 3 and 4. The operations of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) altered the social and built environment of Kirkuk, drawing in rural Kurdish and Arab laborers who settled in new neighborhoods and eroded the demographic dominance of the Turkmen community. These same dynamics, however, provoked ethnic mobilization in subsequent decades, as Bet-Shlimon documents in her studies of urban violence after the 1958 revolution (Chapter 5) and under the post-1968 Ba‘thist regime (Chapter 6). Cycles of violence involving Kurdish and Turkmen communities occurred at the same time that socioeconomic position increasingly corresponded to ethno-linguistic identity and successive Arabist governments in Baghdad attempted to regulate populations as different qawmiyyat (nationalities). Yet whereas in the revolutionary era the political practice of ethnicity entailed the sometimes violent articulation of interests in reference to a discrete ethno-sectarian community, Ba‘thist campaigns of institutional and spatial Arabization—culminating in the 1986-89 Anfal genocide—were distinguished by their statist design: “the horrors of Ba‘th policy in Kirkuk were certainly a form of ethnic violence, but they were not intercommunal violence” (188).
The middle chapters are the heart of the book, exploring how oil in Kirkuk functioned as “the central mediating factor that transformed how other forces throughout the twentieth century—urban growth, British influence, and consolidation of Iraqi state power—affected the city” (5). Here Bet-Shlimon presents a rich social history of oil in its intersection with the politics of provincial urbanism on the basis of British Petroleum records, the archives of international urban planners, local cultural publications, and oral interviews with former Kirkuki IPC employees. The IPC also transformed Kirkuk into a distinct political domain in which residents made claims through mechanisms other than patronage networks. Sometimes these manifested in non-sectarian mass politics, as in the oil workers’ strike that the Iraqi Communist Party-led in July 1946. More often, however, the uneven reach of infrastructure projects crystallized socioeconomic differences between Turkmen, Chaldo-Assyrian, and Kurdish communities. Hence, Kirkuki cultural works that foregrounded oil in a field of urban modernity and civic identity ironically ended up providing traction for exclusivist ethno-national claims to the city. These arguments explicitly invoke the hydrocarbon scholar Michael Watts’s notion of oil as a social and institutional “complex” rather than an economic sector.
An engagement with critical theories of oil underpins one of the multiple historiographical contributions of City of Black Gold. First, it challenges the centrality of Baghdad in the historiography of twentieth-century Iraq by examining urban politics in a provincial borderland during and after colonialism. This de-centering leads Bet-Shlimon to different conclusions about national identity formation in Iraq. The central government did not produce a “hybridized” group identity in Kirkuk but rather “the coalescence of ethnicized politics... [such that] centralizing, integrative trends emanating from Baghdad... did not have unifying effects and [were] more divisive than hybridizing” (9). The analysis of this process in an urban setting of oil production positions the book in a new literature on Gulf cities that have long been understood only according to rentier-state political models. The inclusion of Iraq in Gulf scholarship is important because, as Bet-Shlimon implicitly demonstrates, in Kirkuk urban, regional, and national politics intersected in a way that was distinct from the company town enclaves of the postwar Arabian Peninsula. City of Black Gold thus brings classic concerns of Middle Eastern social history, such as the relationship of sectarianism to nationalism and colonialism, to bear on this sometimes isolated subfield of Middle Eastern urban history.
There remains an interesting ambiguity in the book’s central argument about the nature of ethnic politics in Kirkuk. At certain points, ethnic politics appears as a latent force that uneven urban growth and external state incorporation simply aggravated (64, 95), while elsewhere it appears as a novel practice that those processes helped to produce in the first place as a basis for claims to space and place (101, 133). This ambiguity corresponds, in turn, with the multiple interpretations of Iraqi political geography put forth in City of Black Gold. The first account of ethnic politics suggests a binary between periphery and center whereby provincial Kirkuk is locked in a generally zero-sum, antagonistic relationship with the central state in Baghdad. The second, however, resonates with brilliant but fleeting analyses of the interplay between municipal, state, and transnational corporate actors in Kirkuk; and how their maneuverings coincided to make such a fraught field of provincial urban governance in which new political identifications overlapped and competed. Bet-Shlimon notes that the IPC pursued public utilities schemes, for example, “in advance of Baghdad’s participation—a fact Baghdad used to its advantage,” by privatizing the costs of urban development. At the same time, “the IPC’s interactions with the municipality simultaneously increased its power on a local level and lent greater potency to the provincial oil city’s civic domain by creating a set of political dynamics in which older forms of patronage politics and reliance on Baghdad became less relevant” (121). If state formation relied on corporate-led extractive capitalism and empowered municipal actors, were the new political strategies of Kirkukis a response to that variegated political field? If so, then the uneven socio-spatial effects of state formation in Kirkuk—i.e., ethnic politics—were multi-scalar and structural rather than purely external and exceptional. Such conclusions are provocative but often implicit in the book.
These minor critiques do not diminish a sympathetic and elegant work relevant to both graduate and undergraduate readers. Fully excavating the historical geographies of Kirkuk is a challenge given the available historical sources. While Ottoman imperial records on Kirkuk remain untapped, most of the city’s municipal archives were destroyed amid the 2003 US invasion. Meanwhile, using Ba‘thist documents housed at conservative institutions like the Hoover Institute raises ethical questions about cooperation with the US national security state apparatus. Bet-Shlimon’s postscript is a compelling reflection on how these sources can still be used critically toward progressive ends. City of Black Gold is a testament to that potential, artfully recovering the lost worlds and political possibilities of a city otherwise dismissed as the locus of timeless ethnic conflict.