The Orderly Pleasures (and Displeasures) of Oil Urbanism
October 25, 2013

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
Volume 33, Number 1, 2013
Duke University Press
Advertising for British and American radios in Bahrain’s monthly Sawt Al Bahrayn, 1950 – 51, 1, no. 3, 32.

A recent issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East includes 88 pages of essential reading about urban history in the Gulf (which in this format includes Iraq and Iran). Nelida Fuccaro, a historian at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has guest-edited this issue, and her commitment to responsible and pioneering writing about the Gulf is represented in each piece. Fuccaro, one of the most significant scholars on urbanization in the Gulf, might not call herself an urbanist, but her approach to history in Bahrain has handled the island’s urban centers as the interactive backdrops for her historical research. The result is some of the richest and most specific urban histories of the Gulf.1 Fuccaro continues to deepen our understanding of the region’s urbanism in this academic publication. Along with her own article on consumer culture in Bahrain, Fuccaro has assembled a group of young scholars who might be grateful for the path that Fuccaro’s work has set. Writing on urbanism in the Gulf is generally misinformed at worst and unconvincing at best. I think it is fair to say that these writers represent a much-needed graduation in the field. While indeed there are other arduous scholars on these topics, it is a pleasure to see this group resist knee-jerk endorsements of general theories and employ resolve and curiosity to write histories that have been deprived of proper attention. I can only hope that each of these endeavors is representative of more expansive work to come.

Fuccaro points out that most writing on the effects of oil focuses on statecraft, not citycraft, a word I venture to propose. She emphasizes this negligence of the city in her introduction to the collection by identifying an unfortunate contradiction: “urban change [in the Gulf] has been the most tangible (and visible) outcome of oil wealth,” but the region’s cities have been approached in most research and writing as unalloyed paving-overs by those in control, thereby denying any search “for alternative patterns of city formation.” Fuccaro is not challenging the reading of petroleum as the generator of urbanism in the region; in fact, she reaffirms this generalization. But by reaffirming it, she is pushing us to consider oil (and today natural gas) as an agency with “almost supernatural properties.” Not stopping short of referring to “petro-magic,” Fuccaro’s point seems to be that the search for petroleum unleashed a landscape of conditions impossible to be controlled or fully fathomed by any single body of influence.

At first glance, it would seem that writing Gulf histories is easy – that a compact modern history can be easily collected, recorded, and analyzed. The truth is that the process has been elusive. Fuccaro has warned us before that the abundance of British, and American, sources – whether governmental documents, news articles, or personal memoirs – have to be approached as particular perspectives of multifaceted stories. Writing on cities in the Gulf must ride a thin line between avoiding claims of exceptionalism and the tendency to characterize these cities as helpless ships in the rough seas of global markets. These scholars prove adept at managing these difficulties. The articles refer to the usual sources: British government archives, petroleum company archives, and expatriate memoirs. In the spirit of Fuccaro’s warning, however, this issue’s four other writers are at their best when delving into other untapped sources.

It might later be said that these five articles are but the result of a more current academic fashion: a leaning-in on media representation and its relationship to modernization (though this is not a new approach). At this stage in writing Gulf urban histories, this is a welcome and necessary step. The work focuses on media representation, like magazines, film reels, newspapers, and, as one writer suggests, the architecture itself. While one might suggest that modernization always had a media department (it has always had to be sold), there is certainly something exceptional in terms of how cities in the Gulf have been represented and sold. In part, one might say that these cities were well ahead of their times in terms of conveying marketing strategies through mass media at home and abroad. There is a running agreement among the articles that representations in various forms of media have to be approached as more than “text” or windows for viewing how things were; they also need to be analyzed as “sets of practices”; that is, they are as much, if not more, about formative intentions as they are about representative acts. This is particularly easy to identify in media materials from the 1950s, in which ideological messages are almost humorously transparent to a present-day audience. One does not need to look too hard, for instance, to find the social engineering plan programmed into a propaganda film. There is no doubt that the formats these writers discuss were out to be shapers of society. The challenge, then, is to identify, dare I say measure, the amount of influence, both intended and otherwise, each effort had. Where these articles touch upon answers is where they are often at their strongest.

Perhaps as an aside, one question I would raise with each writer is their interaction with their collected representational resources. While these articles focus mostly on the media representations as “sets of practices,” one cannot forget they do include the evidence of bygone realities; they are the “texts” that we have. Such sources are part of a system wherein representation is inextricable from desires for control and design, but one also has to admit the very need, or at least temptation, to delve into these sources for the images and shapes of places that no longer exist. One writer describes how the shops of a commercial street flicker by from the car window in a film; but this also represents how one saw and experienced these places. We rely as much on these sources to inform us of their physical materiality, too. It seems there is a paradoxical necessity to mine and undermine these sources. If there is a fault line running through these articles, it might be that there is not enough admission of the mining.

What follows are thoughts on each of the articles.



Streets of Abadan, as recorded in tracking shots in Persian Story (1952), directed by Ralph Keene. Copyright © Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Ltd. Image courtesy of  the British Petroleum Video Library, London.

Mona Damluji’s contribution to the issue focuses on the documentary film Persian Story, sponsored and produced by Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) which had made the city of Abadan a nexus of its oil extraction efforts on the Iraqi border in southwestern Iran. The article convincingly delineates how AIOC manipulated filmmaking as a component not only for its immediate interests of self-promotion but also for the longer-term pursuit of modernity-making, be that urban, industrial, or social. Damluji refers to film historian Mark Shiel’s instructions for reading film: “we must foster ‘an understanding of cinema as a set of practices and activities, as well as a set of texts.’” In regard to films obviously made as propaganda, this isn’t necessarily difficult to do. Still, the link between film construction and urban construction is a fruitful one that Damluji pursues; more emphatically, it is an essential combination for grasping the creative forces behind Abadan’s brief though accelerated start in urban modernization.

The article establishes the motivations for the film made explicitly clear in oil company archives, but the story of the completion of the film’s production and then its subsequent life in theaters proves to be an odd tale. Damluji notes that the film crew arrived in 1951, which turned out to be a most inauspicious year for the British presence. It was the year of riots led by local workers that would eventually be followed by the nationalization of Iran’s oil fields and the dismissal of the British oil company. One image from that period that remains imprinted in my memory is a photograph from Norman Kemp’s Abadan memoir in which British employees enjoy a tennis match in their whites while Persian troops guard the courts and black smoke from the riots rises in the background. Intensively segregated conditions (a recurring concern in most of these essays) led not only to increased inequality but also to theatrical ignorance, with or without a film crew. The film was supposed to defend the AIOC’s racist hierarchies, but it ended up falling victim to them.

Damluji chronicles how the film crew had to cut filming short and return home to edit a new story. But the plot didn’t really change despite the tumult. Even with the British expelled from Persia, the film managed to have a life, and a productive one at that. The film’s promoters claimed that the premiere was “the biggest film party ever given in Europe” and that distribution was widespread, including a couple of film festivals. How was this possible? The company’s reputation should have been in tatters, and the British government certainly did not look good in the eyes of the rest of the region. Describing the film as a “surviving portrait” of the British era in Iran, Damluji does not suggest in this essay a reason why the film found such lasting success. In addition, it seems that the film received no audience beyond Europe. If the original motivation behind the film was “to bolster positive public perceptions of the companies’ extractive post-war activities,” what was the motivation once they were no longer in Iran? To encourage an audience that might support the next British oil extraction effort in the region (Abu Dhabi)?

In the article’s analysis of the film, Damluji successfully demonstrates the natural affinity between film and urbanization. She quotes an incisive review of an earlier propaganda film: “Roads are built in a couple of shots – deserts reclaimed in a sequence; crops improved with a cut; and agriculture mechanized in a dissolve.” Beyond a neat temporal compression of urbanization’s ordering, she also points to the film’s ability to produce “legible spatial arrangements.” Though implicit, this could be made even more explicit in generating a critical comparison of how both film and town planning pursued that consequence. Might film be the conclusive act of urban planning?


Arbella Bet-Shlimon explores “the nuances of the local impact of oil” in Kirkuk, Iraq, a brief but acute chapter of post-war British presence in the Gulf. Confirming the power yielded to oil in Fuccaro’s introduction, Bet-Shlimon attributes agency to oil, claiming “oil acted as a social and political agent.” Bet-Shlimon’s chronicling of Kirkuk’s initial oil-driven urbanization is the most concentrated in terms of discussing the unequivocal racist segregation that was embedded in urban planning and other forms of modernization (an “oriental city” parallels the company town). Segregation also plays a part in the way that Kirkuk was separated from the nascent central government in Baghdad. This article is a welcome foil to the usual celebration of Baghdad’s experimentation in post-war modernism. Kirkuk’s Kurdish population, a thematic undercurrent in this article, is part of this equation.

This story is a necessary and, until now, unapproachable prequel to the variations on the same themes throughout the Gulf. Though not addressed in this article, there is validity to the argument that the British had a part in Iraq’s establishment of a central government. That very government would be the reason British interests would eventually have to first accede to workers’ demands for housing rights and then to departure eventually to less formalized patches of the Gulf for their oil pursuits. This article, and its connections to others, might start to put together a meta-narrative of how British policy and shifting British corporate interests were learning from their own history. One starts to see not only the commonalities of British presence throughout the region, but also how the British presence recycles, learns and then tragically forgets as it moves about from one location to the other.2

Following what seems a historical format in the collection, segregation and inequality lead to a workers’ strike that “blindsided” aloof British officials. The riots required a reaction. It cannot be insignificant that the strike occurred in the same year that the UK institutionalized town planning in the New Towns Act. The event was one not only of domestic institutionalization but also of export preparation. By 1946, the UK had experts who had a professional language for the spatial organization Kirkuk’s overseers needed. In terms of urban planning, Bet-Shlimon focuses on Kirkuk’s subscription to the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis’s ekistics, a short-lived operation that resulted in a few more than 300 houses in Kirkuk. Based upon another article in the collection, however, there was another architect, a Briton, also involved in Kirkuk’s planning, James Mollison Wilson, who appears in articles about Kuwait and Abadan and whose early work experience was with Lutyens in New Delhi. Tracing the trajectories of these British influences is one meta-narrative that perhaps will continue to develop. While Wilson’s presence fits the British narrative, it would be helpful to know how Doxiadis, more connected to the fledgling United Nations than with the British “informal empire,” appeared in British-controlled Kirkuk and why his work seems to supersede planning by a British firm.

With the fall of the Hashemite dynasty in 1958, this story of urban development through British oversight ends for Kirkuk. Up to that point, Bet-Shlimon’s article articulates how the physical and urban changes performed by an apparently synchronized effort between the British government and Iraq Petroleum Company had more potent social and political motives behind it. In a way, the whole planning effort was a media blitz, an attempt to position Britain as “the world’s pioneer in the promotion of social justice.” One is left to wonder where this left Kirkuk, a city not immediately cared for by the increasingly imposing central government in Baghdad.



Aerial view of Kuwait’s new town Ahmadi, 1956, KOC Archive.


Aerial view of Ahmadi with the recent modern shopping center in Ahmadi, 1961, Kuwaiti, December 9, 1961, KOC Archive.

Reem Alissa’s article provides engaging thematic links to the other articles. By covering the development of Kuwait’s modern company town, Ahmadi, it offers an almost concurrent history to that in Farah Al-Nakib’s article about Kuwait’s old town (discussed below), and it makes a noble effort to advance the study of an oil town after its overtly racist founding. Recognizing the “missing link” in the urban history of Gulf cities, Alissa brings to the fore interviews with people who have lived in the new town. Alissa is right to point out that an oil town is not necessarily a city and openly suggests that Ahmadi was more company town than real city. Nevertheless, it is through these urban systems that modern expectations can be diffused beyond the limits of a company town. Throughout the issue, Robert Vitalis’s writing on the oil camps in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is referred to as essential for gauging the relationship between oil extraction and the introduction of modernization in the Gulf region. Vitalis’s America’s Kingdom was an important achievement in establishing a way to address oil-driven development; it is a damning portrayal of structural racism and inequality pursued by American oil interests, and several of the authors in this issue pick up similar themes in other locales. In this article Alissa begins an attempt to do what Vitalis was not able to achieve in his book, namely to suggest how these introductions of hierarchical controls and modern devices began to leave an imprint on local expectations and outlooks and how certain social tendencies remain when blatant controls and restrictions are no longer as easily palpable.3

As mentioned above, Ahmadi’s town planner is the architect James Mollison Wilson who had worked under Edwin Lutyens on the New Delhi design, one considered the hubristic peak of British planning abroad. Wilson’s recurring presence in these articles begs for this meta-narrative to be put together, perhaps a chronicling of how British planning evolved from one outpost to the next. This article’s strengths do not lie in its analysis of the physical aspects of Ahmadi’s plan; for example, Alissa’s references to the “Garden Suburb model” plead for a challenge from a more thorough understanding of the planning ideas of Ebenzer Howard that eventually helped formulate what is known as the British New Town.


Kuwait Oil Company workers discussing a design for housing in South Ahmadi, 1959, Kuwaiti, 2 December 1959, KOC Archive.

The obvious strength of this article is its interviews with residents and former residents of Ahmadi to uncover the changes in social functions within the town. Aspects of daily life and strained attempts at encouraging communality (like garden competitions) are treasures to read about. The fact that the town was planned about as single-handedly as a town can be meant that social engineering, specifically ethnic and racial segregation, was made both easy and obvious. In terms of this inequality, Alissa makes an attempt at suggesting from where this “spatial policing” came and how it continued to evolve toward the contemporary condition. Alissa’s description of an “Arab Village” isolated from the British expatriates is similar to the story told of other similar company towns, from the American oil company towns and labor camps in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province to British and French developments along the Suez Canal. Alissa places great emphasis on Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal as altering the fate of Ahmadi. With a welcome inclusion of an array of local newspaper stories, the article chronicles a local critique of the unequal treatment of foreigners at the expense of locals.

Where Alissa’s portrayal of Ahmadi’s history takes a great turn is in the eventual demographic switch: from the British, American, and South Asian residents to Kuwaitis and other Arabs. In the process, Ahmadi became a place of openness, both spatially and socially, where one interviewee remembers coming to cruise its wide streets in an open car. Alissa’s final section considers Ahmadi’s current state as a source of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a simplistic topic, but here there are layers of meaning applied to Ahmadi – both in its physical materialization and in its role in memory – that reveal how Kuwait has responded to modernization over time. In a sense, the social engineering, which receives a critical but tempered review by Alissa, cannot be so easily discarded. The resulting condition, the apparent vaporization of didactic controls, represented in the Bidoun squatting and homeowners who have used a ready supply of “curby"4 to enclose the once open lawns, is one of messy individualism that does not seem to be a preferred alternative to the ideals of urban planning. Alissa’s interviewees recall, mostly with delight, how luxurious and modern Ahmadi was in relation to the old town, but now that easy contrast no longer exists. There is no more old and no more new. It seems that the complication is not in the conspicuous distinctions and inequalities but rather in the times when distinction is no longer so easily discernible.



Haphazard urban development of the 1950s in Kuwait’s old center. Courtesy of Kuwait Oil Company archives, Ahmadi, Kuwait.

Farah Al-Nakib’s portrayal of Kuwait City from the 1950s through to the 1990s is a welcome addition to our historical understanding of this crucial city in the Gulf. She provides new materials and refreshing takes on familiar topics. Al-Nakib’s sources include British professional periodicals and local Kuwaiti newspapers to piece together her critical narrative. As bounteous a resource as professional literature might be for piecing together Kuwait’s modernization, few scholars have explored the city’s development this way. In fact, British architecture and planning periodicals are a rich source of understanding how the foreign consultants were seeing their part in the complete “erasure” of Old Kuwait. The British New Town – as a planning construction and a social organizer – was explicitly described at times as an export, just like a make of car or a kitchen appliance. Al-Nakib refers to a rare and eye-opening dialogue over several issues of Architects’ Journal between professional planners in Kuwait and Britain. The opinions, frustrations, and disconnects highlight the complications and processes that created modern Kuwait, and these are the very ones that have been glaringly absent in writing Kuwait’s urban history.


The facades of Kuwait’s Fahad Al Salem Street. Courtesy of Kuwait Oil Company archives, Ahmadi, Kuwait.

Whereas other writers in the issue might approach representation as physically detached from the city, Al-Nakib describes modernization efforts in Kuwait as the media representations. One might suggest that modernization is inherently an image project, a pursuit of spectacle. In this way, urban plans throughout this issue are an operative of spectacle, but Al-Nakib reminds us promises were not kept. The article refers specifically to Fahad Al Salem Street’s development after the old city had been cleared. Today, there are still the voids that have not been filled since, but Fahad Al Salem’s street façade began to be pursued in 1957 (Al-Nakib notes it was already starting to be brought down again in 2005). Neglecting the block interiors, development focused on lining the new British-planned roads with buildings: a Potemkin New Town. Buildings curved around corners to “block out undeveloped lots and dilapidated old houses behind them.” She describes the development of the Sheraton Hotel (a heavily pursued brand name at the time) as an emblem of arrival, but:


if you happened to exit the hotel from its back entrance you would see a large empty lot “that has not yet been reached by the hand of development.” The space was primarily used for parking but also included a rubbish dump strewn with rats, the remains of some old houses and shanty dwellings, and, “most shocking of all,” people sleeping within these rundown structures.

One might wonder about the betraying views from inside a tower to the back and beyond. It could be said that modernization is a constant pursuit of image control, one that is never complete.

The article brings together local and expatriate criticism of what was and wasn’t happening in Kuwait’s al nahda al umraniyya, or urban awakening, a phrase Al-Nakib points out “implies that Kuwait before oil was uncivilized and dormant.” Buildings were supposed to shelter progress; instead, they were hiding decay. Al nahda found Kuwait’s leaders responding more to the city’s public image than to its actual needs.

Al-Nakib singles out one especially poignant passage from an article in the local newspaper Al Hadaf in which the writer makes the distinction between “informing the world of our awakening” and “writing here in Kuwait for the Kuwaiti people, which gives us the freedom to set this foreground image aside, and to research and investigate an alternative story.” This is an impossible, though understandable, wish to pursue two parallel public dialogues, an impossibility which heightens an understanding of the frustration of not being able to debate without an uninvited global gaze. The passage reveals a desire to keep problems domestic while keeping on-message for the world – not just among a ruling elite but also among an educated elite that realizes that the same forces providing modernization are also the ones that will be criticizing it.

Defining a departure from the standard admiration in architectural histories of Kuwait’s dabbling in modern architecture, Al-Nakib gathers the mid-era modernist gems of Kuwait by the likes of Jørn Utzon and Reima Pietilä as further evidence of the inability of Kuwait’s public and private leaders to address the complexities of urbanization and their choosing to default to the power of architectural images (she exhibits a moderate leniency for the Smithson’s proposed master plan and Candilis-Josic-Woods scrapped housing project that can often be portrayed as “if only” moments for alternative histories). In a continuing criticism of the preference for architectural folly over true urban development, Al-Nakib ends her article with a consideration of the redevelopment of the Souk Al Dakhili as a heritage-infused next step in the manipulation of architecture to serve the outward message, now closer to depicting a “deep-rooted past combined with a grand modern future.” A city’s ability to stay on-message seems to be pursuable only within the neat confines of autonomous buildings.

The article’s stance on the architecture-as-modernist-crutch provides much-needed context, and critical consideration, of Kuwait’s initial stages of modernization. That it was entirely “image-driven” might be too unforgiving. The article focuses on the destruction and partial-reconstruction of the old center but does not consider the use of British town planning principles (neighborhood units) beyond the original center. Here, there were established pursuits of residential and small-scale planning, which might have been at least partially successful because they did not have to be image-driven. There has been modest consideration of town planning and social planning in distributing oil wealth to the Kuwaiti people, but that is an area for further exploration. As for the roots of how architecture was introduced as a device for consumption, in Kuwait and beyond, this article will remain a necessary document for urbanists.



Advertising for British and American radios in Bahrain’s monthly Sawt Al Bahrayn, 1950 – 51, 1, no. 3, 32.

Fuccaro contributes her own article on Bahrain that focuses on the web of “messages and images [that] represented and shaped urban spaces and consumer and leisure culture.” At least for Bahrain, Fuccaro makes clear that any protest against or discontent with ongoing development was based not on traditionalist or retrograde sentiments, but rather on a demand that the access to the wealth of “all mod cons” reach beyond the British oil town of Awali. She notes: “There was no inherent contradiction between consumer hedonism and political activism. Both were part of a new public culture that used services and commodities to satisfy personal, social, and political aspirations.” In this case, the “oil magic” resulted not only in uneven wealth and development but also in the embrace of counter-elements, like nationalism, Baathism, and communism – though it was not all about tension and strife in the spread of modern delights.

While modern Awali’s contrast with existing Manama fits the recurring motif of the “modern company town” versus the “Arab village,” one strength of Fuccaro’s article is its depiction of how modernization was not just a delivery from an overbearing foreign body but actually became embedded in Bahrain’s daily life and politics. Relying on historical advertisements, published memoirs, and research from her book, Fuccaro reveals how commodities (modern amenities) were part of a new and integrated network whose content encompassed oil fields to American radios, to insurance policies. Life was a catalogue. It could be derived from these accounts that the story of modernization in Bahrain was not so much about the clichéd references to speed but that it all came pre-packaged and seemingly inter-compatible. Fuccaro’s attention to details of modern amenities and to the reach of local politics starts to make the inevitable connections between, say, the market for “wall plaques depicting English country scenes” and roadway plans. However, the fact that these details of modernization share the same space in the catalogue does not mean they can be lumped together; on the contrary, each element deserves attention (“[British] Land Rover four-wheel drives, Cadillac refrigerators, Japanese cameras, and Italian ceiling fans”).


Manama’s first gas station, Fifty Years of Oil Production (Manama: Bahrain Petroleum Company, 1982), 21.

And the pursuit of modernization was all tied up in family politics. Further destabilizing any quick assumption that this pursuit was designed only by the presiding British, Fuccaro takes into account how the island’s old merchant families “had rebuilt veritable business empires branching out into insurance, construction, consumer goods, and oil-fields supply and shipping.” Bahrain’s regulations required foreign companies to have local agents, and these relationships were the prizes of the wealthy. The “new culture of brand commodities” in this case isn’t characterized necessarily as something Western but rather of Bahrain’s most privileged inhabitants.

The Bahrain article ends with a portrayal of Bahrain Petroleum Company’s projected influences on its workers. Fuccaro looks at passages from BAPCO’s weekly magazine to piece together what life was like in a company camp and how it had been designed. Beyond simply conveying how one should act, the publications defined who the company worker was: “an accomplished modern urbanite in the guise of Manama’s middle and upper classes: literate, skilled, traveled, family oriented, and a proud owner of a modern house, which he had often acquired through the company’s housing schemes.” Canteens and other spaces were devised around the idea of “orderly pleasure.” And there is even evidence of “lifestyle training.”

Like Alissa’s article, the reader is reminded in this article of the “‘mechanical town delights.’” They were desired, and rarely expelled. By reminding the reader of this, Fuccaro portrays modernization and its devices as a complex web of desire and hope – and not just those of the dubious oil man. It seems, at least for a brief time, that BAPCO could measure just how much modern comfort was necessary to project its orderly aura without triggering a demand for more modern luxury. This thoughtful account makes one want the next chapter: how this orderliness was cashed in for something else.

1 See Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

2 Bet-Shlimon suggests a potential meta-narrative: homeownership, what might also be more generally described as supplying land deeds. She notes that providing modern homes not only appeased some of the population’s demand for equal access to modern amenities but also “promoted capitalism among the company’s workers.” This policy, she notes, would be implemented in other places the British wanted to provide appeasement, such as Syria and Abu Dhabi.

3 One might also consider to what degree marketing and planning efforts for these developments matched the demographics of the eventual inhabitants. This could form a juxtaposition to a comparison of the determined marketing goals of current-day Gulf developments – from “labor accommodations” to marina bays – and their eventual residents.

4 Alissa describes “curby” as a local building material made from cheap corrugated metal.

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Advertising for British and American radios in Bahrain’s monthly Sawt Al Bahrayn, 1950 – 51, 1, no. 3, 32.
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