From “Building for Oil: Corporate Colonialism, Nationalism and Urban Modernity in Ahmadi, 1946-1992″
By Reem IR Alissa | University of California, Berkeley
Between 1912 and 1945 Abadan grew to be one of Iran’s first modern cities in a
previously scarcely populated area located at the estuary where the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun rivers meet the Persian Gulf.30 As Wilson’s first major APOC commission, Abadan provided a model for Ahmadi. As in Abadan, Wilson replicated the structural hierarchy of the oil company at three different scales: the urban, the architectural, and
the social. At the urban scale, Ahmadi’s town plan was divided into three sections: the North Section, the Mid Section, and the Arab Village which was later called the South Section .
The North section was planned to accommodate KOC’s British and American senior staff, while the Mid section was designed to house Indian and Pakistani Clerical, Financial and Technical (C. F. & T.) or junior staff, and the Arab Village or South section
was planned for KOC’s indigenous workers: Arabs, Kuwaitis, Bedouins and Iranians. Technically speaking this urban hierarchy not only reflected KOC employee grades but also replicated the company’s policy of ethnic segregation as it was apparent in the planning approach adopted by Wilson in Abadan, and before that in Delhi. Indeed, the
overall urban plan of New or Imperial Delhi (1912-1930) by Lutyens and Wilson clearly set a precedent for Abadan. In his discussion of New Delhi, Anthony D. King has pointed to its hexagonal grid containing certain zones whose allocation was based on race,
occupational rank and socio-economic status . 31 King emphatically states that
“Delhi, of all Indian cities, represents a textbook case of colonial urban development.” In Abadan socio-spatial segregation was also reinforced through the planning of small townships in four or five distinct areas with each housing specific ethnicities and employee grades. According to Mark Crinson, the company considered small townships
as more easily and efficiently controllable than large ones.34
Wilson’s planning and architectural approach in Abadan also followed the Garden Suburb model, which he applied in Ahmadi as well. The Garden Suburb was a popular model of urban planning used prolifically in the early to mid-twentieth century throughout the world, especially in Britain where the model originated. The Garden
Suburb owed its inspiration to Ebenezer Howard’s utopian idea of urban planning which spurred the Garden City Movement in the early twentieth century. In an attempt to solve
the deplorable living conditions in British industrial cities, Howard’s Garden City aimed to combine socially egalitarian work and living conditions in a town and country setting.
Wilson and British KOC employees who resided in Ahmadi introduced the
garden aspect of this urban model to Kuwait through the landscaping of the company town. By means of a trial and error approach, early British residents succeeded in isolating plants which could survive in Kuwait’s harsh desert environment. To encourage
the landscaping of Ahmadi KOC sold seeds and plants at very low prices and held regular garden competitions that were very popular among Ahmadi residents.36 Indeed, since the
first tree was planted in 1948, Ahmadi grew to become a lush green oasis. In spite of Wilson’s success at implementing the Garden component of Howard’s model, Ahmadi’s
socio-spatial segregation clearly suggests that he did not conform to Howard’s social ideals given the town’s inegalitarian living conditions.
The architectural scale of Wilson’s plans reflected this socio-spatial segregation in the hierarchical allotment of houses and lot sizes which varied in the North, Mid, and South sections of the town. Figure 11 shows a view of picturesque North Ahmadi with its spacious houses and lots in the background and the slightly smaller houses of the Mid
section with the undersized orthogonal row housing for labor in South Ahmadi in the foreground. The plan of the senior staff house reveals a high standard of living: air-conditioned and fully furnished, this was a sizable detached house surrounded by a large
garden. For example figure 12 shows the left portion of the house plan which includes bedrooms, a bathroom and one room for the children with services on the right side inclusive of a kitchen separated from the servant quarters by a yard. In contrast the Junior
or C.F. & T. staff house was semi-detached and significantly smaller in size than its senior counterpart. Neither fully furnished nor air-conditioned, the junior house was equipped with only an oven and stove in the kitchen, and closets. Although there was a
WC for servants at the back of the yard, junior staff did not have the luxury of live-in help . The plan for the house designed for the labor force had only two rooms, an inner courtyard and a miniscule store and cooking area furnished only with a stove and
a sink. With barely any outdoor space the houses were also wall-to-wall with their neighbors . This review of the architectural scale in pre-independence Ahmadi also suggests how social segregation was deployed at the micro level of domestic furniture. A similar architectural hierarchy was used in Abadan as European senior staff
were allocated large villas set in spacious gardens, workers’ neighborhoods consisted of
row houses with high walls and small courtyards while mid-level staff housing combined elements of both.
The social scale also reflects how KOC’s ethnic inequalities became embedded in
Ahmadi’s colonial architecture and urbanism. An example is provided by the fact that regardless of actual professional qualifications certain groups remained confined in
spatial terms to their specified grade level as one of the first Kuwaiti employees of the company recalled:
. . . even an English driver was senior staff. The senior staff was for the
nationality not the experience. The English doctor was senior staff but the Indian doctor was junior staff. And when you are admitted in the hospital there is a ward for senior staff and a ward for junior staff. And the artisans and laborers were separate. The doctors and nurses for juniors were treating juniors as well as artisans. But the doctors in the junior staff never treated the senior staff. No, they were all British, the doctors and nurses for the seniors were all British. So British treat British, and Indians treat Indians and down the line.
As in Abadan, these ethnically segregated enclaves were also spatially policed. The North section, exclusive to British and American senior employees, was guarded by company security that prevented access to non-white residents.39 In fact, non-English or
non-Americans, specifically Arabs, were to be confined to their own designated space as epitomized by the labeling of their quarters inside Ahmadi as The Arab Village. The Arab Village was similar in concept to Abadan Town in that it was meant for the
exclusive housing of the natives with the aim of keeping them physically and socially separated from expatriate staff areas. Unlike Abadan Town, however, which was constructed spontaneously by laborers working at the refinery and not provided housing by the company, the Arab Village was part of Ahmadi’s planned complex.