The Urban Process in Abadan 1929-1941


Credit: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University

From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)”

After highly protracted and contentious negotiations that began in 1928 the Iranian government granted a new 60-year oil concession to APOC in 1933. At one point in 1932 an enraged Reza Shah unilaterally cancelled the existing concession, and only backed off after implicit British threats of military retaliation. The aftermath of the agreement had significant political fallouts, as Reza Shah’s reign became more arbitrary and he eliminated some of his closest political allies, including Teymourtash and Sardar Asad Bakhtiyari, whom he suspected of disloyalty and collusion with the British. Some of the most significant clauses in the new agreement included the reduction of the concession area, a payment of £1 million to settle past disputes, improved royalties for Iran, the provision of cheaper petroleum products in Iran through a network of distribution set up by APOC, and a commitment by the Oil Company to reduce its dependence on foreign employees and increase substantially the share of its Iranian workforce by training them at various levels[56].
The 1933 concession was not particularly more advantageous to Iran, and its political fallouts poisoned domestic Iranian politics and strongly worsened public opinion against the Oil Company and Britain (see chapter 1 and the discussion of disputes over royalties). The new concession also had repercussions in Abadan and Khuzestan, as it made APOC even more concerned about its public image and how to deal with new concessionary terms, and to find more effective ways to reduce the potential of labor strife and nationalist backlash. The issue of Iranianization of the workforce took on greater urgency, along with the recognition that further reducing the reliance on casual laborers and increasing a loyal, better co-opted, and permanent workforce was the best strategy to pursue in the new and increasingly more hostile atmosphere. The result was a commitment by the Oil Company to the significant expansion of its social programs in the Company enclaves, especially education, leisure activities, and housing provision. The rest of this chapter will briefly outline these changes in general terms.
As seen in previous chapters, the urban spaces of Khuzestan’s oil cities had been characterized by segregation and dualism between Company enclaves and their indigenous local surroundings. However, this segregationist geography had its limits and was implemented unevenly, and against considerable resistance. Thus, Masjed Soleyman had more of the characteristics of a classic company town than the much larger and more heterogeneous Abadan (chapters 3, 6). Despite these important variations the Company enclaves shared certain spatial characteristics that reveal how urban design and central planning were used as instruments of social training and employment management and control. These characteristics were apparent if one compared the company enclaves in Abadan to the Shahr [Abadan Town] and other indigenous neighborhoods that fell outside its direct jurisdiction.
Whereas “formal” company enclaves were subdivided into strictly hierarchic, centrally planned, and meticulously segregated spaces, the “informal” urban areas were an amalgam of different construction materials, and types of shelter and architectural forms used by different social groups who lived in close proximity and intermingled with each other. Over time, this glaring contradiction within and between these spaces – between the formal and informal spaces, the legal and subversive, the ordered and disciplined, the chaotic and lively, the rich and destitute, the modern and hybrid, the controlled and repressed, and the anarchic and spontaneous – came to define the character of these oil towns, and especially of Abadan
By the mid 1930s the formal company spaces of Abadan consisted of several enclaves ringing the refinery or set apart by various Company facilities, the residents of which were carefully assigned housing according to their job, rank in the company roster, and even race, nationality, and ethnicity[57]. A rigid and inflexible hierarchy defined the neighborhood, street, alley, and the specific house assigned to each individual employee according to his formal status, work record, skill, and even ethnicity, and marital status (the vast majority of formal employees being male). Senior European staff were housed in “Braim”, which consisted of large villas and bungalows set on green lawns, surrounded by parks and gardens and lined with English hedges, and built on lots averaging 1000 m², and 4.5 units per hectare. Workers’ neighborhoods, such as Bahmanshir and Bahar, were row houses with high walls and tiny courtyards, built in straight lines and wall-to-wall, averaging 120 m², with a density of 26 to 31 units per hectare (See Figure 2). In between these extremes lay the middle- and lower-staff neighborhoods, such as Bawardeh, which were combinations of these two forms in terms of architecture, design, and scale[58].

Figure 2: Layout and Density of Workers’ Neighborhoods in Company Areas of

The employment of several construction and architectural firms under the overall direction of the architect J.M. Wilson (worked for APOC 1926-1941) provided an urban and architectural coherence to these company enclaves[60]. As the Iranianization policies became more pressing after 1933, the racial segregation that had previously separated the spaces of routine interaction and daily life between Iranians, Indians, and the English and Europeans gradually became less marked, in comparison to the occupational and class distinctions that served as the norms segmenting city spaces, although they did not disappear altogether.
These forms of designed spatial segregation and planned inequality were glaring visual signs of the “modernity” of Masjed- Soleyman and Abadan61. In addition, these oil cities had other unprecedented urban amenities that set them apart as conspicuously modern. They were the sites of the first airports, motor vehicles, cinemas, technical schools, mixed schools (boys and girls, foreign and Iranian), leisure clubs, sports clubs, bus services, mass transport, luxury inns, well-equipped hospitals, etc., in Iran and the region. At the same time, all these amenities were segregated for different social layers and classes, to the extent that Masjed Soleyman even had separate cemeteries for workers and staff.
This system allowed the social position and status of each individual employed by the Company to become public knowledge through his residential address, the means of transportation and the medical facilities he and his family were allowed to use, the social and athletic clubs he was allowed to join, and the schoolsis children could attend. At the same time, because the Company’s internal organization was also to an extent a meritocracy, and as each step up the career ladder translated into greater material privileges and social status, workers were encouraged both to feel envious and to compete against each other, and to pursue individual and personal rather than collective benefits. Transforming urban amenities and city spaces into symbolic capital was one of the most effective instruments for controlling the population in these cities.


Notes & References:
56. Elm, Oil, Power, and Principle; Fatemi, Oil Diplomacy;; Malek, “Oil in Iran between the Two World Wars.”

57. This section is partly based on Ehsani, “Social Engineering and Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns.”

58. Paul Vieille, Zafardokht Ardalan, and Abolhassan Banisadr, “Abadan: Morphologie et Fonction Du Tissu Urbain,” Revue Geographique de l’Est, no. 4 (1964): 337–85; Paul Vieille and K Mohseni, “Ecologie Culturelle D’une Ville Islamique: Tehran,” Revue Geographique de l’Est, no. 3–4 (1969): 315–60.

59. Source: Vieleille (1964)

60. C.H. Lindsey-Smith, “J.M. The Story of an Architect,” 1976.

61. I use “modernity” in the Foucauldian sense, as a material, spatial, and discursive exercise of power that simultaneously generates the individual and collectives, through the exercise of disciplinary power where various forms of hierarchy are internalized. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977); Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).


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