Arang Keshavarzian is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU. His teaching and research explore politics and political economy of the modern Middle East and, in particular, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and Arabian Peninsula. His publications include Bazaar and State in Iran as well as essays on urban development, authoritarianism, state-formation, and political economy of trade and smuggling in such journals as Politics and Society, Geopolitics, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Economy and Society, and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. He is also a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report (MERIP). His current book project, titled Making Space for the Gulf, maps shifts in the global political economy across the long Twentieth Century from the vantage point of the built environment, circuits of trade and migration, and different conceptions and practices of political authority.
MF: My name is Mahnaz Fancy and I'm the Communications & External Relations Manager at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Today's podcast is a part of the second series of our SATtalks programme, entitled Architecture+City. Through these conversations, we aim to explore the urban form of the Gulf city from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
I'm pleased to welcome today's guest, Dr. Arang Keshavarzian who joins us from New York. As a brief introduction, Arang is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at NYU. His teaching research and publications explore the politics and political economy of the modern Middle East with a particular focus on the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. He has contributed to several journals such as Politics and Society, Geopolitics, International Journal of Middle East studies, Economy and Society and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. His current book project titled Making Space for the Gulf maps shifts in the global political economy across the long 20th century from the vantage point of the built environment, circuits of trade and migration, and different conceptions and practices of political authority.
Good morning, Arang. Thank you for making the time to speak to us today.
AK: Good morning. It's wonderful to be with you and to participate in this wonderful initiative.
MF: Over the course of our conversation, we hope to learn more about your research and your contribution to this growing field of scholarship on Gulf cities. So, to start, I want to understand your methodology or framework a bit more clearly. In your two essays, co-written with Alex Boodkras, The Forever Frontier of Urbanism in 2018 and Giving the Transnational a History in 2019, you offer a literature review of the developing field. You break it down into three broad categories, essentially, literature on oil states by economists and political scientists, ethnographic studies by anthropologists, and urban investigations by architects and historians. How and why does this particular set of disciplinary lenses inform your work as a political economist?
AK: Yes, that's a good question. I'm a little bit of an interloper here: I'm not an architect, I'm not an urban planner. I come to the topic of Gulf cities from the perspective of trying to understand the larger societies in which they're embedded. So, as you mentioned, we are at a very exciting moment in the study of Gulf urbanism in general. We have a wonderful set of young, but also not so young, scholars working both at universities and research centers in the Gulf region, but also outside in Europe and in the United States, who are looking at the Gulf with very new sets of eyes, with new sets of questions, tackling and tapping into new archives--whether it's to explore the history of trade and commerce in the 18th and 19th century, or to look at the oil economies from a kind of a longer perspective, and looking at oil towns and company towns (that I'll mention in a little while), or to provide a more, I would call it, transnational or even cosmopolitan history of these port cities.
These port towns, these oasis towns, once we start looking at them, were intimately interwoven with one another on the one hand, but, also intimately interconnected to complex, what we would call, global networks. Some of these networks looked East to the subcontinent, even to Southeast Asia and beyond, or further South to East Africa--Zanzibar most famously--but also, for a good century or more, have also been intimately tied to Western economic interest, Imperial interests, if you would like, and most notably, oil exploration beginning as early as the first decade of the 20th century.
So, as a political scientist or political economist, I come to this literature tapping into this diverse literature that's been recently written on migration, on the history of oil, on the development of urban centers. From this particular perspective, Gulf cities, for me, reveal and trace the many different struggles and conflicts over resources between people living in these individual towns. The struggles happening in Kuwait or in Bushehr or in Sharjah or in Doha, they illustrate the conflicts and struggles that connect these cities with other places: the struggle over bringing labor from one place to another, bringing wood from one place to another--an essential component of construction--or drinking water, for that matter. So, that's how I approach these Gulf cities as a kind of a nexus of the national, the regional and the international, and also the global.
In another way, I'm interested in urbanism as a social process, more than the cities as an object or just purely architectural projects or objects in and of themselves. Also, I'm someone who approaches the Gulf as a social space, rather than merely a waterway or an international border or some kind of clearly defined regional block, the GCC or something of that order. So, I'm interested in both how people, ideas, and practices have traveled across the Gulf between the northern and southern parts of the Gulf, between different towns but also the way that the Gulf is inter-connected into what we would think of as the emergence of capitalist industrialization and the formation of nation states and shifts from the British-led global order to a US-led global economy after World War II.
MF: Could you give a sense of how you're defining this long 20th century? I think that would help frame it a little bit for us.
AK: That's a good point. So, I don't have very clear cutoff points, but for me, the profound shifts that take place at the end of the 19th century, in which we see, on the one hand, the British Indian colonial administration apparatus taking, let's call it, a more direct interest in the happenings in the towns and in the hinterland. They become interested in part, later on in the 1920s and 30s, because of oil, but, before that even, because of issues around building airports and air travel, and also protecting some of the commercial interests that British Indian merchants had. It's to some extent also tied with the decline in the pearling sector, which creates some disruption and it's also tied to an attempt to end slavery in the region. But, once the British are doing this, it also unleashes a whole series of other forces: forces by rulers in the region trying to accrue and control sovereignty. We see this in Iran, we see this in Kuwait and Bahrain, and other places where you have movements of trying to articulate a new form of politics. These were oftentimes referred to as the "majlis movements" or movements to create a more transparent and participatory form of government.
So, for me, the late 1900s kind of blurs into the beginning of the 20th century to create a very different era than the earlier 19th century. And, I'm interested in the transformation from this moment to once we have the creation of nation states with more clearly defined territorial boundaries and with more direct embeddedness of these economies in the global economy--whether it's through exporting oil, but, also financially, by being tied to first British Sterling and then later US dollars.
MF: Thanks, that helps to frame it, especially given that it's a moment in world history when you have World War 1, World War 2, and then decolonization happening.
Along with a few other scholars, you argue that these Gulf cities need to be de-exceptionalized and re-framed from the narrative of the Gulf city as a "city of the future," something that miraculous arose out of the desert through some unique powers that were endowed by petrodollars. Instead, you propose that this narrative needs to be re-contextualize in terms of the relationship with water and the regional history of port cities, which you just spoke about, and the Indian Ocean transnational trade that all existed well before the arrival of the oil economy. So, it would be interesting to find out which transnational actors have been airbrushed out of this Gulf city narrative and what consequences this might have on the social dimension of these urban spaces?
AK: Your characterization of the literature is very astute and on the mark. I would say, until about 10, 15 years ago, the standard story we told about these Gulf cities and these countries was that they were basically a backwater of world history. You just mentioned decolonization; we don't think of protest movements in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s in the Gulf as being part of the decolonization struggle, but they were. So, what I and, as you said many others in this past 10, 15, 20 years, have been doing is revisiting this history. And, once we've been revisiting them with new sets of questions and new archives, what we're ultimately showing is that the region is deeply embedded in larger processes and, therefore, they're not exceptional places.
They're not cities that were just made tabula rasa out of the desert in the 1970s because there was a huge sum of oil wealth that flowed to these treasuries. These were towns that were, for a good century, devising ways to plan the urban space and they were vibrant commercial cities, as you mentioned. So, once we actually tackle this reality, we realize that migrants, laborers (both free and slaves) were essential parts of these economies: the pearl economy, the commercial, or commodity economy of the 19th, and even before that, of course.
We have to grapple with the movements of people, oftentimes very seasonally between the northern part of the Gulf and the southern part of the Gulf and back and forth. And, it becomes very difficult to classify people as either being Arab or Persian or South Asian or from Africa--they were so co-mingled in so many complex ways. I (using the work of many historians), think of these societies as being "littoral" societies: societies that were fundamentally marked by the oceanic or seascape and being people of the khaleej or, as we say in Persian, bandari, people of the ports. That's what marks them and that's what makes them distinct from people from further inland, but also what unites them even across the Persian Gulf or even across the Indian Ocean landscape. So, one thing that has been airbrushed out until recently is this highly interconnected, socially- and even culturally- interconnected, littoral society that gets brought back in.
By de-exceptionalizing the Gulf, another aspect of this is to remember that the oil industry is not just like a little switch that you turn on in 1970 with the oil boom, or what used to be called the "oil revolution," but these were company towns—towns for exploration that go back to the very first years of the 20th century and that led to the building of Abadan, this major oil town in southern Iran, led to the building of Ahmadi in Kuwait, Bahrain's Awadi, and, of course, Dahran in Saudi Arabia. And all of these company towns and these cities go back many, many decades and, what a number of urban historians have pointed out is that, we can see the traces of planning, urban segmentation, urban fragmentation in these company towns—the use of space, the use of the built environment to segment populations into clear categories. In the 1920s and 30s and 40s in some cases, they were described as different "skill groups": management, middle, semi-skilled and skilled. But very quickly, even the documents reveal that, what was being called "skill" was really race and ethnicity. So, these small company towns were actually different people being divided up by, quote unquote race and ethnicity. So, Arabs lived separately from South Asians, lived separately from Brits and Americans.
MF: Where are these archives? Essentially, this is one of the struggles that we all have as researchers in this region: we don't necessarily have archives located in these countries. Where did you find yours? Where do other scholars in this area go?
AK: As a political scientist, I get to hide behind, in a sense, and take advantage of the historians doing the real labor in the archives. So, I myself have done some archival work in the British national archives, for instance, and to some extent, even in the Iranian archives, but, the really good work that I'm using by people such as Nalida Fuccaro, Reem Elissa, Robert Vitalis on Saudi Arabia, Kaveh Ehsani on Abadan, and many others--I'm forgetting some people here—are basing their work on in archives in the British Petroleum archives, or what used to be the Anglo-Persian Oil archives, and in the Aramco archives. So, some of this is the firm archives, but also the national archives for Britain, the United States. And, these documents from the 1930s and 40s are oftentimes quite transparent. So, that's useful, but I should also mention because my co-author Alex Boodkras, has been doing a lot of work on Kuwait. One of his arguments is that (and I think Nelida Fuccaro and Farah Al Naqib also point out) the local press from the 1950s and 60s, especially in Bahrain and in Kuwait, are full of articles that discuss both the hope for urban planning and urban life and new modernity, but also the protests and the inequalitie. So, much of the local press, which unfortunately hasn't been used much, is also a rich source of materials about social life in these port cities and that give voice to local perspectives and local concerns.
MF: It's fascinating to see how these movements speak to this interconnectedness and sense of allegiance that crosses what then becomes formalized as national boundaries later.
So, as a follow-up, I'm curious about what you mean when you say the "Gulf is an integral frontier to both global capitalism and urbanism"? In your perspective, what are the key political and economic shifts that mark the stages of the development of Gulf cities and in what specific ways was the rise of the oil economy manifested in these cities?
AK: So, for me, the Gulf has been viewed by both some scholars, but also by colonial officers and oil firms as a “frontier”. But a frontier in two senses of the term. So, on the one hand, when we use the term of “frontier”, we think of the frontier as the space in which civilized society confronts either an empty space or a space that is so wild and backward that it is almost as if it is empty; it's almost like a tabula rasa that needs to be tamed and civilized in various ways. And, obviously, this has a longer kind of colonial kind of understanding to it but it's clear that in the 19th century that the Gulf was viewed as a frontier to the British empire from the perspective of South Asia. So, that is part of the way that the Gulf has been historically viewed as a frontier place that is wild and backwards, it needs order, it needs discipline, the waters need to be secured from these unruly pirates.
But another way that “frontier” is oftentimes used is that it's the “frontier of science”, “the frontier of our knowledge”, even when we think of space—space is now our latest frontier. It's therefore the place for exploration, for development, for technological innovation. So, for me, the Gulf has also interestingly represented this sort of frontier as well. In terms of oil, it became clear very early on that there were rich oil deposits that could be extracted at very cheap costs. So, the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, and what is now Iraq and Iran were viewed as the "oil frontier" beginning in the 1920s and 30s.
But, also, I argue that the Gulf, as early as the 1950s, was viewed as a kind of “architectural frontier”, a place, after World War 2, in which many architects--younger architects--came to develop their trade and to make their careers. John Harris in Dubai is a very good example: him and his wife (both architects) come to the Gulf and become prominent architects, but they do it through their work in the Gulf. It's a place where they could experiment with particular urban forms, particular architectural forms. As I understand, major innovations in the use of cement emerged and were developed in the Gulf region and even designs for shopping centers in the 1950s and 60s were played around with in the Gulf region. I've already mentioned the company towns, the company town design was very much based or kind of built on ideas about garden cities--urban space, but which is still has a kind of quiet, tranquil spaces that are intertwined with nature, where workers could return to their homes (kind of suburban type of homes) and get away from the city and be in healthier, cleaner kind of environment. And these company towns, what's important is that some of the same architects and designers that were playing around with these ideas in England at that time and were doing this in the colonies as well.
So, the larger point here is that, we oftentimes have this view that kind of modernism or modernity or technological innovations were mastered in the metropole and then “transported and transplanted” to the colonies. But what is striking is when you read the new literature that's coming out on architecture and urban planning, it's clear that what was the colonies (and later become the third world and the global South) were sites of the most cutting-edge forms of urban planning simultaneously. So, they were places of experiments, laboratories, or a kind of “architectural frontier”.
MF: Is this what you mean when you would describe architecture and city planning as “technologies” that build on and are informed by the “intertwined legacies of imperial rule and extractive capitalism”?
AK: Sure, to some extent, but what I'm really pointing to is that we have to remember that there are many different logics behind urban planning. As I mentioned earlier, as we look at urban planning in company towns or the 1950s, part of the logic of these plans was how to control and, specifically to control labor. So, Aramco and BP, when they were building these company towns, the logic behind separating out Arab workers from South Asian workers, Iranian workers from South Asian workers, and so on, was to keep this working class separate and prevent them from unionizing, protesting, in order to keep labor costs down.
For me, as a political scientist, when we discuss urbanism and when we analyze architecture, we also have to keep in mind the politics behind the built environment. And, the politics behind these urban forms were intimately tied to controlling people that were viewed as threats: laborers, "foreigners”, migrants. And, there is a century of this when we look at urbanism in the Gulf cities where the urban space is used as a technology of control.
MF: One of the questions our series is trying to think about in the background is: what is the possibility of an urban community in these Gulf cities if they are built on these layers of segregating architecture and urban planning?
AK: For me, it's quite concerning. If these cities have been designed for many decades now to keep people apart from one another and keep people in so-called “boxes” to prevent community, a sense of shared fate, a sense of collaboration and an ownership over the city. This is what I'm suggesting (and many others have been suggesting), these cities inhibit the possibility of a shared fate and a collective sense of ownership over the city.
This, I think, has real long-term implications... Even from an economic lens, if you want people to come to these cities and work for many years, you want them to feel a sense of ownership. And, and even when they're in their fifties and sixties to kind of invest in those cities. This has larger social and economic consequences: people don't feel like their personal fate is tied to what happens to Dubai or Sharjah or Kuwait or Bahrain or Abadan. They're just migrants that are going to come for 10, 15, 20, maybe even 40 years, but they're ultimately tied somewhere else. Then it has real kind of troubling implications.
MF: Could we go as far as to say that gated communities and labor camps are therefore similar structures or vestiges of the same imperialist and capitalist legacies?
AK: That's what Alex Boodkras and I want to argue in those pieces. When you look at it from the longue durée, there are a certain set of legacies and a certain set of pathways. While we may want to erase the history, whether as scholars, or urban planners, or maybe political leaders, we may want to ignore this past--this kind of past of a kind of cosmopolitan Indian ocean world--but, nonetheless, the past is with us. And, I think that these company towns are with us in sometimes in quite direct ways.
One way to think about the possibilities for an alternative future is, if I understand correctly, that there is a growing interest in the old port town. Part of this interest is to turn these city centers into kind of open-air museums, heritage sites--a very cleansed, purified kind of notion of history--to legitimate particular families, particular rulers, particular categories. And, that can be questioned, could be critiqued. From what I understand from people like Farah Al-Naqib and others, is that some of the younger people, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, are re-reading this history and are interested in these old urban centers as a place of possibility: possibility of a new and different type of globalism and a different type of social intercourse, if you will.
So, I think that if we start to think about the old city centers from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and think of them, not as just pure museums to preserve heritage, but as real lived spaces--where migrant workers live, but also where people's ancestral homes reside, and where old souks and shops could be, but also maybe walking tours and artists’ studios could be set up. So, a more meaningful space where people who live in the cities actually decide how those cities are developed for the future and not just as a way to preserve it as some frozen past.
MF: I feel like there are moments where we can all sound a bit nostalgic or romantic about this cosmopolitan past. I mean, it's very seductive but it's also real, right? This is a multicultural, cosmopolitan part of the world that is inherently, as you say, “deeply networked” into an entire region for years.
Your article The Geopolitics and the Genealogy of Free Zones from 2010 really got me thinking. Are these free zones, as zones in what were old port cities in the Gulf, also inherently imbued with this same power to exert political and economic control over the people there? And, what does it mean that these zones actually physically block the city from the water today, the same water which was previously the source of the intermingling that marked the old port cities socially?
AK: I think that there are two issues here that you're pointing to. On the one hand, this free trade zone model is another form of segmenting, segmenting into different laws, different governing bodies, right? By creating a free trade zone authority, you're creating a whole separate little mini government that it has its own laws, more relaxed customs laws and labor laws and so on. And, you're separating out here the economy, but also the labor force into two different categories. So, it makes it again harder and harder to have a sense of society, of collectivity, of community, of shared fate. In that article, one of the things I was trying to convey is that when we look at two of the more famous free trade zones in the region, one a success in one less of a success. We think of Jebel Ali in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, but it's important to remember Kish (the island of Kish off of Iran). When we look at these two examples, these were very early projects. The planning goes back to the 1960s in the case of Kish and in 1970s in the case of Jebel Ali. So again, this was another way for me to emphasize the point that free trade zones were being developed by practitioners and businessmen at the same time in the Gulf as everywhere else. It's not a story of the Gulf catching up to the idea of free trades trade in a sense, Iran and the United Arab Emirates were almost ahead of the time.
So, that's one thing, but the second issue you're raising is--and it gets raised in that article and some of the other pieces and Laleh Khalili has been thinking a lot about this as well-- is that you also have a kind of a revolution in shipping at the same time in the 50s and 60s. If you think of the old port city being built around the port where different ships of different sizes would come in with different forms of labor--again, we have can't forget slaves and so forth, pearl divers, shipbuilders--congregating around the port, the whole city kind of grows out from the port. That is our classic understanding of a port city. But, with these large container ships, which require very, very large facilities, you get, as you pointed out, I kind of a detachment of the port from the city.
But, another way to think of it is, and I and many others have pointed it out that, over the last 50 years, these historic port cities have turned their back on the sea. If you think about the growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Kuwait and Bahrain, the nicest gated communities are further and further out into the deserts. And, people almost don't even see the sea or they don't smell the sea, their lives don't depend on the sea, obviously in the ways that their grandparents' lives did. These cities used to be called the “queens of the Persian Gulf” and “queens of the Indian Ocean”. These places, their societies now have a far more removed relationship to these ports. They depend on them for imports and exports, of course, so they do literally still depend on them economically and even for a drinking water, desalination and so on, but they can ignore the sea for days and weeks on end because they are living in their cars and their gated communities and high rises.
MF: As a last question, we would love to find out about your next book.
AK: So, some of these articles that you referenced are the building blocks of chapters for this book which tries to develop a history of the Gulf that is a longue durée but also continuously moves back and forth and tacks back and forth between the northern coast and the southern coast. Iran is read in relationship to Kuwait and Dubai. For me, you can't tell the history or can't really seriously investigate Kuwait without looking at Basra and Abadan, and vice versa. Similarly, you can't tell the history of Dubai without looking at Bandar Lengeh or Bastak. So, this book uses this kind of this analytical lens to tell this larger history of the Gulf, from the perspective of different geographic scales, the global, the national, the urban, and even the individual migrant who moves back and forth.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Arang Keshavarzian, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)