On 14 October 2021, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted Kaveh Ehsani for a lecture titled “Rethinking the (Subaltern) Social Histories of Oil in Iran.” Ehsani is an associate professor of International Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Ehsani began by discussing how oil has influenced politics, relations of power, the state, institutions, and everyday life. He contended that “to understand the impact of oil on politics, society, and environment, we need to see where all the key agents around this complex of oil, in terms of production, processing, export, and consumption, interact and how their relationships get shaped and impact the environment.” Some of these actors include multinational oil companies, national governments, governmental institutions, and local populations. Ehsani termed the material and physical space produced by the interaction of these social agents as the “built environment.”

In his case study, Ehsani looked at the province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran, where oil was discovered in 1908, and quickly became a major source of energy for the British empire, which held a monopoly on oil. Khuzestan was mainly populated by pastoral nomads from the Bakhtiari tribe, Arabs from various tribes and confederacies, and urban populations. The introduction of oil capitals and the political relations that accompanied it transformed and intertwined the lives of the people. The discovery of oil and the subsequent start of extraction seriously undermined the Bakhtiari’s economic, political, and social structures. This eventually led to the collapse of the tribe’s leadership and the tribe’s assimilation into the margins of urban society. Ehsani then examined the microhistory of oil capitalism in the first quarter of the twentieth century, an era that was shaped by the political crises following the Constitutional Revolution, the First World War, the repercussions of the Soviet Revolution, and the consolidation of the authoritarian Pahlavi monarchy.

Apart from the fact that oil became a source of revenue for the government, it also resulted in the emergence of novel social relations such as the working class, and, in particular, urban forms of agency and consciousness that had never existed before. Unlike official oil histories, which focus on the role of the state, colonial powers, and oil corporations, Ehsani focused on everyday lives of ordinary people and how they were shaped, and how they shaped the oil complex in the region. Ehsani remarked that in response to the growing consciousness of the local population, the state also began to rearticulate and redefine its role as agents of governmentality in order to gain legitimacy. Major multinational oil companies, such as Anglo-Persian Oil Company, were also forced to respond to the unexpected demands of the local population and devise ideas for social welfare and infrastructure.

The building of an oil infrastructure necessitated a large amount of labor, land, and material. The labor was provided by tribesmen who were dispossessed and needed to rely on wage labor. Ehsani explained that “this began to transform social relations in the peripheries and proletarianized a large portion of the male population and their families.” Ehsani further stated that this period has caused major suffering to the local population. “Migrants, refugees, women, wage workers, expatriates, peasants and tribesmen, political activists, and thousands of others had flocked to the emerging oil cities of Khuzestan in search of livelihood, opportunity, or mere survival.” Abadan had grown into a global city that exported oil by 1920, and it had become a strategic location for the British, who relied on its fuel for their warplanes.

Finally, Ehsani stated that this holds true for other countries in the region, particularly those in the Arabian Peninsula, where oil brought modernity and the oil industry helped to develop the land. However, contrary to official history and visual representations of oil in those histories, this does not imply that the cities where oil was discovered were empty lands. Local societies, ultimately, were greatly transformed, some even uprooted, by the discovery of oil and the spread of industries related to it.