War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike

Rasmus Christian Elling, University of Copenhagen

Published in: Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East


Abadan’s modern history is inextricably tied to that of the Anglo-Persian— later Anglo-Iranian—Oil Company (henceforth, “the Company”). When oil was struck in Iran in 1908, Abadan was a village on an island between two rivers leading to the Persian Gulf—an outpost on Iran’s border with Ottoman Iraq. It was inhabited mainly by Arab tribes living in adobe huts, cultivating date palms, fishing, and trading with the neighboring cities of Mohammerah and Basra. Whereas the northern and eastern parts of what is today the Khuzestan province were inhabited by Lors, Bakhtiyaris, and various Persianspeaking communities, the south had been dominated by Arab tribes since at least the seventh century. By the sixteenth century, it was known as Arabistan,[4] and from 1897, it was under the control of Sheikh Khaz’al of Mohammerah. Like the Bakhtiyari khans in central Khuzestan, where oil was discovered, the sheikh acknowledged the sovereignty of the Iranian Qajar shahs in Tehran, but ruled more or less autonomously. Since the eighteenth century, Britain had treated the Persian Gulf littoral around Bushehr, south of Abadan, as its de facto possession. Moreover, the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) and subsequent civil war, the 1907 division of Iran into Russian and British spheres of interest, and the increased military presence of the British Government of India in southern Iran up to and during the First World War all factored into the Iranian central government’s dysfunction in Khuzestan. Consequently, when British diplomats and Company officials were tasked with facilitating the establishment of an oil industry in Khuzestan, they circumvented the Iranian government and instead dealt directly with the region’s tribal leaders. Wary of the arrival of a foreign entity in his domains yet keen on generating profit, Sheikh Khaz’al signed a lease in 1909 for the parts of Abadan Island on which the Company had decided to build its refinery. Despite challenges and obstacles, European engineers erected a refinery that was able from 1913 to process high-grade petroleum for export. When Winston Churchill, the Company’s key lobbyist, decided to switch from the use of coal to oil in the British navy on the eve of World War I, his government acquired a controlling interest in the Company. Securing and expanding Abadan’s oil output became a top priority, and Abadan’s palm groves soon gave way to a sprawling modern city. The Company insisted that locals did not have the industrial discipline required for the operation, and instead it imported its skilled labor from India, Burma, Iraq, Palestine, Europe, and even China. Abadan’s population jumped from around 20,000 in 1910 to 40-60,000 in the early 1920s, and 200,000 in the 1940s.[5] To accommodate this influx of workers, the Company reluctantly engaged in urban development and colonial-inspired social engineering.[6]

The British staff was housed in modern bungalows in the district of Braim at one end of the island, where the breeze made the extremely hot climate somewhat tolerable. Here, they were sheltered by the massive metallic barrier of the refinery, which stood in the middle of the island, and could nurture an exclusive, elite lifestyle. On the other side lay the “native town,” which consisted mainly of Arab villages, the workers’ neighborhood Ahmadabad, and the bazaar—and, from the 1920s, also of sprawling shantytowns. This segregated urban geography was a material manifestation of the ethnically demarcated labor hierarchy with which the Company ran its operation in Abadan: white “senior staff” at the top; skilled and semi-skilled Indians, Christian (Armenian and Assyrian) and Jewish migrant labor from the Middle East in the middle; and masses of Iranian (“Persian” and “Arab”[7]) wage-earners, unskilled, and casual labor at the bottom. Plagued by labor unrest from its early days, the oil industry was hit by a major strike in 1929, when workers protested against low wages and their appalling working and living conditions.[8] This historic strike inspired nationalist forces across Iran, and with the more resolute Reza Shah in power in Tehran from 1925 the Company was forced to make concessions. Pressured by growing social disorder, overcrowding, crime, and disease in the shantytowns, the Company began in 1926 to engage in urban planning, building a new bazaar while providing sanitation and infrastructure, electricity and paved roads. Eventually, the Company would build hospitals, schools, cinemas, and a university, and in the 1930s and 1940s, new, modern neighborhoods for Iranian labor, such as Bahmanshir and Bawarda. Through these developments, the Company sought to present an image of the city as a modern, egalitarian space of welfare and progress.[9]
Yet this image stood in contrast to the lived reality of most Iranians in Abadan. The Company’s public relations strategy, combined with some improvements in quality of life and increased social mobility, was in the end not enough to gloss over the unequal distribution of power and resources in Abadan, or to deflect criticism of the British exploitation of Iranian resources. The Company was nonetheless able to manage discontent in Abadan during the boom years of the 1930s. With the ousting of Reza Shah and the British invasion of southern Iran in 1941, the Company further strengthened its foothold in Khuzestan. During World War II, Iran was plagued by food shortages, famine, disease, and insecurity. Citing a potential threat of sabotage against oil installations as well as Khuzestan’s strategic position on the supply route through Iran to the Soviet Union, the Company pushed through a demand for martial law, eventually turning the whole province into a “special military zone” under a pro-British military governor-general. The militarization of daily life, increased social control, food rationing, drastic fluctuations in labor demand, widespread hunger, epidemics, overcrowding and a spike in crime fuelled anti-British sentiment and socialist-inspired labor activism against the Company, and in May 1946, the oil worker movement reasserted itself in Abadan. By that time, Western diplomats and Company officials were convinced that the activism was orchestrated by Moscow as part of a bloodless war between Britain and the Soviet Union. The July 1946 oil strike heralded the demand for oil nationalization that, in 1951, would bring an end to quasi-colonial British rule in Khuzestan. In order to properly grasp the violence that occurred during the 1946 strikes, however, it is necessary to take a closer look at the histories of two of the involved actors—the Arabs and the labor activists.

Note: Author’s pre-print version. reference should be made to the published version in Nelida Fuccaro (Ed.) : Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East  (Stanford,    2016).

Citation for published version (APA):

Elling, R. C. (2016). War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike. In N. Fuccaro (Ed.),

Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East (pp. 189-210). Stanford University Press.



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