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
Throughout 1946, Arab sheikhs repeatedly complained to the Company about Tudeh’s aggressive campaigning. In Abadan’s rural hinterland, Arabs violently confronted itinerant Tudeh propagandists, and during the 1946 May Day parades, the protesting crowds allegedly shouted slogans against the sheikhs, whom Tudeh considered henchmen of British imperialism. Following the parades, a sheikh reported that, due to threats and propaganda, some of the Arab contractors were likely to join Tudeh. This represented a frightening scenario for the Company: whereas the Arab contractors had until then been considered immune to socialist infiltration, there was now reason to fear that some might join the anti-British wave. The sheikh warned that the tensions might end in violence. Reading the diplomatic correspondence, it is impossible to ascertain a clear British strategy. On the one hand, the official line was one of caution and, as previously, official Arab requests for support were snubbed. The consul in Khorramshahr, for example, told a sheikh, who wanted to bring back the exiled Sheikh Abdollah from Kuwait to Khuzestan, that “the Arabs should do nothing which could be calculated to embarrass H. M. Govt. or their own Govt.,” and that they should not “bring trouble on themselves.” On the other hand, some Company officers certainly did assist in mobilizing the Arabs. In May 1946, Abadan’s new governor promised these officers that action would be taken against Tudeh, including the deployment of Arab forces. In July, a military attaché to the Company, Colonel H. J. Underwood, noted that violent attacks on Tudeh members by Lor tribesmen east of Abadan had had a “wholesome effect,” which could be emulated in Abadan by a “discreet cultivation of good neighbourhood policy amongst the Arabs.” Underwood had already met with sheikhs in June, reporting that Arabs were “definitely against the Tudeh” and “ready to help the Company by force.” In the same report, he also suggested that it was “perhaps all to the good that the Arabs should form themselves into a patriotic Union.” On the night of 12 June, Arab sheikhs gathered in Khorramshahr and Ahwaz to establish such an organization—the so-called Union of Tribes of Khuzestan (Ettehadiye-ye ‘Ashayer-e Khuzestan), or Arab Tribal Union (ATU). Yet this action may also be understood as more than simply a Company ploy. On several occasions in the 1920s, and again in the 1940s, Arabs in Khuzestan had attempted to organize politically. While some initiatives were local in orientation and tribal in structure, others had more elaborate pan-Arabist agendas, yet only few openly championed Arab independence. The ATU established in June 1946 instead appeared primarily motivated by anger with the fact that Tudeh was pressuring the Company to hire Persian rather than Arab contractors. Fearful of Tudeh “threats,” the Arabs even sent a telegraph to the prime minister in Tehran protesting over “the Tudeh closing of the Bazaar” in Khorramshahr. In turn, Tudeh members warned Tehran that if they did not receive protection, they would have to “arrange their own.” Indeed, the British feared that the Soviets were feeding Tudeh weapons through Basra, while the Tudeh claimed that the British were arming the Arabs.
On 23 June, Arab sheikhs gathered for a traditional dance ceremony (yazleh) in Ahwaz, and the following day Arabs from across rural Khuzestan descended upon Khorramshahr to inaugurate the first modern Arab “club” under the auspices of the ATU. A crowd of about 10,000 to 12,000 people attended the ceremony, allegedly including Sheikh Jaseb, son of Sheikh Khaz’al.
The organizers triumphantly read out a charter containing ethnic demands including parliamentary representation and the right to teach Arabic in public schools, as well as an end to Tudeh interference in provincial affairs and assistance from the Iranian state in developing the local infrastructure and economy.
Importantly, the charter also criticized the Company for neglecting Arabs by building its facilities on Arab land but hiring outside labor, which had resulted in “much poverty and distress.” In particular, it bemoaned the loss of historic Arab date palm areas, and demanded that the Company “examine the legal rights of the Arab labourers and engage Arabs in a much larger proportion to other Persians.”
Such wording may put into question Tudeh’s accusation that the ATU was a mere Company pawn. The fact that the Union had its own agenda was underscored by its resistance to a demand from Tehran, reiterated by British diplomats, to change its name to the non-ethnic “Khuzestan Farmers’ Union.” Conversely, the anti-Tudeh emphasis indicates that the sheikhs shared mutual interests with the conservative faction of the divided ruling elite in Tehran. This impression is bolstered by correspondence between the ATU and Prime Minister Ahmad Qavvam, and by the fact that the ATU also intermittently identified as a “Democratic Union” in order to indicate support for Qavvam’s Democratic Party. In short, while Tehran certainly feared Arab separatism, there were probably also forces eager to exploit the Union as a tactical counterbalance to the Tudeh. It is important to note that the charter clearly stressed the ATU’s adherence to the constitution and territorial integrity of Iran. After Khorramshahr, the ATU quickly moved to set up clubs in towns such as Bandar Mahshahr (Ma’shur), Hendijan, and Shadegan (Fallahiyah), and then announced it would open a club in Abadan on 5 July. Fearing interethnic conflict, local authorities refused to issue a permit. Tudeh, in turn, distributed pamphlets in Arabic warning people not to let the British and their allied sheikhs “plant seeds of enmity between Arabs and Persians,” and announced that the ATU was funded and instigated by the British. The trade unions then called for a general strike across the province on 14 July. Among their demands, they included the dismissal of Khuzestan’s pro-British governor general; an end to Company political interference and intrigues with the ATU; and improvements in health services, housing and transport, as well as the institution of weekend (Friday) pay. According to an article in the Tudeh-affiliated Rahbar daily, 2,000 workers took control of transport in and out of Abadan on 14 July “so as to prevent the British from inciting the local tribesmen”—a euphemism for Arabs. Other workers, Rahbar reported, maintained “perfect order” throughout the city. The trade unions’ gradual takeover of the city was recorded meticulously by Company intelligence: from truck garages to hospitals, port installations, and swimming pools, Tudeh moved to capture all facilities. Yet even then, the British consul rejected the governor general’s proposal to arm Arab tribes. As armed Arabs were gathering in Abadan, it was too late, however, to prevent a violent encounter.
Note: Author’s pre-print version. reference should be made to the published version in Nelida Fuccaro (Ed.) :