Silas Palmer Fellow Andrea Wright Examines Development Of The Oil Industry And Labor On The Arabian Peninsula And Iran

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Aramco Saudi Workers McConnell
Aramco Saudi Workers McConnell

My research examines the development of the oil industry on the Arabian Peninsula and Iran from 1908 to the present. Using archival and ethnographic materials, I ask how labor relations in the oil industry shaped contemporary understandings of rights, citizenship, and state sovereignty. By paying particular attention to Indian migrant labor to work in the oilfields, I map how shifting discourses on labor and workers’ rights over the twentieth century coincide with the increasing focus on oil as a central component of national security. My current book project, “From Slavery to Contract: An Anthropological History of Labor and Oil in the Arabian Sea,” examines working conditions, hiring practices, and worker action found at British oil company projects in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. The book focuses on labor at oil projects from the 1940s to 1971 – a period that includes the end of British imperialism in the Gulf and South Asia and the development of new state governments in both of those regions. This book considers explores the role of labor, migration, and oil production in shaping governance and cultural practices throughout the Arabian Sea.

From the 1940s to the early 1970s, the oil industry employed laborers from the Gulf, the larger Middle East, and Asia; and managers tended to come from Europe and North America. Within this international pool of labor, the largest number of employees at British oil projects were, and continue in the present to be, people from India and Pakistan. In this book, I examine how Gulf Arab workers and Indian workers attempted to improve their working conditions. I argue that labor movements are key events that shaped British imperialism, postcolonial nations, and corporate business practices. A history of British oil that focuses on the role of transnational labor at these projects illuminates the ways in which liberal ideas concerning work, citizenship, and rights were continuously shaped during the mid-twentieth century. I further show how workers’ rights became codified as they became part of corporate policies and state laws. Finally, I find that formalizations of citizenship and labor rights happened in conjunction with the increasingly dominant discourse of security. My work traces increasing securitization around the state sovereignty and oil. I then show how securitization impacted understandings of rights, sovereignty, and citizenship. I argue that the result of securitization around oil is the evacuation of politics from the oilfields. This evacuation meant that the rights of individuals became increasingly secondary to the security of the state.

The Hoover Institute Archive at Stanford University is an important resource for understanding the development of Middle Eastern oil. The personal papers of Harvey Stevens, Philip C. McConnell, and Harry R. Synder provide personal accounts of Americans working at Middle Eastern oil projects, and these projects detail interactions between American and British oil companies in the area. In addition, because laborers’ experiences and actions were rarely recorded, by reading these papers in conjunction with state and corporate archives, additional information is gleaned as to working conditions and workers’ responses to their conditions. Attention to the experiences of workers and worker movements allows me to trace the uneven and incomplete way in which security and rights are institutionalized in the mid-twentieth century. This analysis also offers new insights into how the production of oil, the international managerial practices of natural resource extraction, and the politics of new nations were developed in the Gulf.

Andrea Wright

Assistant professor in Anthropology and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the College of William and Mary

Andrea Wright is an assistant professor in Anthropology and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the College of William and Mary. She currently is working on two book projects. “From Slavery to Contract: An Anthropological History of Labor and Oil in the Arabian Sea,” discussed here, is a history of labor and oil in the Gulf. The other, "Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil," is an ethnographic examination of contemporary labor migration from India to the Gulf's oilfields. She can be reached at agwright[at]