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This final chapter examines the making of Manama as an oil town and capital city. The focus is the impact of state intervention on the built environment and on urban life, and the contrast between these developments and those in the agricultural hinterland of Bahrain. The impact of oil did not trigger a new dialect of urbanisation, in the sense that it did not radically transform the patterns of settlement which had become apparent in the nineteenth century. Cultivators, turned into oil workers, continued to reside in their ancestral towns and villages, some of which were absorbed into Manama's metropolitan area after the oil boom of the 1970s. Awali, the first modern oil town (madinah al-naft) in the Gulf, built in 1937 by the American-owned BAPCO, developed as a ‘neocolonial’ settlement, a gated community which housed a new class of European and American technocrats who run the industry.
Oil revenue and state centralisation did not efface the traditional political and socio-economic differences between Manama and the rural areas inhabited by the indigenous Shi‘i population. Rather, they enforced a new set of inequalities. In the oil era, historical legacies and inequalities continued to be enshrined in built environments and social landscapes, as they had been in the days of pearling. Manama became the harbinger of Bahrain's modernity as well as that of the entire Persian Gulf.
In this path-breaking and multi-layered account of one of the least explored societies in the Middle East, Nelida Fuccaro examines the political and social life of the Gulf city and its coastline, as exemplified by Manama in Bahrain. Written as an ethnography of space, politics and community, it addresses the changing relationship between urban development, politics and society before and after the discovery of oil. By using a variety of local sources and oral histories, Fuccaro questions the role played by the British Empire and oil in state-making. Instead, she draws attention to urban residents, elites and institutions as active participants in state and nation building. She also examines how the city has continued to provide a source of political, social and sectarian identity since the early nineteenth century, challenging the view that the advent of oil and modernity represented a radical break in the urban past of the region.
Between the accession to power of Shaykh ‘Isa ibn ‘Ali Al Khalifah in 1869 and the establishment of municipal government in 1919, the growth of Manama reflected the evolution of Bahrain's pearling and entrepôt economies and the increasing importance of the Government of India in fostering its semi-autonomous position within the Al Khalifah domains. At the turn of the twentieth century, the urban layout revealed the relative weakness of the tribal administration and the critical role played by trade and immigration in the expansion of the previous decades. Unlike Muharraq, which developed around the residences of the Al Khalifah family, Manama did not have a clearly defined administrative and political centre. Its configuration was to a great extent the result of the spatial and demographic requirements of the maritime economy which dominated urban life. The successive waves of rural and overseas immigrants and the increasing volume of trade were matched by the development of the harbour and the markets, fostering the growth of residential districts along the seafront.
While the town developed gradually throughout the nineteenth century, its political and social orders crystallised in the years of the pearl boom, particularly after the 1880s. In this period the accelerated development of the harbour, markets, neighbourhoods and religious institutions unveils the ‘dynamics of power’ which characterised the rise of a powerful merchant class and the contest, as well as the symbiotic relationship, between merchants and rulers on the one hand and the Al Khalifah and British agents on the other.
Over the two centuries between the Al Khalifah occupation and independence from British control, urban development and urban life in Bahrain continued to mirror the broader social and political transformations of the coastal regions of the Persian Gulf. Before oil the dynamics of these frontier societies were expressed in the visual and cultural language of expanding port towns in a way which resembles – albeit in a different economy of scale – the growth of Gulf cities in the age of oil and globalisation. In approaching the city as a separate theme in Gulf history, this study has revisited the political and social evolution of Manama and Bahrain in the age of tribal expansion, British rule and oil. The analysis of Manama's urban history as the world centre of pearling, the hub of British imperial influence and the capital of the modern state of Bahrain challenges standard portrayals of the politics, society and urbanism of the Gulf littoral.
Manama and its agricultural hinterland constitute an excellent vantage point for observing the multiple facets and composite nature of state and nation building in the Gulf before and after oil. The interface between tribe and state in Bahrain, and more generally along the Gulf coast, has thus to be understood in the context of the complex society of its historic port settlement.
With the establishment of a municipality in 1919, Manama entered a new era of modernisation and local government. The reorganisation of the town became an integral part of the process of reform which throughout the 1920s supported the creation of a modern state administration under the aegis of the Government of India. As Manama consolidated its position as the lynchpin of British informal empire in the Persian Gulf, it acquired a dual administrative and political personality as the centre of the modern state of Bahrain (Hukumah al-Bahrayn) and of a municipal administration (Idarah al-Baladiyyah). The merchant elite of the pearl boom effectively took control of local government as members of the town's municipal council (majlis al-baladiyyah). While municipal elections and the enforcement of legislation and taxation became the pillars of baladiyyah rule and the symbol of a new era of modernisation, the council provided the forum for the continuation of patronage politics cementing the traditional alliance between merchants and rulers.
After 1927 the municipal government survived the collapse of the pearling industry, which caused widespread economic dislocation throughout the Gulf and jeopardised the continuation of the reforms in Bahrain. The baladiyyah assisted the development of the town after the discovery of oil in 1932 but its political legitimacy was short-lived. After World War II, in particular, the new social and political forces which had emerged in the first two decades of the oil boom started to challenge municipal government and the old notable class as an integral part of a ‘reactionary’ ancien régime.
It is peculiar that urban history has been conspicuously absent from the study of the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, peppered as that region is by a chain of city-states – or quasi city-states – stretching from Kuwait to Oman. The history of cities and urban societies in this region has featured only as a corollary to that of tribes, British Empire and oil. Of course the pivotal role of tribesmen, British officials and oil wealth as agents of historical change can be hardly overstated. Tribal communities constituted the backbone of the political infrastructure of the Gulf coast in the nineteenth century and developed a symbiotic, albeit often conflicting, relationship with the British authorities who controlled the region between 1820 and 1971. British protection ensured the political stability of the local tribal principalities within the new regional order of nation-states which took shape after World War I. After the 1930s, the discovery of oil gradually transformed the lives of Gulf peoples beyond recognition, altering their social and political identities and their relationship with their living environments.
The study of the politics of empire and tribalism, which has been the staple of regional historiography, has imposed a number of constraints on our understanding of indigenous societies and political cultures. External factors have been paramount in explaining historical change through the lens of British influence.