How could attempts to privatize state land end up with that land back in the hands of the state? This paper engages with that puzzle by revisiting agrarian reform efforts in Iraq before the 1958 Revolution. I look specifically at the areas of date cultivation in Basra province in the 1940s and 1950s, during which time local administrators, landlords, and cultivators sought to alienate state-owned land amid the agrarian crisis of late Hashemite Iraq. In their aspiration, such attempts anticipated the agrarian reforms that republican regimes would undertake ostensibly to eradicate feudalism. In practice, they helped consolidate the landlord role of the Iraqi state during the transition of the Basra resource frontier from commercial agriculture to oil extraction.
Attempts to transfer state-owned date gardens in Basra into the hands of landlords and cultivators took both administrative and popular forms in the late Hashemite period. National parliamentarians and local state officials alternately cast property transfers necessary to disseminate Iraqi nationality among borderland cultivators, maintain commercial date production, and prevent rural out-migration. In parallel, though often in advance, relatively small landlords and uniquely powerful tenant-cultivators in Basra asserted effective proprietary and financial control over state-owned agricultural land. Yet amid the general decline in agricultural productivity and profitability in Basra in this period, many claimants to state property were unable to sustain their position materially and either withdrew from the land or returned effective control to the state. Hence in Basra, if agrarian reform before the revolution failed on its own terms, it nevertheless positioned the Iraqi state as a key landlord at precisely the moment that land became important for oil extraction rather than date cultivation.
Drawing on agricultural property records and Interior Ministry reports from Basra, the paper recovers some of the ideological concerns and political economy that distinguished agrarian reform efforts in the province from the larger land settlement process ongoing in Hashemite Iraq. In doing so I depart from older scholarly accounts of land settlement before 1958 as solely an instrument for entrenching a parasitic and conservative class of large landowners loyal to the monarchy. Revisiting agrarian reform before the 1958 Revolution can help us understand the social and institutional origins of an Iraqi state capitalism otherwise associated only with the authoritarian rentier regimes of the Baʿth period.