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Revisiting the Gulf’s Anti-Imperialist Currents in the Twentieth Century

Panel VII-20, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Throughout the twentieth century, the Arab Gulf states witnessed successive waves of movements that challenged British (and later American) hegemony, shaping the region’s political and cultural life. In the 1910s and 1920s, intellectuals influenced by Islamic modernism and the Arab nahda took the first steps towards fostering an anti-imperialist discourse and novel modes of activism. Between the 1930s and 1960s, this trickle steadily grew into a torrent, with mass movements inspired by Pan-Arabism emerging in several Gulf states. The 1967 Arab defeat led to the rise of new strategies and paradigms in the form of Islamism and revolutionary Marxism, most notably represented in the Dhofar Revolution. Much of the academic literature on the Gulf has, until recently, overlooked or downplayed this history. This can partly be attributed to the long-established notions of “empire by invitation,” whereby local rulers voluntarily submitted to British tutelage, and a region isolated from external influences before the exploitation of oil. Underlying these views has been an overwhelming reliance on British colonial archives to the exclusion of local Arabic language sources. This panel seeks to build on the expanding literature that challenges these widely held perspectives, highlighting the long-standing and multifaceted history of anti-imperialism in the Gulf. In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars influenced by Marxism and Arab nationalism penned the first studies critiquing imperialist influence in the region and/or detailing resistance to it. This topic subsequently fell out of fashion in the field of Gulf studies, yet a new wave of scholarship in the last decade has rekindled interest in it. This literature highlights the Arab nationalist and leftist movements that spearheaded the fight against imperialism in the region through mass mobilization, labor activism, intellectual production, and armed struggle. Despite these advances, there remains a need for analysis of the Gulf’s various anti-imperialist currents across time and space. This would raise novel questions for the study of the region. For instance, how would the foregrounding of anti-imperialist politics alter the conventional, state-focused periodization of Gulf history? What spatial configurations emerge from the study of popular movements that traversed colonially constructed borders? What insights can an anti-imperialist lens bring to the study of topics such as gender and social history? Bringing together scholars of history, international relations, and political economy, this panel aims to spark such discussion with a focus on the cases of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Scholarship on the International Relations of the Middle East (IRME) tends to uncritically embrace ‘moderate’ constructivism and mystify the origins of Arab nationalism. This is most clearly exemplified by Michael Barnett’s ‘dialogues model’, which has been critiqued for its Orientalist assumptions. As a consequence, Arab nationalism is mostly conceptualised as a parochial identity, which emanated from a diffused cultural normative structure and was in turn at state leaders’ disposal. Such an understanding suffers from the problem of ‘internalism concealed within ‘the international’’– approaching Arab nationalism through ambiguous, endogenous, and enclosed cultural contexts within a definite and universal world of sovereign states. In line with this issue, the extant literature on international relations of the Gulf has rarely undertaken a theoretical interrogation of Arab nationalism, examining how the origins and evolution of this ideology corresponds to a peculiar historical process of late-capitalist social and state formation in the context of the rentier economy. Instead, most discussions, wittingly or not, inherit a conceptually tangled view. It takes rentier-generated regime autonomy for granted, conceiving of Arab nationalism as an idea largely representing regimes’ political will on the one hand, and as a parochial norm diffusing across the Arab world on the other hand. In addressing the problem, this paper premises itself on the concept of uneven and combined development (UCD) and makes a historical sociological case for the social origins of Bahrain’s Arab nationalism under British colonialism. As recent research on the history of Arab nationalism suggests, prior to the opposition National Union Committee in the 1950s, al-Nahda movements in the 19th century formulated a prototype of Arab nationalism that influenced the later phases of Arab nationalist movements in Bahrain, contesting the fallout of British-led modernisation and gradually shaping the idea of national unity. The paper aims to build upon the recent historiography on Bahrain to explore an alternative theoretical understanding of the origins of Arab nationalism during the British colonial period, especially the first half of the twentieth century. It argues that Arab nationalism and its social origins should be better considered as a modern product of combined capitalist formation through colonialism. This ‘formation’ took off at the historical moment of oil commodification, as a social mechanism of combination. It then resulted in changing class relations and contradictions while creating vectors for the ideological evolution of Bahrain’s Arab nationalism in correspondence with social transformation.
  • ‘Jamila, a beautiful call, as a beautiful name – Jamila, a call carrying the meaning of heroism’ (Al-Najjar & Mattar: 2017) – a poem recited by a schoolgirl welcoming the Algerian munadila[ii] Jamila Bouheired to Bahrain in 1958. During the mid-century era of anti-colonial liberation in the Arab world, Al-Najjar writes, families in Bahrain began to adopt the names of their political heroes for their children: for girls, this name was Jamila. This paper looks for the ‘many faces of Jamila’, by tracing an intergenerational lineage of women within movements for national liberation and revolutionary social transformation in Bahrain. It takes lead from the exciting array of recent scholarship that engages with new theoretical perspectives and Arabic-language sources largely yet-unexplored in English-language academia. While these works are reshaping the terrain of knowledge production on the Gulf, and the broader overlapping regions that it is part of, it is still not uncommon to read works that make little or no reference to the presence or participation of women in the making of history. By reading at the ‘social scale’ (Qato: 2019), this paper maps a through-line of women’s participation in movements for national liberation and social change through focussing on the lives of multiple generations of Bahraini munadilat from the 1950s-1970s. This paper argues that social histories which do not account for the role of women obscure our view into the ways in which transformation occurs, and how it permeates through the social fabric. Conceptualising the spatialisation of revolt to include sites and spaces beyond the street demonstration, it brings in figures and experiences that are otherwise often absent from the historical record. As well as thinking about how (and where) social movements are made, grow, and are sustained, this paper thinks through temporality. It argues that reading what happens beyond and before visible moments of rupture allows us to see and feel how those moments are replete with (and created by) connections that run across space and time. [i] From nidal, struggle, the feminine form of the word to describe a person who struggles or fights in the way of a cause or liberation, variously translated as ‘struggler,’ ‘militant,’ ‘activist,’ and ‘dissident’. The term is close to the idea of the ‘partisan’ of the French Résistance but lacks an English equivalent that captures its meaning, inferences and contextual use.
  • While ʿAbdulrahman Munif’s novels have become the subject of a burgeoning English and Arabic literature, his non-fiction oil writings have largely been ignored. This is unfortunate, as these writings not only constitute a window into the thoughts of Munif, one of the Arabian Peninsula’s foremost anti-colonial and progressive intellectuals, but they also provide unique insights into a defining period of global oil relations whose reverberations are felt today. This article explores Abdulrahman Munif’s non-fiction Arabic writings on American oil relations in the Middle East. I analyze two bodies of work. One is The Principle of Participation and Nationalization of Arab Petroleum, a book published in 1973 while the author was in Beirut. The second are the issues of the Baghdad-based monthly al-Nift wa-l-Tanmiya (Oil and Development) from Munif’s time as the periodical’s founding chief editor between October 1975 and March 1981. The paper begins by outlining Munif’s historiography of the US oil presence in the Middle East and its periodization from the start of the twentieth century to the early 1970s. It then focuses on his analysis of contemporary developments during the 1970s, a period which he saw as historically defining in realigning global relations. Particularly, I outline the hopes he pinned on oil nationalization and cooperation between Third World countries to overcome the unequal relations in contemporary global capitalism, especially in the shape of the movement for the New International Economic Order (NIEO). The paper argues that Munif employed a unique historiographical approach that draws on Marxist, dependency theory, and Arab Nationalist influences. Particularly, it embodies a form of conjunctural analysis avant la lettre, which pivots around analyzing the condensation of social forces at periods of critical crises at the international, national, and subnational levels. In this manner, Munif aimed to historicize the 1970s conjuncture from within, anticipating and critiquing much of what later became the standard narratives of the international relations of oil. Munif’s writings are thus explored as a window into the intellectual history of progressive and anti-imperialist economic thought from the Arabian Peninsula during the 1970s.
  • With a renewed scholarly interest in critical Arabian Gulf and Peninsula Studies (AGPS), this paper revisits how the Kuwaiti press analyzed third world liberation struggles during the 1960s. As the country with the most freedom of political expression in the region, Kuwait’s forgotten literary scene was alight with vigorous debates on Marxism and third world nationalism, colonialism and revolution, and questions of labor, laying emphasis on local conditions and their relation to wider global struggles. From the first year of the country’s independence in 1961, progressive newspapers like al-Tali’a [The Vanguard], the literary arm of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) regional branch in Kuwait, were at the forefront of engaging with themes that grappled both colonized and independent nations across the third world. In focusing on the international reporting of al-Tali’a, this paper turns to the pages of the Peninsula’s most prominent progressive newspaper to analyze how anti-colonial thought proliferated the Kuwaiti literary and journalistic scene during the revolutionary decade of the 1960s. From reports on mass labor mobilization in the militant docks of Manama and Adan, to interviews with revolutionaries deep in the jungles of Guinea-Bissau and Vietnam, al-Tali’a’s dedicated its pages toward educating people in Kuwait on global liberation struggles through through interviews, journalism, letters to the editors, poetry, and short stories, whilst simultaneously organizing material and popular support in Kuwait for global revolutionary struggles–especially for in cases of the anti-colonial revolutions in Palestine and South Arabia. Beyond their solidarity with third world national liberation struggles, the pages of al-Tali’a were also filled with intense discussions surrounding the major political and ideological debates that consumed the MAN, regional anti-colonial movements, and global transnational revolutionary currents. Together with oral history research and memoirs, this paper carefully examines how the Kuwaiti literary scene was pivotal in supporting and amplifying the revolutionary struggles of the third world to its Arabic-speaking audience. Lastly, the final section of the paper offers a reflection on the impact on the Kuwaiti press of consequential milestones of the 1960s, such as the Arab losses in 1967, the subsequent rise of the new left in the region, and the wave of political repressions in Kuwait during the late 1960s. In analyzing the Kuwaiti press during this decade, I argue that the Kuwaiti literary scene played a major role in shaping regional anti-colonial politics and solidarity.
  • Co-Authors: Wafa Alsayed
    In the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Bahrainis fleeing repression in their country sought refuge in nearby Kuwait. There, they joined a cosmopolitan community of Arab activists including Palestinians, Algerians, Omanis, and Yemenis, a milieu that spawned movements such as Fatah and the Dhofari revolutionaries. Like these contemporary movements, the Bahraini exiles capitalized on Kuwait’s relatively open environment, adopting it as a base in their struggle against British colonial rule in Bahrain. Although Kuwait features as a backdrop to the histories of various political groups, its status as a regional center for anti-colonial activism has yet to be analyzed in its own right. Using the Bahraini activists’ experience as a case study, this paper argues that this tiny monarchy at the periphery of the Arab world played a comparable role to the much better-known anti-colonial hubs of Cairo, Algiers, and Aden. It engages with the growing literature on anti-colonial hubs, which focuses on colonial metropoles and post-colonial African capitals. It thus extends the study of anti-colonial movements and decolonization to the largely neglected Arabian Peninsula. Adopting the framework of “translocality” (Freitag and von Oppen), whereby the study of mobility across boundaries is combined with attention to local contexts, the paper begins by detailing the various interconnected developments that made Kuwait a hospitable environment for regional activists beginning in the 1950s. These include internal political dynamics, especially the rise of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN); the exploitation of oil and the resultant increase in migration; Kuwait’s emergence as a regional educational center; the rise of Nasserist Egypt; and British imperial policy. The second part of the paper uses British archives, the Kuwaiti press, and activists’ memoirs to chart the formation of the Bahraini exile community, its anticolonial activities, and its interactions with other actors in Kuwait. The first exiles arrived following the British-backed crackdown on the opposition Higher Executive Committee in 1956, while subsequent waves were formed largely of Bahraini MAN cadres. With the support of the Kuwaiti MAN, other nationalist elements, and sympathetic ruling family members, the Bahraini MAN members turned Kuwait into a media and operations center. This activity culminated with the March Intifada of 1965, a major anti-colonial uprising in Bahrain that was partly directed from Kuwait. By 1966, however, a combination of political developments led to the eviction of most Bahraini activists from the country, ending a seminal chapter in Kuwait’s story as an anti-colonial hub.