Lindsey Stephenson on Mobility, Identity and Sovereignty in the Persian Gulf

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

Lindsey Stephenson (PhD, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University) is a social and legal historian of the Middle East and Indian Ocean. Her work focuses on sovereignty, mobility, and identity in the Persian Gulf. She is currently a Postgraduate Research Associate at Princeton University.

1 – Tell us about the broad parameters of your project on identity and the Persian Gulf. Before we plunge into the myriad of connections and competing sovereignties over this body of water, can you provide us with a brief introduction on the modern history of the Gulf?

My most recent research looks at the way the changing organization of space in the early 20th century impacted people living around the Persian Gulf littoral, and in particular migrants from Iran to Kuwait and Bahrain. I chose Kuwait and Bahrain because by the turn of the century significant numbers of Iranian migrants were already living there and I wanted to look at how their presence related to new waves of migration. The Emirates, by contrast, experienced the bulk of immigration from Iran in the 1920s and later.

The Persian Gulf in the nineteenth century was a political backwater for the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Although both made claims over various territories in the Gulf (the Ottomans on occasion did send troops to Hasa and Bahrain, and Bahrain was a Safavid tributary until 1736), neither had a truly consistent imperial presence from the second half of the eighteenth well into the twentieth century.

Instead we can think of the Gulf as a place of overlapping sovereignties. It was overlapping in the sense that both of these empires made claims over the same territory, but also because local and regional actors exercised varying degrees of sovereignty themselves.

Map courtesy of Lindsey Stephenson.

Sometimes local rulers paid tribute to powerful tribes; sometimes they paid tribute to imperial overlords. In some years they paid tribute to all three, and sometimes none. It is really imperative that we understand the fluidity of political patronage that operated according to the immediate necessity rather than as an expression of deep and intense loyalty. More than the Ottomans and Safavids, and certainly the Qajars, the Omani Empire in fact was the only regional empire that was frequently able to bring territories around the littoral under its control – although this really only applied to Bahrain and the southern half of the Gulf.

In the nineteenth century this order was transformed when local rulers contracted protection treaties with the British Indian Empire. While some scholars have argued that in seeking the protection of the British the local sheikhs of the Gulf were doing what they always had done, there is no question that British protection looked and felt very different than the Ottoman or Persian Empires before them.  Enforcing their treaties with gunboats was a critical element of British protection. The show of force alone deterred challenges to local sheikhs’ rule. The British were also much more present, both physically as the gunboats cruised around the Gulf, but also in the stories that people circulated about their encounters with the steamships.

2- What was “pre-oil life” in the Gulf like? Who are the people that you are studying, where did they go, what did they do?

The pre-oil Gulf (prior to roughly 1940) was a time of great mobility, as was the entire Indian Ocean. As global capital markets began to really penetrate these spaces, labor demands took the mobility that already existed and extended the scale. The people I study migrated from the south of Iran to the western shores of the Gulf, mostly of their own volition. However I should note that much of the increased movement of people around the rest of the Indian Ocean was forced; slaves, convicts, political exiles, etc. There are two major aspects of Iranians crossing the Gulf in the twentieth century that we should understand. First, their migration to the opposite shores did not begin in this period. Second, they moved within particular geographical networks.

Between 1900-1940, the period my research focuses on, there are roughly two waves of emigration from Iran across the Gulf. The first happens around the turn of the century, largely in response to new import/export taxes. As a result the pearling center eventually shifts from Bandar Lingeh to Bahrain, and takes other areas of trade and commerce with it. The second wave occurs in the late 1920s in response to Iran’s modernization and nationalization projects, namely clothing laws, military conscription, disarmament of the population, and tribal settlement.

When people left Iran, they did not simply flee en masse to unknown shores. Most migrants went where they had some connections already – and that was most often to the biggest town on the adjacent coast. The western shores of the Gulf were very familiar to people living on the eastern shores. Prior to the twentieth century people were moving up and down the coast and across the water. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many people migrated eastward. In the twentieth century people were predominantly moving westward. At the end of nineteenth century there were already well established merchants from the areas of Iran now known as Khuzestan and Bushehr living in Kuwait and Bahrain. Further down the Gulf families lived between Ra’s Al-Khaima, Sharjah in the modern day Emirates, and Bandar Lingeh in Iran – the shores being only 35 miles apart at the narrowest point.

While in Iran all southerners tend to be grouped into single categories like “bandari” or “jonoubi,” the Iranian coast on the Persian Gulf is 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) long and incredibly diverse. There are at least four major regions of the south that are connected to large towns across the water in the early twentieth century: Arabistan stretches from the western border to Bushehr; Tangesir/Tangistan from roughly Bushehr to Kangan; Shibkuh from Kangan to around Bandar Lingeh, and Balochistan from Bandar Abbas to the eastern border.

Map courtesy of Lindsey Stephenson.

Upon arriving on the western/southern shores in the twentieth century, many of the Iranian migrants were day laborers unloading cargo on the docks, delivering goods, cleaning fish breaking rocks, and building the rapidly growing towns. They were also owners of and workers in small grocers, bread shops, and coffee and tea houses. Iranian merchants were often the patrons of these workers, housing them and feeding them, and in some cases even bringing them across the Gulf.

3- Because of your focus on the pre-oil life, your work challenges conceptions of “modernity” in the region. When, would you say, pre-modernity ends and modernity begins?

People tend to see oil as thrusting the Gulf into the modern world. Although oil was certainly transformative, one of my main shticks is to remind people that there was a pre-oil modernity in the Gulf. While in the Middle East we tend to associate to associate the advent of the modern period with Napoleon’s arrival on the shores of Egypt in 1798, the Gulf’s trajectory was very different. Although of course bound up with the involvement of European empires, and the British in particular, for everyday life in the Gulf the outset of modernity was more fundamentally a moment of economic transformation.

The rise in global demand for pearls in the late nineteenth century set off an economic boom in the western Indian Ocean (around the littoral of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea) that began to transform everyday life in a number of ways. The scale of mobility, which had already characterized life around the Indian Ocean, significantly increased. More people made their way from the interior of Iran and the Arabian Peninsula to dive during pearl season. The number of slaves brought from East Africa for this purpose also increased. And as one might imagine, the influx of capital from pearl sales trickled down.

Being connected to the global capitalist economy generally and steamship routes in particular, also created new types of work and demand for more labor. Hundreds of men were needed throughout the Gulf to unload steamship cargo into small boats at sea and carry goods to the shore. At the docks more men waited with carts and donkeys to distribute the goods throughout the major towns and villages. During Ramadan wealthy women turned their kitchens into bakeries, often hiring recent migrants to make sweets throughout the month.

‘Linga: Boat Basin & “Badghirs”‘ [‎8-a] (1/1), British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 496/6/15, in Qatar Digital Library.
The built environment of the city was also transformed. There was a growing number of fixed, permanent residences for merchants. These homes overwhelmingly drew on the expertise, craftsmanship, technologies, and frequently even raw materials that the Iranian migrants brought with them. The wooden balconies, shades, stained glass windows, and wind towers that people especially in the southern half of the Gulf think of as characteristic of “heritage” architecture were in fact products of this pre-oil modern period. But alongside these new structures was also a surge in traditional huts made of palm fronds called barastis or ‘areesh. Migrant laborers often live in neighborhoods built of these huts, many of them under the patronage of Iranian merchants. The continuation of traditional forms alongside major transformations is a pattern that we find not just in the built environment, but more broadly across many aspects of life. Erik Gilbert for example has shown this in the case of dhows and steamships.

It is exactly the persistence of duality between modern and premodern forms that makes it difficult to draw a line in the sand to delineate where “modernity” begins. Since we’re already dealing with the Indian Ocean, a space that falls outside of the area studies paradigm, I think it is a productive space for questioning and countering the received epochs of “pre-modern” and “modern.” Modernity had a variety of threads – economic, institutional, technological, intellectual, to name a few. I think the really interesting story in the Gulf is the gradual way that these threads were woven into society, existing in tandem with what was there before rather than completely supplanting “traditional” ways of life as many imperial officers in the region predicted.

4- Let’s get to identities – how did these people identify themselves? What was the role of language? We know about the presence of Iranians on the western/southern coast of the Gulf – a claim that has become more important for Iranian nationalists – but how should we view the people moving around the Gulf during this period?

People’s sense of belonging was very local. Anscombe has argued that blood ties and locale were the most fundamental aspects of identity in the late nineteenth century Arabia.  This was also the same on the Arab side; in Mikiya Koyagi’s interview with Ajam he mentions the frustration of Tehranis traveling south on the railroad who come in contact with people identify as Shushtaris or Dezfulis and not Iranians. I would add to this that people knew who they were based on whom they could marry. While we see all kinds of contractual relationships between business partners from diverse backgrounds, the majority of Gulf society tended to be very conservative when it came to marriage and only married their “own kind.” This meant that the majority of people married cousins or other distant relatives.

The role that language played in shaping identities is surprisingly unclear in the numerous types of documents that I have accessed during my research. We do know that the mother tongue of those considered to be Iranian was often Arabic (of either Northern or Southern Gulf dialect), Baloch, or one of the Lari dialects like Achmi/Bastaki. Still, in official records such as legal petitions or testimonies, the languages used were Arabic and Persian, sometimes with English translation. Scribes and court employees play an important role as middlemen, synthesizing and formalizing the language of otherwise subaltern people.

What we do know is that the people who migrated from the eastern shores to the western shores were considered by the Iranian state to be Iranians, even before modern conceptions of citizenship existed. On the western shores, tying people’s identities to specific territory was definitely a product of the twentieth century. In 1904 for example when the British put Iranians in Bahrain under their protection, the Sheikh insisted that they were a part of his “flock.” The British insisted otherwise, and carved out a new jurisdictional arrangement for them as “foreigners.”

As for the migrants themselves, we should probably view them as people who got caught up in a reordering of space by legal regimes. In my dissertation I talk about the importance of individual bodies for states defining their territory. Iranians themselves were made to represent the border when the Iranian government used their large numbers in Bahrain to prove its claim to the island. This claim actually showed a particular detachment from reality as most of the “Iranians” had only arrived in the twentieth century. The legal distinction really turned the Iranians into a separate community of outsiders in a way that they had not been previously. For example, several migrants from Iran in the nineteenth century who had become important merchants by the twentieth century were considered to be Bahraini and subject to Bahraini courts. New migrants, meanwhile, were frozen in their legal identity as foreigners.

‘Koweit: Customs House’ [‎18-a] (1/1), British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers,Photo 496/6/35, in Qatar Digital Library.
Many of the migrants had come from areas of Iran that were relatively autonomous. Before leaving Iran they may not have considered themselves to be particularly Iranian, but rather associated with a more local identity. However, after migrating this certainly changed due to both Iran and Bahrain emphasizing their belonging to Iran. Some people of economic means happily accepted this label, particularly as Iran increasingly looked like the future of the region, pushing a program of modernization. Many were proud to be associated with that movement.

5- I want to move forward to talk about how you studied this region – you researched across multiple countries and went to numerous archives to procure sources for your research. You used a lot of court cases in your dissertation – how did official institutions shape identities and shape relationships at this period?

The majority of the work on the modern history of the Gulf relies heavily on British imperial records. While there are some excellent books that have been written with these sources, I wanted to write a different kind of story that wove together local perspectives with British imperial and Iranian central state perspectives. Continually reading these three against one another really opened up and connected pieces of history that had been broken apart.

I will give one example that answers some of the second part of your question. In a number of private collections in Kuwait, I found that people had a variety of papers that they referred to as “‘ilm o khabar,” although no one knew where the name came from. Though these papers were all permissions to travel of some sort, their format varied from personal letters from the Sheikh to official British-issued printed forms with pictures to small ticket-like papers. I had also read about Iranians issuing ‘ilm o khabars in the British archive. But it wasn’t until my research in Iran that I understood the origin of this term. Around 1910 the Iran central government began issuing these ‘ilm o khabars for travel between Iranian ports of the Gulf. One Iranian report mentioned that this was “be taqlid-e Osmani-ha” (in copying the Ottomans), although their purpose was more similar to the Ottoman mürur tezkeresi than the ilm ve haber documents. Consulting the Iranian archives, I realized that tens of thousands of these documents had been in circulation between roughly 1910-1930, and were probably the first traveling passes that people in the region came into contact with. Hence, “‘ilm o khabar” became a generic term for all traveling passes subsequently issued by various authorities.

Example of an “ilm-o-khabar.”

Traveling passes are really the first way that many people have to think about their belonging to the issuing authority. While they weren’t proof of citizenship in the same way that today’s passports are, the person taking out the pass was often mentioned as a “subject of” a particular place or sheikh. Of course many people traveled without these passes, but everyone was aware of their existence and that they might be required to produce one if stopped by border patrols.  

The way that the law came to determine who belonged in what spaces went a long way in shaping identities long before other influences like literature and schooling. As a tool used by states establishing territorialized sovereignty, law was at the front lines of establishing communities of belonging.

6- One institution in particular, the Persian schools on the “Arab side” of the Gulf – seemed particularly important for fostering an identity. Can you tell us more about these schools and their ties back to Iran?

This is a topic that I am currently researching, so the full picture has not yet emerged. There were what were referred to as “‘Ajam schools” in Kuwait and Bahrain prior to the 1930s. However the schools have a different historical trajectory. The one in Bahrain opened early in the twentieth century in line with the discourse on modern education circulating in the Indian Ocean and the Muslim world more generally. This school was eventually realigned with the nationalist-modernist schooling program in Iran and became a site of the promotion of Iranian nationalism in Bahrain. In Kuwait the school began with support of the Iranian government, opening around 1926. However in Kuwait the school was at least initially seen as more of a site of modern education than Iranian nationalism, as a number of children from prominent Arab families attended the school’s English and math classes.

7- Your work also challenges popular notions about the importance of large port cities. What is the role of small coastal towns in the story of the reorganization of space that you tell?

While going through court records and testimonies of Iranian migrants in Bahrain between 1920-1940, I noticed a pattern emerging. Of those who mentioned their travel, they overwhelmingly came without traveling passes by way of small boats from towns on the central Iranian coast and landed somewhere on the outskirts of the major Arab port towns. This decentralized route allowed them and the goods they carried with to cross the water undetected. While we tend to think of traveling passes and customs taxes as ways of regulating and restricting the movement of people and goods, regulation could only occur at large ports with customs administrations and infrastructure to do so. As local movement began to circumvent the larger ports, relationships between spaces were rearranged.

For example, in the nineteenth century Bandar Lingeh was the major distribution center for the central Iranian coast and Larestan. However, with the imposition of new taxes at major Iranian ports around the turn of the twentieth century, this role shifted to Dubai. Bulk goods began being landed at Dubai, broken down, and shipped in small boats across the Gulf to small towns, and then taken into the interior. This began a much more intense, daily level of connectivity between the western shores and areas in the interior of Iran like Bastak and Khonj. By the late 1920s and 1930s these established trade routes had become migration routes as tens of thousands of people left for the opposite shores.

8- These historical narratives, are, of course, not static, and you’ve examined new digital media – including Instagram accounts – as makeshift digital archives that provide a specific narrative for their audiences. Can you tell us more about how the democratization of internet access has led to a reification of particular histories?

Instagram has been the primary site in Kuwait for individuals’ showcasing of their private collections. There is an entire “history market” as I have called it in previous presentations on this issue, and there are hundreds if not thousands of people purchasing historical documents on a daily basis. These documents range from contracts, to receipt books, to old wedding invitations. Interestingly, in many ways these documents have been used by many families to prove their longstanding presence in and ties to Kuwait, which suggests that belonging is a recurring theme in society. Particularly since the Iranian Revolution, and the circulation of the fear that Iran would try to claim the small Arab Gulf states, the “‘Ajam” (Kuwaitis of Iranian origin), and more specifically the ‘Ajam Shi’a have had their loyalty called into question. Displaying old ties to Kuwait is their way of demonstrating that Kuwait is their home. Although this is mostly constructed on a family and not communal basis, there have been some attempts to vouch for the Shi’a as a loyal community.      

Instagram user @alialrais is one such example of an account where historical documents are curated for a Kuwaiti audience.


In Bahrain there has been more emphasis on nostalgia for the built environment of the early twentieth centuries. On the accounts of Bahraini historians and architects you find old images of merchants houses juxtaposed with their current state. As opposed to Kuwait city where the old town was destroyed to make way for new, modern buildings, in Bahrain more remains from the pre-oil history, but has been ignored. There is definitely a push through various social media for young Bahrainis to come back to these spaces and reconnect with their cosmopolitan history.



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