Making Space for the Gulf
Histories of Regionalism and the Middle East
Arang Keshavarzian




MODERN CARTOGRAPHY DEPICTS the Persian Gulf as a two-dimensional space, an indigo oval surrounded by land on three sides (see Image 3). It is roughly the size of the United Kingdom or Uganda or the US state of Indiana, 1,000 kilometers at its longest. It opens to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean through the mere sliver of the Strait of Hormuz. This satellite’s-eye view of the sea encourages us to apprehend the waterway and its environs as an undifferentiated place, smooth except for the ribbonlike coastline almost perfectly encircling the sea. Despite the fixed, ahistorical picture that maps give us, land erosion and the silting of riverbeds reveal the impermanence of geography. The Gulf’s northwestern terminus is a good example of this with the marshes and mudflats of the al-Faw Peninsula, created by the confluence of the fabled Tigris and Euphrates rivers, making for unstable terrain and a treacherous river route. Although changes to the landscape are not what most consider when they think of turbulence in the Gulf, the shifting ecology has posed serious obstacles to people and ways of life in the estuaries that make up the borderlands of Iraq and Iran as well as far-off urban centers assaulted by the increasingly habitual dust storms.

As is more widely known, it is the Gulf’s political meanings that are contested, with antagonists using nomenclature to argue over it. In this perennial battle, simply uttering its name can raise temperatures in a conference hall or generate endless social media indignation. By calling it the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Gulf, or using the pragmatic dodge of “the Gulf,” citizens, scholars, and nationalists convey and claim different histories, identities, and alliances.1 States take part in these naming duels by affixing their preference to currency, stamps, and textbooks to stoke and deflect nationalist fervor. Kuwait’s coastal road is named the Arabian Gulf Highway, while the Persian Gulf Highway wends its way from Tehran down the center of the Iranian plateau. In 2014, when the UAE named its soccer league after the Arabian Gulf, Iran’s football federation blocked one of its best players from joining an Emeriti team and renamed its own competition the Persian Gulf League. These fracases are the product of contemporary geopolitics, nationalist zeal (and fragility), sectarian strife, and the polemical nature of discourse in the age of the internet. For diasporic communities, most of whom have never set foot in its tepid waters, debating the Gulf’s national features is also a means to participate in “long-distance nationalism,” a common mode of imagining political community.2

IMAGE 3: NASA Satellite photo of the Persian Gulf, November 28, 2007.

These claims have histories. The push and pull of the “Arabian Gulf” can be traced back to the 1950s when it was increasingly adopted by Arab nationalists and leftists. Naming it the “Arabian Gulf” was as much a challenge to British colonialism as it was a critique of Iranian chauvinism and hegemonic posturing. Except for Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the rest of the peninsula was made up of British-protected states until 1971. Taken up by Egyptians, Iraqis, and others, the term “Arabian Gulf” denounced Pahlavi Iran’s alliance with Western powers as well as Gulf Arab shaykhs’ collaboration with empire and their unwillingness to join the reawakened Arab nation. More than simply a matter of naming and identity, the desire for Arab solidarity that was conveyed in the term Arabian Gulf extended to demands for redistributing revenues earned from subsoil treasures, or “Arab oil,” crude oil being yet another slow-forming substance that has taken on an ahistorical sheen.

This Arab-Iranian and intra-Arab rivalry was in part a contest between sympathizers and detractors of European imperialism. While Iranian officials expressed concern in the 1920s that their Gulf had become a “British Lake,”3 a Lebanese-American political activist with Pan-Arabist sympathies, having traveled to the Arabian Peninsula, concluded, “The Gulf should be renamed: it is neither Persian nor Arabian, it is British.”4 Several decades later, a historian of modern South Asia extended “the British Lake” so far as to envelop the entire Indian Ocean and the “wide arc of territories” built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5 Yet amidst this desire to valorize the Gulf’s importance for Empire was the quip made by the British foreign minister that George Curzon, champion of British imperial expansion into the Gulf, was “prancing around the Persian Puddle.”6 Characterizing that body of water as a mere puddle would probably annoy Arabs and Iranians no end, but it was meant as a jab at those in London and Calcutta who advocated folding the waterway and its coasts into its imperial project. For many decades now, naming the Persian Gulf has not been politically neutral. Few can imagine an innocent discourse about the Gulf.

Not all attempts at claiming the Gulf have been through naming. “The American Gulf” is rarely evoked, even after decades of continued US military presence in the Gulf or just “over the horizon” stationed in bases in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, or the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite the term never gaining traction, the Gulf has been vital in the plans and mental maps of US policymakers and strategists since at least World War II. In 1981 Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger told Congress that it was “the umbilical cord of the industrial free world.”7 Whatever the preferred nomenclature, the Gulf has emerged as a contested site caught up in the colliding currents of the past century and a half.

Despite the different ways that the Gulf was depicted by powerful forces—as the domain of Persians, Arabs, Americans, or the British or a puddle of an umbilical cord—they all imply that it is a bounded, immutable body that can be encompassed as a single geographic scale. It is defined either as a national space and an extricable rooted in the Persian or Arab nation or as a place of imperial domination on a geographic scale “above” or “beyond” the national. Out of various geographic imaginaries and imaginative geographies,8 the Gulf has been construed as being unstable, cosmopolitan, or pivotal for British Empire, for national self-determination, or for global capitalism. When people argue that the Gulf should be contained, secured, stabilized, or held in the bosom of a single nation or a part of the free world, they are building this on a host of assumptions about geography, society, and power.

The Persian Gulf is treated as a world region because these prevailing representations of the Gulf insinuate that whoever has the upper hand over this quasi-inland sea has access to and dominance over its littoral, the surrounding hinterlands, and a significant part of the globe. By the time US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger addressed the Congress, the stakes had swelled to encompass “the industrialized free world” or what today would be called “the global economy.”9 Attempts to define the Gulf as a region are linked to different hegemonic aspirations; they evoke and promote visions for what the Gulf should become and who should control it. Debates about who should or does control the Gulf typically also rest on the premise that it has a timeless essence or else a seamless linear trajectory from a local body of water to a British lake to a US-protected global lifeline. If empires and global hegemons conceive of history as a calling to fulfill their Great Power destiny, for Persian and Arab nationalists history is something to purify or escape.

Battles over the proprietorship of the Persian Gulf index a particular understanding of space, scale, and time. These contests mobilize a view of space as fixed, homogenous, and existing primordially or prior to human action. As the influential Dutch-born émigré geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman concluded in 1938, “Geography does not argue; it just is.”10 This abstract view of space, one that strips it from social complexity, symbolism, and multiplicity, has been buttressed by modern cartography and aerial views that make territory more quantifiable and concrete. It obscures societies living in the Gulf, placing them behind a veil of mathematical calculations that determine with precision the measurement of the land and the sea. It also owes much to classical geopolitics or the nineteenth-century study of relations between nation-states struggling to survive with different geographic endowments.11 Within their claim to being “scientific,” geopolitical thinkers take geography for granted, with the analyst as occupying the detached “god’s eye” view of “the world.”12

The Gulf is abstracted as a frictionless surface easily traversed or a unified territorial object ready to be enclosed and captured, a compelling expression of what Henri Lefebvre described as “Space . . . becoming the principal stake of goal-directed actions and struggles.”13 Such a formulation encourages a view of the Strait of Hormuz as a chokepoint rather than a gateway and its shoals as a barrier rather than a porous membrane. Thinking about the waterway in this fashion “evokes the image of something physical and external to social context and to social action, a part of the ‘environment,’ a context for society—its container—rather than a structure created by society.”14 The Persian Gulf region is a two-dimensional plane emptied of people.

Practitioners and observers have come to know and grasp the Gulf as a region—a single bounded object and one of the homogenous parts of the globe. In the rush to devise ways to project power or bring stability, left unasked are questions about how and why this body of water and its abutting lands have been regionalized in the many ways that it has, through concrete social relations and abstract representations. And what these region-makings (and un-makings) tell us about the world. In raising those questions, many apparent contradictions in the representations and realities of the Gulf appear. It is depicted as a regional whole but also fractured and deeply divided politically. Many represent the Gulf as an encased territorial unit, even though it is indispensable for transregional circulations. How the Gulf is defined—whether as a region, a “world region,” a gateway, a transnational contact zone—by policymakers, urban planners, migrants, university deans, and patrons of think tanks matters to how wars are fought, how citizens and immigrants live, how faculty are hired, how political issues are defined as problems or solutions. To disrupt the essentialized, closed, and abstracted representations of the Gulf requires alternative conceptual tools and ways of writing about space and time that make change and contestation visible in all their complexity.


Making Space for the Gulf tunnels underneath these naturalized understandings of the Persian Gulf region as a location on maps or an abstract enclosure. I examine processes of region-making, or what I term regionalization, as they have unfolded from the mid-1800s to the present. I call for unmooring our perspective away from the position of a detached observer strategizing for territorial control or national honor and instead surveil the many investments in space necessary to sustain political power and capitalist accumulation or navigate struggles for upward mobility. By tracing how the littoral societies of the Persian Gulf were bound up with far-flung places via sea-lanes and credit lines, I document how they were gradually and unevenly integrated into and left their mark on the circuits of international capital and the designs of geopolitical strategists. The Gulf then comes into view as a mutable, created space that does not exist as a passive stage but is assembled out of human actions and relations as well as being constitutive of struggles. The societies of the Persian Gulf were not a backwater or latecomer but a site for purposive participation in the making of global capitalism. Spatial politics of the Persian Gulf are not a competition over a single object but a feature of layered and multiple, sometimes incommensurable, regional formations. The textured topography of the Persian Gulf has been overlain by histories of region-making and unmaking. I show the fault lines of Gulf geography were the outcome rather than the determinant of politics. Methodologically, the Persian Gulf does not function as a divide but rather a kaleidoscopic lens allowing us to view more than the sum of its parts; a social space and a world of a region.

Conventional understandings of the Persian Gulf as a “region” evoke a sense of a place that has unity and an interior logic, making it one of several key regions that make up the modern world.15 Certain images of “the Gulf” depict it as embodying specific cultural and environmental characteristics. Other representations portray it as a coveted destination for investment, migration, or military command. Politically, these depictions of the Persian Gulf as a world region paved the way for it to be possessed, monitored, and compared with other regions. They underwrote a maelstrom of collective or individual projects: British colonial presence in the Gulf through 1971; the massive investments on behalf of US policymakers and private firms since World War II; migrating laborers and businessmen casting around for fortune on one coast or another; political mobilizations in the name of decolonization and internationalism; the jockeying for regional dominance by Iranian, Iraqi, and Saudi Arabian rulers even as their critics accuse them of being “sub-imperial” clients or traitors to the cause or of national self-determination.

These standard narratives of the region comprise a common contradiction, namely insisting on the Gulf as a regional whole and uniform space that can and should be secured, contained, and filled, while treating the waterway as either a transportation artery or boundary between empires, states, Muslim sects, and alliance blocs. It is in this manner that the Persian Gulf region has taken on coherence in our consciousness but has also been continuously treated as vulnerable and unbridgeable. Some of the best works on the topic highlight this in their titles, such as Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era; Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf; and The Unstable Gulf: Threats from Within.16 In these and other works, the focus is on the Gulf’s “security architecture,” identifying how “security dilemmas” unleash vicious dynamics between rival states. Political maneuvers take place in, on, and over the Gulf, but the region itself is an empty chasm between peoples or states.

The ambiguity of regionalism is often deployed strategically. Invoking this tension between, on the one hand, the wholeness and fragmented nature of the Gulf or, on the other hand, its appearance as a fixed container or a fluid channel can be used for one project or another. Similarly, countries such as Iran and Iraq can drop in and out of “the Gulf” depending on balance of power considerations. The Gulf can have clear boundaries defining what is inside or outside of it, but it also can be viewed as open to the world. The ambivalent nature of the Gulf as a region is reflected in its being imagined as an imperial, national, or energy frontier as well as a boundary, zone, and circulatory pathway. Often these portrayals occur in the same breath as much as in the same instance from different vantage points. In the mid-twentieth century, as the US government sought to organize the region in Cold War terms, increases in oil revenues increased the stakes for rulers, Fortune 500 firms, central banks, and foreign policymakers alike. But alongside this a blend of dreams and debts have compelled people to search for work in the Gulf. Responding to the growing demand for labor of all sorts, the scale of labor recruitment to the Gulf multiplied as “Gulf-goers” (khaleej boro) followed historic pathways to its shores.17 But so did workers channeled by recruiters in “sending nations” and subcontractors in the “receiving countries.”

With this multiplicity in mind, we must think of the Gulf as a shared space and explore what is socially constructed within the seeming contradictions of the Gulf. The plasticity and ambiguities of the Gulf cannot be sorted out because states, firms, travelers, and others are committed to not settling on a single definition. The frictions cannot always be smoothed out, and uncertainties are often manipulated in the process of defining the nation, maintaining public support, extracting surplus, silencing critics, justifying foreign policy, and tolerating dire work conditions.

By recalibrating our lens on social arrangements involved in producing the Gulf, we treat it not as “a formless void between societies but rather a unique and specifically constricted space within societies.”18 The chapters ahead bring to the fore the interactions of seafarers, migrant workers, rulers, smugglers, engineers, urban planners, pilgrims, tourists, and investors. Through their labors, speculations, and plans over the past century, they conquered distance, leaving in their wake a well-trodden, uneven terrain connected to an array of places and practices. We will scrutinize why the Persian Gulf has been such a fraught space for so many decades. The Gulf region is a locus and outcome of politics, a contested arena, and the object of imperial ambitions, national antagonisms, and migratory dreams. By “fraught” I do not mean wrangling over who is its rightful proprietor or litigating a “stable” or “true” meaning of the Gulf. Instead, this book contends that the roots of these clashes lie in the competing ways that the Gulf has been regionalized through concrete social relations and abstract, but interest-laden, representations.

Building on a tradition that conceives of space relationally, this book treats geography—like region—as the product of histories of struggle over administering spaces, regulating movements, and inhabiting places.19 These histories involve technological innovations (such as steam engines) alongside social processes (including privatization of communal land, colonial governance, or citizenship regimes) to map how society shapes space and vice versa. This relational approach expands our analytical purview to explore what sorts of regionalization have unfolded in the past century. Relational theories of space have helped explain why capitalism repeatedly addresses crises of wealth accumulation by moving from one place to another to address shortfalls in profit; these “spatial fixes” are responses to declines in profitability as well as investments in particular locations, a set of spatial processes that we register as gentrification, rust belts, company towns, offshoring, and infrastructural hubs.20 The combination of fixed investment and mobile capital generates conflicts and implies that places must continually adapt to conditions that are beyond their borders and hence out of their control. Thus, space is not just the built environment or piece of territory but a source of revenue, an object of consumption, an object of political struggle, and an instrument of state control.

By situating the Persian Gulf within processes that extend well beyond its borders, these familiar depictions of the region recede—of it being peripheral to world history, an endemic zone of conflict, an energy depot for expanding industrial capitalism elsewhere, or a bastion of traditional tribalism and petro-monarchies. What comes into view is the gamut of forces that have constituted the Persian Gulf as a spatial effect of political struggles across multiple scales. This includes geopolitical, imperial, and interstate rivalries, but equally decades-long negotiations between rulers and merchant capitalists or battles between labor recruiters seeking to turn displaced agriculturalists into oil workers and pearl divers into “migrant” laborers.

The field that has come to be known as critical geopolitics picks up these themes and telescopes them onto international relations.21 More an approach than a theory, critical geopolitics emerged in the late Cold War to explore the spatial structure of political thought, particularly in security studies and popular foreign policy discourses. Drawing on poststructural, Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial works, this scholarship reads discourses closely to investigate the assumptions about geography, power, and society that go into defining world politics. Assumptions about states or civilizations as the units of politics are questioned, as are treatments of geography as a preexisting set of facts and essentializing ideas about race and culture. Critical geopolitics has illustrated that thinkers and practitioners tend to simplify the intricacies of society and neutralize the politics of space. This approach recognizes that classical geopolitics and early international relations theory were collectively a byproduct and legitimator of imperialism, challenging nationalist and state-centered conceptions of space and time—or methodological nationalism. Scholars in this field de-essentialize spatial politics by exploring the constructed and contested nature of nations, states, and borders. My own approach builds on these insights by pushing back on the tendency to focus on the North Atlantic world and the representational strategies encoded in texts. An examination of the making and remaking of the Persian Gulf in the past century challenges critical accounts to grapple with political economies in sites of imperial rivalry and rule.

If regions are never hermetically sealed, then the challenge is to trace vectors of social relations across space and through a thicket of porous borders. Social encounters and space are brought together as a “power geometry” in which discrete places are tethered to one another in highly unequal ways.22 I analyze the Gulf as an uneven and differentiated region, a process that takes into account places that are ordinarily left in the shadows, skipped over by capital and overlooked or held at bay by political authorities.23 While networks may facilitate movement, the way they coalesce into nodes generates friction, meaning that geography continues to matter despite the prevalence of “flows” and fantasies of a world flattened by globalization. To capture these fluctuating vectors of mobility, I attend to (1) boundaries and bordering practices that regulate motion and situate (or emplace) people and things hierarchically; (2) differential experiences of the Gulf—including its relationships to empire, globalization, capitalism, and the nation—depending on where actors are situated physically and socially; and (3) historical events and outside forces that affect locations and polities in the Gulf differently. I insist on approaching the Gulf as a region that fluctuates over time and depending on where one stands.

Geographic scales should also be thought of relationally.24 Regions are extroverted spatial instantiations of accumulating wealth and control that depend as much on what happens “outside” of them as “inside” their borders. One implication is that the regional scale is yoked into other scales rather than being positioned as one of several self-contained units hierarchically ordered from the global down to the national and local. The regional is jointly formed and co-constituted with the urban, the national, the international, and the global. This is what I mean by a multiscalar approach to regionalization.

In doing so we disrupt notions of scales as mutually exclusive and neatly clustered hierarchies. Geographical scales are commonly imagined as objects nestled like Russian matryoshka dolls with “the global” encasing “the regional,” which in turn covers “the national,” “the urban,” and “the local.” The theoretical implication is that these hierarchically ordered scales are autonomous from each other, with some form of control running up and down different levels with the global being superior to or dominating the local, for example. That the regionalization of the Gulf is an accumulation of spatialized relations and strategies moves us toward a multiscalar perspective, rather than one that treats them as bordered spaces. By “multiscalar” I do not simply mean that we should examine phenomena and events from the vantage point of several scales; I mean that these distinct scales are “interdependent and intermingled” accretions.25 As Ayşe Çağlar and Nina Glick Schiller aptly describe it, the multiscalar is “an understanding of scales as locally, regionally, nationally, and globally mutually constituted, relational, and interpenetrating entry points.”26 This enables us to glean how the Persian Gulf is situated in relation to various scaled political economic projects across the Long Twentieth Century. The Gulf’s regionalisms are not restricted or bound only to the regional scale—either in their origins or their expression. The histories of the Gulf’s regionalization do not happen as part of the Middle East or “in” it, but because they are connected to and in dialogue with the continual remaking of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf becomes a place to explore the Middle East and other scales.

To argue that scales are co-produced and to study the regionalization of the Persian Gulf as multiscalar does not, however, mean that scales are meaningless or can and should be collapsed into one another. If spatial relations should begin with social relations, then the distance over which they operate matters. Each geographical scale has its own organizations, rules, and decision-makers that cohere in and sustain specific territorial formations. Making Space for the Gulf claims that the multiple genealogies of the Gulf region happen differently and in consort with the making of empires, nation-states, cities, free trade zones, international regimes, and categories of citizenship.

In short, regionalizations are aspirations to create homogeneous geographic units, but like so many ambitions they are prone to frustration and incompleteness. Yawning gaps exist between geographic imaginaries and realities. It was hypothetical enough for different actors to project their hopes and anxieties onto it, What we have today is a consequence of decades of these colliding and collaborating attempts to create the Gulf as an abstract and homogeneous geographic unit or tightly bound international regime of nation-states, on the one hand, or a global seam for circulation or hierarchically order urban space, on the other. These very attempts at ordering Gulf space into an abstraction invariably entail differentiating between insides and outsides, allies and enemies. Coordinates on a map are turned into meaningful locale and distance into relationality by such forces that valorize and give meaning to only parts of the Gulf. The fragmentation and splintering that accompany the ordering of the Gulf region have cleaved people and places apart and rest on political alliances that do not comport with the reified depiction of a region as static staging ground or a geography that “does not argue.”


This relational approach to regionalization offers a new account of the Persian Gulf that brings together in the same frame what is held apart in popular understanding and existing scholarly treatments. Each chapter ties places in Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula together through narratives and by historicizing moments often treated as ruptures—the discovery of oil, the Iranian Revolution, or the rise and decline of the British Empire. With a mixture of comparisons and connected histories, this framework enables narratives to be populated by a more diverse range of social actors—humble migrants and ruling families, pearl divers and star architects, striking taxi drivers and dethroned rulers, protectors of British India and stewards of globalized American universities. In doing this I braid together specialist literatures on the political economy of oil, late British imperialism, US hegemony and primacism, Iranian studies, Gulf studies, and global cities while making use of largely unnoticed research and primary sources.

Narrating the modern Persian Gulf as a region encompassing the Iranian and Iraqi societies confronts a tsunami of knowledge production about what is usually conceived of as a narrower and more impermeable Gulf. For much of the past four decades, Iran and Iraq have been treated as the constitutive outside of “the Gulf” or as forces disrupting regional order. Until the 1980s, it was common to find English-language books and conferences on the Persian Gulf including papers on Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and beyond.27 But with the 1981 founding of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (usually referred to simply as the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC), the Tanker War at the end of the decade, and the first Gulf War (1990–91), academic and public discourse oscillated and turned the waterway into a separating expanse. This was manifest when the late Shaykh Issa of Bahrain told a vice admiral of the US Navy: “Your men and women, the ships and aircraft of the Fifth Fleet, are a mountain of fire that separates us from the Iranians and the presence of naval forces is what has given us peace and prosperity.”28 He was pointing specifically to the US military’s role in the Gulf in the 1980s, but his comments can be extended to the broader maelstrom of actors that has rendered the Gulf “a mountain of fire” between places, peoples, and polities. In this rendering, on one side are Bahrain, the rest of the GCC states, and the United States as their protector, and on the outside are Iran and Iraq and other forces destabilizing the Gulf. Considerable intellectual labor and material investments have been dedicated to portraying the waters of the Persian Gulf as a boundary and aligning military, academic, media, and cultural institutions to represent it this way. Think tanks have been founded, university chairs endowed, annual conferences held, and junkets for journalists and celebrities organized as part of branding campaigns marketing the Gulf as global, tolerant, futuristic, and full of possibility. Replacing “the territorial trap” of nation-states is a naturalized regionalism or methodological regionalism in which “the Gulf” is a ready-made entity.29

The consensus within what is now described as Gulf Studies in contemporary Anglo-American scholarly and policy orbits is more or less committed to this formulation. Another scholar critical of this representational narrowing is Sheila Carapico who has illustrated how twenty-first-century Gulf Studies in the United States has reduced what used to be “Arabia” or the study of the entire Arabian Peninsula to a focus on a narrow set of questions related to the lands north of the Tropic of Cancer. This erases Yemen from analysis and replaces it with a focus on the GCC. Analytical “centers” and “peripheries” that are subjective constructions have been naturalized as empirical realities in realpolitik conceptions about oil and logistics. Categories typical in political science have the same effect by labeling complex social assemblages and diverse polities with static terms such as the Gulf monarchies, oil monarchies, rentier states, or simply Gulf States.30 These discourses are institutionalized through scholarly journals, academic organizations, and university curricula, dovetailing into overly rehearsed debates about the name of the Gulf, geopolitical alignments, and typologies of politics based on nation-states. Carapico incisively concludes, “The Gulf is where American interests lie,” and calls for the disruption of what counts as the field of Gulf Studies by opening up research horizons to a wider array of actors, temporalities, and concepts.31

Informed by this critical epistemological stand, I not only analyze the Iranian and Iraqi littorals alongside of and in dialogue with eastern Arabia but also consider the Persian Gulf in the fashion that Sunil Amrith approaches the Bay of Bengal, as “linked by journeys, memories, and the sinews of power . . . [so that] we can see beyond the borders of today’s nation-states, beyond the borders imposed by imperial mapmakers and immigration officials, to a more fluid, more uncertain world: a world that resembles our own.”32 In this pursuit, my research is based on a mix of field and archival research and marshaling emerging, yet still disparate, secondary literatures that write about the Gulf region as straddling our conventional “area studies” units.33 This work and others have illustrated that the societies of the Gulf are not mere products of modernity but participants in its making even if via noncapitalist modes of production that are sometimes brought forward by capitalism.34 Working with new archives and posing new questions about individual countries, cities, or topics, these writers examine a range of geographies, worldwide processes, and historical junctures.

Once we approach the Persian Gulf as a product of relationships, we can unearth alternative regionalizations across a more expansive historical canvas. The Persian Gulf went from the periphery of empire to a frontier of capitalism; from a threshold between nation-states to a central seam of globalization. This is the historical sweep that the book reconstructs, through narratives that maintain an open sense of place, allowing for what Doreen Massey calls “the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing.”35


Mirroring its subject matter, the chapters of Making Space for the Gulf have a spatial structure. To push against a teleological rendering of how the Persian Gulf was made into an abstract region, I have written the book as a set of interlaced analytical histories. The chapters connect and counterpose regional projects that have their own histories and intersect with other processes, including imperialism (chapter 2), nation-state formation (chapter 3), “globalizing” capitalism (chapter 4), and urbanization (chapter 5). The book’s structure emerges almost organically from a framework that holds that meanings and historical processes change depending on the geographic scale. To maintain a relational approach to space, these chapters are built like a kaleidoscope, revealing different features as we realign the angles of our prism. Individually, each chapter is a portal, demonstrating the interconnections between regionalization and other patterns of scale-making and spatialized politics.

This organization helps us see the history of the Gulf recursively. Historical episodes such as the making of modern absolutism and the founding of oil sectors appear in more than one chapter but look different in light of the geographic scale and specific actors that are foregrounded. Across these chapters, I necessarily examine certain issues in detail and neglect others altogether. By layering the chapters in this fashion, we more vividly notice the simultaneity of spatial politics and the sedimented manner in which the Gulf was regionalized. “No space ever vanishes utterly, leaving no trace,” comments Lefebvre.36 The metaphor of sediments captures the gradual building up of the Gulf into a differentiated region with the past submerged but not dissolved. An example of this is how British colonial administration, commercial activities, and extractive economies (selling dates, pearls, and oil, for example) were dependent on these preexisting translocal mercantile families, labor bondage, and racialized hierarchies. British and then US policymakers at once condemned and upheld views of the “tribal” and “primitive” nature of the region. Tribes were a source of backwardness, inefficiency, and political instability that required western disciplining, while shaykhs and traditional practices were cost-effective instruments by which to rule and extract resources from a distance. Events of the past and historical dynamics reappear later memorialized in heritage sites or ingredients of national myths as they are called on to mark national belonging and “un-belonging.”37 Chronological junctures are less unforgiving that some histories claim. Also, the narratives that follow are alive to the many temporalities at play—from geological time associated with crude oil, to seasonal patterns of debt and labor, to the acceleration involved in containerization and the logistics operations. Just as I interpret regionalization as a spatial accumulation, so time features similarly as cumulative and as spiraling. Thinking in terms of accretion and erosion disrupts typical conceptualizations of time as either cyclical or linear, progressing from one period to another.38 By adopting this narrative structure, I am consciously encouraging the reader to think with me nonchronologically and recursively. What are too readily viewed as inevitable or natural, wars and definitions of belonging for instance, become puzzling products needing to be deciphered anew. My narrative about the Gulf’s region-making works dialogically through multiple scales as the chapters fold onto themselves to braid space and time together.

On the cusp of the nineteenth century, the waters of the Persian Gulf were a social bridge, not the political boundary it would come to be seen as. Chapter 1 demonstrates this by describing the environmental, socioeconomic, and political conditions of the Persian Gulf prior to the advent of industrial capitalism and the breakdown of the land-based Qajar and Ottoman empires. Maritime life and labor fashioned a densely knotted society enveloping the southern reaches to the Iranian Plateau, the Arabian Peninsula, and eastern Africa, enjoying inroads into large sections of the Indian subcontinent.39

This synthetic history, built on a host of works on specific towns, commodities, empires, and companies, paints a picture of an oceanic world that is spatially expansive and socially interdependent. It foregrounds the ecological conditions and social relations—in particular, around pearling and long-distance trade—that were disrupted by subsequent modes of regionalization. These sea-facing peoples who appear in Chapter 1 recognized the Gulf’s waters as having a multitude of functions with people bound together through necessity and obligation but also coercion and exploitation. Ports, wind-powered vessels, caravan routes, kinship ties, and credit lines worked like hubs and spokes to establish intimate and long-distance relations, often across several generations. Despite the waterway being central to the people living there, from the vantage point of competing land-based empires of the time, the Gulf was a frontier where authorities overlapped and ebbed and flowed.

Chapter 2 examines how this unbounded arena of mobility and cross-fertilization became both valuable to and a challenge for the British Empire and then US-centered capitalism. The geopoliticized conception of the Persian Gulf that continues to haunt discussion of the region today emerged in the late nineteenth century. Geopolitical imaginaries and new technologies were marshaled to fashion the Gulf into an enclosed space. Geographically inflected imperial strategists and capitalist investors in infrastructures directly intervened to access valuable assets in an “empty” terrain protected from “outsiders.” In the process they differentiated between friends and foes, drew boundaries, and defined territories and their rulers. As such, this geopoliticized Gulf was the product of new territorialities or political projects that defined spaces in order to organize it through inclusion and exclusion.40

Focusing on two eras of geopolitical region-making, this chapter explores the establishment of geopolitical imaginaries over time and opposition and obstacles they generated. In the first era in the quarter century before World War I, geopolitical thinkers (such as Halford Mackinder) and colonial officials (including Lord Curzon) were becoming concerned with maintaining control over British India in the face of brewing challenges to the British Empire. Championing empire in the face of resistance and competition in the colonies and criticism at home, classical geopolitics combined with the growing capital investments in fixed assets and the new cartographic technologies to demarcate and represent the Gulf as a defined territorial space between the Raj and London. Nearly a century later, US officials were depicting the Gulf as a central pivot of global power, a process crystallized in the 1980 Carter Doctrine. Despite a number of crucial differences between these two historical moments, policymakers convinced themselves and others that the Gulf was an abstract geometric zone demanding intervention and incorporation to counteract its inherent instability and to address crises of capitalism.

Chapter 3 illustrates how rulers and aspiring state-builders made the Gulf their own by parsing it into national spaces and articulating specific conceptions of sovereignty. It explores the concrete ways that extractive capitalism and empire—and resistance to both—were catalysts for state formation on the shores of the Gulf. By juxtaposing the histories of state-formation in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and the British-protected sheikhdoms of Arabia in the first half of the twentieth century, we see how nation-states are co-constituted along with regions and imperial praxis.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, imperialism was reinvented as internationalism. Despite the continuing hierarchies of power, internationalists envisioned a world project based on juridically equal, nominally independent states represented in new international institutions, such as treaties and the League of Nations. Within this framework colonial officers, oil firms, local business interests, and ruling shaykhs and shahs forged a Gulf region of sovereign territorial states. However, sovereignty did not translate into governance by the citizens. Instead, treaty arrangements divided authority between British colonial officers and Gulf rulers, who in some cases were “protected” by Britain. Whether shaykhs, shahs, or prime ministers, these internationally recognized executives positioned themselves as trustees of a society that they kept at arm’s length. Like so many other parts of the world, decolonization of the Gulf was hollowed out by handcuffing self-government to British tutelage and preserving the sanctity of contracts held by western companies, giving them privileged access to resources and markets. These unaccountable executives woven into the fabric of the geopolitical conception of the Gulf generated resistance with political movements targeting this impoverished sovereignty and demanding self-determination.

The coupling of territory and sovereignty explored in chapters 2 and 3 did not end with the founding of sovereign nation-states. Spatial politics found new expression in supra-national imaginaries and sub-national scales. Chapter 4 unearths the political economies of two early articulations of footloose capitalism and global neoliberalism in the free trade zones of Iran’s Kish Island and Dubai’s Jebel Ali, both founded in the 1970s. I show how states and corporations collaborated to construct Kish and Jebel Ali to connect the emerging global factory centered in East Asia to far-flung consumers on many continents. These two zones in the Gulf were part of the logistical revolution of the past half century, in which “corridors and gateways” or “pipelines of trade” were requisites for a frictionless economy of just-in-time production and globalized supply chains.41 These juridical-spatial enclaves, which freed capital from a slew of national laws, combined with innovations in shipping to create new monopolies. The result was the splintering the Gulf into distinct but related regional and global channels.

Sovereignty was reworked in seemingly paradoxical ways in Kish and Jebel Ali. Based on field research and the examination of Persian and English archives, Chapter 4 illuminates how the region was transfigured for commodity and capital circulation by creating enclaves that were connected to but distinct from state boundaries. Iran’s shah and the Maktoum ruling family of Dubai used them to project sovereignty as the British withdrew from the Gulf and oppositional movements formed. Despite their differences in origins and outcomes, the free trade zones of Kish and Jebel Ali thickened national boundaries as markers of difference and sovereignty. As deregulated enclosed places, they also became conduits for transnational coalitions of capitalists to accumulate wealth. This chapter corrects the widespread assumption that global capitalism erodes national boundaries and weakens central authorities, showing how national governing elites turned the Persian Gulf into a site for the making of global capitalism.

Chapter 5 pivots to the urban scale to explore how the built environment and social formations of cities have expressed and constituted different forms of regionalism since the beginning of the twentieth century. By juxtaposing and tracing the swing from the port cities of the first quarter of the twentieth century to the nationalizing cities of the middle of the twentieth century to the globalizing cities of the past three decades, Gulf cities are historicized and regional patterns differentiated. Across these three phases, both the urban models and social processes necessary to construct the urban fabric ricocheted well beyond the borders of the cities. The chapter shows the constant importance of migration, transnational circulations of urban design, and capital accumulated by global markets for pearls, oil, and finance. These movements of people, ideas, and revenue were not flows but structured channels that brought peoples and places together and complicated or even sabotaged notions of a seamless globalism. Port cities were imbricated in broader commodity movements through shipping lanes and caravan routes. In the middle of the twentieth century, legal distinctions between citizenship defined who could migrate, own property, and secure work in the newly built company towns. As some of these port cities became capitals (Kuwait City, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha) and others became provincial cities (Basra, Bushehr, Qatif) separated from the seats of power in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the nationalizing processes of building markets, road networks, and property regimes defined the relationship between cities, the nation, and uneven global development. This urban fabric was constructed by laborers, who in turn were rendered “permanently temporary” in law and practice.42 The global cities paradigm sought to break the mediating role of nation and region by positioning cities as the prime portal and force in organizing life globally. Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi adopted these polices and symbols in their “Gulf Cities” branding campaigns as futuristic blueprints for all humankind. But some of the Gulf’s private firms and public investors built new regional alignments and vehicles to profit from urbanization elsewhere and to sustain their own cities through cheap food, labor, and capital. Yet historic patterns have not been erased, and contestation in and over cities abounds.

Tacking between different geographic scales, historical moments, and alternative coastlines allows us to see the Persian Gulf as simultaneously globalized through transnational relations, regionalized as a geopolitical category, and cleaved along myriad juridical divisions and spatial enclaves. Spatial forms and social processes meet as a series of agglomerations with different degrees of completeness. These pages will tease out the lessons gleaned from examining region-making as process-driven and using a more unbounded, networked, and plural understanding of regionalism. Sleek “global cities” and tuckered-out coastal towns are brought together within the same field to consider how places and identities are made and unmade in tandem. It is about coming to terms with the Gulf belonging to many different and differently positioned peoples and political projects. This polyphonic story of regionalization that rests on social relations offers an alternative to a metaphysical notion of a unified Gulf manifesting a single identity or culture. There is no theoretical answer to which Gulf region is more correct or will win out—“it is determined through political contestation and struggle and, hence, a relatively unstable determination.”43 This is essential for interpreting the past and fashioning alternative futures for the Gulf and the many places enfolded within it.


1. I use the term Persian Gulf for the body of water because it has been adopted by the United Nations, which implies a degree of common international acceptance; for brevity I will use the term the Gulf. On the political debates surrounding the name, see Kamyar Abdi, “The Name Game: The Persian Gulf, Archaeologists, and the Politics of Arab-Iranian Relations,” in Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Constriction, Commemoration, and Consecration of National Pasts, ed. Philip L. Kohl, Mara Kozelsky, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). The US government officially states that the Persian Gulf is “the only ‘conventional’ name” for the body of water, but lists “14 unofficial ‘variants.’” Martin H. Levinson, “Mapping the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 68, no. 3 (2011): 279–87.

2. Benedict Anderson, Long Distance Nationalism: World Capitalism and the Rise of Identity Politics (Amsterdam: CASA, 1992).

3. Daftar-e Motale‘at Siyasi va Bayn-ol-Melali, Gozideh-ye asnad- Khalij-e Fars, vol. 1 (Tehran: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1368), 134.

4. Ameen Rihani, Around the Coasts of Arabia (1930), quoted in James Onley, The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.

5. Thomas Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 9.

6. Quoted in Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics, and Policymaking (London: Routledge, 2017), 57.

7. “Excerpts From Weinberger Statement on Military Budget Outlay,” New York Times, March 5, 1981.

8. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978); Derek Gregory, “Imaginative Geographies,” in The Dictionary of Human Geography, ed. Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Michael J. Watts, “Collective Wish Images: Geographical Imaginaries and the Crisis of National Development,” in Human Geography Today, ed. D. Massey, J. Allen, and P. Sarre (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 85–107.

9. “Excerpts From Weinberger Statement on Military Budget Outlay.”

10. Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy, II,” American Political Science Review 32, no. 2 (1938): 236.

11. Gearóid Ó Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Gerry Kearns, “Geopolitics,” in The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, ed. John Agnew and David Livingston (London: Sage Publishing, 2011), 610-622.

12. John Agnew, Geopolitics: Re-visioning World Politics (London: Routledge, 1998), 15–32.

13. Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 410.

14. Edward W. Soja, “The Socio-Spatial Dialectic,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70, no. 2 (June 1980): 210.

15. Raimo Väyrynen, “Regionalism: Old and New,” International Studies Review 5, no. 1 (March 2003): 5–51.

16. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Mehran Kamrava, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); Lenore Martin, The Unstable Gulf: Threats from Within (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1984).

17. Behzad Sarmadi, “Transmigration, Proximity, and Sociopolitical Disconnection: Iranians in the United Arab Emirates,” in The Iranian Diaspora: Challenges, Negotiations, and Transformations, ed. Mohsen Mostafavi Mobasher (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 125–49.

18. Phillip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 23, emphasis in the original.

19. Much of this work has been inspired by Henri Lefebvre, who offers the pithy statement that space is “not a thing but rather a set of relations” between objects and products. Lefebvre, Production of Space, 73. See also David Harvey, “Space as a Keyword,” in David Harvey: A Critical Reader, ed. Noel Castree and Derek Gregory (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 270–93.

20. David Harvey, “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix,’Geographische Revue 2 (2001): 23–30.

21. On critical geopolitics, see Ó Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics; Agnew, Geopolitics; and Virginie Mamadouh, “Reclaiming Geopolitics: Geographers Strike Back,” in Geopolitics at the End of the Twentieth Century: The Changing World Political Map, ed. Nurit Kliot and David Newman (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 118–38. One of the first works to explicitly engage with critical geopolitics to explore the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is Waleed Hazbun, Beaches, Ruins, and Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

22. Doreen Massey, “Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place,” in Mapping Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change, ed. Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson, and Lisa Tickner (London: Routledge, 1993), 60–70.

23. James Ferguson, Global Shadows (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 25–49.

24. Neil Smith, “Scale Bending and the Fate of the National,” in Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society, and Method, ed. Eric Sheppard and Robert B. McMaster (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 192–212.

25. Ash Amin, “Placing Globalization,” Theory, Culture, and Society 14, no. 2 (1997): 133.

26. Ayşe Çağlar and Nina Glick Schiller, Migrants and City Making: Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 8.

27. See, among others, Fred Halliday, Arabia without Sultans (London: Saqi Books, 2002 [1974]); R. I. Lawless, The Gulf in the Early 20th Century: Foreign Institutions and Local Responses, Occasional Papers 31, Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham, 1986; Alvin J. Cottrell, general editor, The Persian Gulf States: A General Survey (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). I thank Michael Fischer for bringing I Cottrell volume to my attention. Important recent works that abide by this more inclusive approach include David Commins, The Gulf States: A Modern History (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012) and Lawrence Potter’s series of edited volumes and projects that treat the Persian Gulf inclusively, for example, Lawrence G. Potter, ed., The Persian Gulf in History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

28. David F. Winkler, Amirs, Admirals, and Desert Sailors: Bahrain, the U.S. Navy, and the Arabian Gulf (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), x.

29. John Agnew, “Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory,” Review of International Political Economy 1, no. 1 (1994): 53–80.

30. Marc Lynch, ed., The Arab Monarchy Debate: Arab Uprisings, POMEPS Briefing 16 (December 19, 2012); F. Gregory Gause III, Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994); Michael Herb, The Wages of Oil: Parliaments and Economic Development in Kuwait and the UAE (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

31. Sheila Carapico, “Arabia Incognita: An Invitation to Arabian Peninsula Studies,” in Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, ed. Madawi al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 22.

32. Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 285.

33. Some of this recent scholarship is discussed in Alex Boodrookas and Arang Keshavarzian, “The Forever Frontier of Urbanism: Historicizing Persian Gulf Cities,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 43, no. 1 (January 2019): 14–29. See also Fahad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Kaveh Ehsani, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman,” International Review of Social History 48, no. 3 (2003): 361–99; Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Andrew Gardner, City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Press, 2010); Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Natasha Iskander, Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2021); Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (London: Verso, 2020); Johan Mathew, Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016); Matthew Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

34. See Jarius Banaji, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).

35. Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), 141.

36. Lefebvre, Production of Space, 164, also 229.

37. Claire Beaugrand, “The Absurd Injunction to Not Belong and the Bidun in Kuwait,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 52, no. 4 (2020): 726–32.

38. Reinhart Koselleck, Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, trans. and ed. Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

39. Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (November 2006): 353–73.

40. Deborah Cowen and Emily Gilbert, “The Politics, War, and Territory,” in War, Citizenship, and Territory, ed. Deborah Cowen and Emily Gilbert (New York: Routledge, 2008), 16–20; Steinberg, Social Construction of the Ocean.

41. Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

42. Noora Lori, Offshore Citizens: Permanent Temporary Status in the Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

43. David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 310.