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Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama Since 1800

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 276 pages
Matthew MacLean
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Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama Since 1800, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 276 pages

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1Nelida Fuccaro’s account of the development of modern Manama is without a doubt one of the finest among recent works in Gulf studies. Fuccaro’s analysis of Manama’s history challenges much of the received wisdom on the Gulf. As a longtime center of the world pearling trade, Manama was a key node for the entrance of modern capital into the Gulf. In addition, Manama has long been a site of contestation between religious sects, settled and tribal social organization, urban and rural populations, and various social groups that today might be referred to as ethnic, racial, or national. The plural in the title refers to this multitude of contexts and influences, the historical development of which Fuccaro charts throughout her work.

  • 1 Among other Gulf scholars attentive to space and the built environment, see Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dub (...)

2Histories of City and State focuses on unfolding relationships between urban space, state formation, patronage, and governance. More specifically, the writer traces the effect of urban-hinterland connections on state-building processes as well as relations between the al‑Khalifa ruling family, urban merchants, and working classes. Like other recent analysts of Gulf societies,1 Fuccaro uses public and private space (such as port facilities, markets, farms, and neighborhoods) as a template on which to map political, religious, and commercial life. She traces the development of a public sphere formed by various associations, ma’tams (Shia mourning halls), and religious rituals, and characterized by contestation and conflict. According to her, modern state-building and administrative practices are rooted in the post-WWI era. Thus, Fuccaro rejects the longstanding trope of Gulf commentators that modernization is a result of the discovery of oil in the 1930s or the oil boom of the 1970s. Instead, modern Bahraini society was shaped through an uneven process of class formation and spatial reorganization punctuated by disorder and disturbance. Merchants, immigrants, and workers played as much a role in the formation of Manama’s public sphere as the al‑Khalifa and the British did.

3Fuccaro’s work mines a large archive of historical information not yet available in English. The sheer volume of information and sources cannot be matched by any other urban history of the Gulf, especially for the pre-oil era. In addition to standard works like Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia and British archival records, Fuccaro employs various Bahraini archives, travel narratives, personal interviews, and a wealth of sources in Arabic and Persian. The British sources are not read in the usual fashion — emphasizing the al‑Khalifa and tribal politics — but with attention to the socio-economic makeup of urban society. This combination is incredibly rich and far exceeds comparable works in depth and breadth, given the source material used.

4Histories of City and State begins with a chapter on the decline of Safavid rule and the arrival to power of the al‑Khalifa. Manama is situated between the Shia agriculturalist center of Bilad al-Qadim and the Sunni tribal seat of government in Muharraq. Unlike Muharraq where spatial organization showcased al‑Khalifa power, 1800s Manama was a polyglot urban center dominated by commercial imperatives and linked to British India, Ottoman Basra, and Qajar Persia. In Chapters 2 and 3, Fuccaro describes the impact of pearling, of British-protected tribal rule in the Gulf, and of immigrant populations on Manama’s social order, already highly fragmented in terms of ethnicity, sect, and family. Although tribal groups held political power, they were not as important in the commercial world. The British Agency and tax farming provided new avenues of influence for certain merchant families. This fragmentation extended to the lower classes, where specific groups would monopolize certain spaces and trades. In turn, whole neighborhoods were tied through patronage to elite families, who sponsored ma’tams and ashura celebrations, provided aid to immigrants, and built mosques and other public buildings. Markets and the harbor were the key points of intersection between Sunni and Shia, domestic hinterlands and world trade, and tribes and merchants.

5Chapters 4 and 5 continue the narrative of public sphere contestation, commercial networks, and political power, and describes the post-WWI creation of the municipality of Manama, along with the arrival of Charles Belgrave as advisor to Bahrain’s rulers. Whereas Chapter 4 examines elites, Chapter 5 focuses largely on subaltern agitation from 1919–1957. This era witnessed the collapse of the pearl economy and the rise of oil; as well as the formation of a police force, judiciary, bureaucracy, and elected (but communally organized) city council. The council was at times a new vehicle for its members to maintain their elite status, but the fact that the al-Khalifa owned the markets meant they retained their power. However, the pearling crash in the 1930s — sparked by the production of cultured pearls in Japan — severely undermined the urban order of the old notable families. By the 1950s, ethnic and sectarian challenges to the established order were supplemented by populist Arab nationalist demonstrations. Fuccaro’s account of sporadic episodes of violence is nuanced and detailed, with attention paid to both structural factors (class, sect, ethnicity) and contingencies such as seemingly random altercations in public spaces. Newer forms of nationalist opposition to the British presence also began to take shape, along with populist Baharna (the indigenous Shia Bahraini) opposition to the al‑Khalifa, which reached its apogee in the Fitnah (uprising) al‑Muharram of 1953. The Fitnah al‑Muharram took place against a backdrop of increasing awareness of Arabism (vis-à-vis a Persian or Indian or British “other”), instantiated through clubs, newspapers, and eventually radio. It took direct British intervention in 1956 and 1957 to crush these popular movements. Postwar Arabism represents an important discontinuity in Bahraini history, between the cosmopolitan, polyglot pearling era and the contemporary multinational Manama of the late twentieth century.

6The final chapter concentrates on the urban-rural divide and state-building with the creation of legal categories of land ownership, citizenship, and immigrant. Urban planning practices, land registration, and the creation of new buildings such as Bab al‑Bahrain reaffirmed al‑Khalifa dominance, marginalized the countryside, and reinforced sectarian divisions. Yet as Fuccaro convincingly shows, these phenomena are the product of a long history of struggle, continual reshaping of public spaces and discourses, as well as various domestic and foreign contingencies. State projects in road-building, sanitation, mapping land ownership, planning new developments, and defining nationality and citizenship all had a dramatic impact on Manama’s urban spaces and politics. State efforts to incorporate Shia agriculturalists outside the municipality into the new land regime largely failed in the face of more attractive employment opportunities in the oil industry; however, al‑Khalifa family interests were protected. Rural Shia villages thus became “a mere appendix of the new political and economic order” (p. 219). This provides an important clue to the roots of the repeated anti-government protests in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

7Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf challenges and demolishes several myths and stereotypes about the Gulf, some of which still make their way into scholarly works on the region. First among these is the location of politics almost exclusively in the British and local tribes, merchants, and ruling families. And among those who do include merchants in their political analysis, there is often little differentiation between merchant families, factions, and modes of production and capital accumulation. Second among these myths is the perception that the Gulf is fundamentally different from other regions of the Middle East and is uniformly composed of oil cities. This “Gulf exceptionalism” is challenged in Fuccaro’s comparisons of Manama with other Gulf cities and with the work of Philip Khoury on urban politics in Ottoman Syria (rare in Gulf studies). Finally, Fuccaro questions the division of Gulf history into two periods: pre-independence and pre-oil poverty as opposed to post-independence oil wealth. Histories of City and State ends in the 1960s, with only a brief note on the post-independence period. Although Fuccaro states that “Manama’s inner city has changed beyond recognition” (p. 228) since, she notes several continuities with the pre-independence era, among which sectarian divisions, class structures, and links to the Indian Subcontinent. Histories of City and State is a major contribution to the field that should inspire similar studies of other Gulf cities. It should be read by anyone interested in the history of Manama, Bahrain, and the Gulf, as well as by urban historians of other regions; finally, it provides essential background to understanding Bahrain’s current political turmoil.

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1 Among other Gulf scholars attentive to space and the built environment, see Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2010) and Stephen Ramos, Dubai Amplified: The Engineering of a Port Geography (London: Ashgate, 2010), and Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City As Corporation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

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Matthew MacLean, « Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama Since 1800 », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Matthew MacLean

PhD student, New York University, Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

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