From Neighbors to Foreigners: Iranians in Bahrain in the Early 20th Century


Lindsey Stephenson

Curator and co-producer of the Indian Ocean Series podcast

Ajam Media Collective


Headshot of Khalil E. Jahshan

Khalil E. Jahshan

Executive Director

Arab Center Washington DC

Mehran Kamrava

Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies

Georgetown University–Qatar

Event Summary

On 15 July 2021, the Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in partnership with the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), hosted Lindsey Stephenson for a lecture titled “From Neighbors to Foreigners: Iranians in Bahrain in the Early 20th Century.” Stephenson is curator and co-producer of the Indian Ocean Series podcast with the Ajam Media Collective. She is currently also a Postdoctoral Research Associate affiliated with the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University.

Following opening remarks from Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of the ACW, Stephenson discussed the movement of Iranian migrants in the island of Bahrain, and their fluid relationships with Iran and the communities they left behind, with the communities within which they found themselves, and, over time, with the emerging governments of both Bahrain and Iran. These were communities whose composition and identities were flexible, complex, and multi-dimensional. The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Stephenson began by contextualizing the presence of Iranians in the Gulf shores in order to explain how their migration in the early twentieth century influenced the formation of a new political geography and altered their perceptions of identity, belonging, and space. Looking at the geography of the region, Stephenson stated that “when we think of the Gulf today, what comes to mind is not necessarily the historical region geopolitically, but also from the perspective of people who actually lived on its shores.” People relocated down or across the Gulf shores during the pre-modern period as a result of political, environmental, and economic catastrophes, causing cities to rise and fall over time.

On the networks of interaction and direction of migration, Stephenson explained that people were connected directly to the opposite shores of the Gulf. “Traveling back and forth happened with the smallest distance and not all the way up and down across the Gulf,” Stephenson said. She emphasized that migrants from various cultural, religious, and linguistic origins moved from Iran to the Arab shores of the Gulf through four webs: Mohammerah, Bushehr, Bandar Lingeh, and Bandar Abbas/Jask. Stephenson mentioned that these webs are meaningful in understanding what is transferred when people from diverse parts of Iran move to the opposite shores. To elucidate the influence of this movement on migrants’ new place of residence, she stated that Iranian migrants from Bandar Lingeh area brought wind towers to Dubai, whereas those who moved to Kuwait came from areas without wind towers. This accounts for lack of any historical evidence of wind towers in Kuwait.

According to Stephenson, in the twentieth century, these connective webs were transformed into large-scale migratory roots impacting migrants’ fluidity of movement. In the early years of the century, tens of thousands of Iranians moved from south across the Gulf shores. “This migration was set off by new import and export taxes put in place by the Iranian central government in the last years of the nineteenth century.” The imposition of taxes was an attempt to reaffirm the integrity of the Iranian state and to extract revenue from wealthy peripheries, Bandar Lingeh and Bushehr, which were both the economic centers of the Gulf at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Migrants who were familiar with the region avoided such restrictions by taking alternate routes to their destination. Following the imposition of taxes, Bahrain was the first destination for migrants. As a result, Bahrain’s Iranian population grew. This also coincided with increased British involvement in the region.

Locals in Bahrain reacted against migrants for the first time in Manama markets in 1904, an incident the British labeled as ‘anti-Persian rioting.’ Following this incident, the British took control over the lives of Iranian migrants in Bahrain. According to British archives, the Iranian central government requested that the British represent them in order to obtain justice for their citizens in Bahrain. Stephenson explained that this was a temporary solution for Iranians rather than an attempt to fully cede jurisdiction to the British. “This is not a strange request if we look at it historically because over the centuries the territories on the borderlands of the Gulf existed in overlapping spaces,” Stephenson claimed. As a result, the request reflects Iranians’ belief that, due to the overlapping geographies, they will gain control of Bahrain. In 1909, the British convinced the Sheikh of Bahrain to finally agree to oversee Iranian migrants after spending five years attempting to persuade the Sheikh that the Iranians were foreigners. Unlike the British, who used designations such as “Bahraini” and “non-Bahraini,” the Sheikh of Bahrain saw Iranians as his subjects rather than as foreigners and outsiders. “Turning Iranians into foreigners in need of British protection was the first step in infusing a new official and legal understanding of belonging that was bound up with territorialization in the Gulf.”

According to Stephenson, this shift resulted in territorialized identities, in which migrants’ identities were based on where they came from rather than who their family is. The Iranian central government was also involved in infusing identities into peoples and spaces. Both sides issued various travel documents that people required as they crossed the Gulf. Stephenson emphasized that traveling passes were particularly difficult for merchants who carried cargo and needed to pass through larger ports.

Stephenson concluded by discussing Bahrain’s 1937 nationality and property law, which prohibited “foreigners” from owning property in Bahrain. The law was enacted in response to the Iranian central government’s claim over Bahrain, which by then was home to a large Iranian migrant population. Therefore, Bahrain attempted to “nationalize” Iranian migrants by giving them Bahraini nationality and passports. “The only way for Iranians, who in many cases had been in Bahrain for generations, to remain local and acquire this local belonging was for them to become Bahrainis.” She added that not all Iranians of Bahrain or other countries of the Gulf were able to become citizens. Despite the existence of the steady enactment of more regulations restricting movement and citizenship, various waves of migration of Iranians to the Gulf continued during the time of Reza Shah.

Speaker Bio  

Lindsey Stephenson Is the curator and co-producer of the Indian Ocean Series podcast with the Ajam Media Collective. She will join the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University in September as a postdoctoral fellow. Lindsey is a historian of the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean working at the intersection of law, space, and material culture. Broadly her work focuses on the transformation of Gulf society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is invested in uncovering stories of pre-oil life and documenting the ways in which the Gulf shifted away from the Indian Ocean and towards a nationally conceived Middle East.


Thursday July 15, 2021