Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Oil films in context

The dominance of British oil concessions encircling the Gulf region by the mid-twentieth century cannot be understood apart from the map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France divided the region into territories of influence and control, shaping the modern map of nation-states that exists until today. Thus, the geography of the borders and concessions negotiated by western states and petroleum companies after World War I undergirds any understanding of the history of Iraqi oil and its representations.
The colonized world witnessed a pivotal moment in British foreign policy after World War I when the US President Woodrow Wilson espoused the principle of self-determination in his infamous 14 points declaration. Despite initial resistance to the notion that the language of self-determination could apply to its colonies, Britain changed its long-standing doctrine of direct colonial rule into a paternalistic posture of indirect rule that claimed to foster the governed territories towards political independence.

The era of naked British imperialism, epitomized by its colonial policy of direct rule in India, was collapsing. Britain’s imperial claims to the resource rich and formerly Ottoman provinces in Palestine and Iraq were accordingly defined as 'mandates' rather than 'colonies'. Yet, in practice, the militarized British rule in Iraq operated with unchecked control over political and economic decisions. At the outset of World War II the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the Atlantic Charter in 1941 as a framework for more equitable objectives in post-war geo-politics. The Charter codified eight principles, including respect of all people's right to self-government and a condemnation of territorial aggrandizement, which reinforced the need for Britain to reinvent its imperialist discourse. 

As this essay shows, the emergence of the public relations profession and rise of corporate power became essential in the British imperial strategy to maintain its control over petroleum resources in the post-war geo-political landscape. The Iraq Petroleum Company and its public relations office was an active player in the production of the neo-colonial discourse on Iraqi oil in Britain and Iraq.

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