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The Special Collections Library at New York University Abu Dhabi now houses a complete set of the Arabic-language periodical Ahl al Naft, published monthly in Beirut from 1951 to 1959 by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC).1 This periodical was acquired by the library in 2022 with NYUAD’s al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art through the collaborative efforts of Ala Younis, a research scholar with al Mawrid; Nelida Fuccaro, Professor of Middle Eastern History at NYUAD; and Brad Bauer, Head of Archives and Special Collections at NYUAD.2 I was fortunate to visit the collection in March of 2023 to view Ahl al Naft in its entirety. To see the series of hardbound volumes rolled out on a metal library cart would usually have been a quotidian occurrence, but this was something special. The presence of the magazine in its entirety—cataloged and available—is rare and the institutional support offered by NYUAD and al Mawrid is indispensable in encouraging future research on the publication. Indeed, Ahl al Naft is an important resource in ongoing efforts to understand the impact of oil companies on cultural production in the Middle East during the mid-twentieth century.3
The magazine was published in the heyday of Iraq Petroleum’s activities in Iraq and, perhaps surprisingly, represents an early example of the dissemination of art-related ideologies in the bound discursive space of Arabic print media; but, of course, within the particular context of the oil industry. The following essay reflects my initial thoughts upon viewing the magazine. Ahl al Naft deserves a much deeper analysis, and it is my hope that these impressions will spur that conversation.4
Although a significant endeavor, the magazine Ahl al Naft—sometimes transliterated in other company communications as Ahlun Naft—was but one node in a larger public relations strategy initiated by the IPC in response to the 50/50 profit-sharing agreement of 1952 between the company and the Iraqi government. At least partially precipitated by the 1951 nationalization of the oil industry in Iran, the agreement was not only a concession from the company that a more equitable allocation of oil wealth was necessary to maintain a tense equilibrium between the IPC’s interests in Iraq and the growing sentiments of “raw material sovereignty” among the Iraqi people, but it was also an acknowledgement that the company’s colonial attitude of indifference toward local populations was no longer tenable.5 The IPC, thus, decided in the early 1950s that it would be beneficial to set aside a significant budget for the development of a public relations program with the purpose of cultivating positive public opinion through a series of print and media outlets, such as magazines and films.6 These outlets were generally organized around a corresponding set of agendas, loosely associated with the themes of culture and commerce, that sought ambitiously to appeal to every member of the company’s substantial distribution lists, which comprised of company employees, government entities in areas of operation, press organizations, and—at least in terms of the dissemination of IPC films—broad public audiences from both Europe and the Middle East.
As part of this robust PR campaign, two house magazines were inaugurated in 1951—Ahl al Naft and its English-language counterpart Iraq Petroleum. Described as “fairly lavish,” these magazines were considerable undertakings with relatively hefty budgets.7 Published monthly in Beirut, Ahl al Naft had an estimated annual budget of around ₤60,000 and had a distribution range of about 40,000 copies per issue.8 The rare presence of a full set of the magazine in one archive allows scholars to more easily ascertain the general tone of magazine’s content, along with its editorial fidelity to the IPC’s desire to provide a wide array of general interest topics for its readership, that included not only company and government employees but also their families, friends, and acquaintances. This desire was outlined in the first issue of Ahl al Naft in 1951 and carried through its almost decade-long run until the magazine’s cessation in 1959. With a glossy rendering of the equestrian statue of King Faisal on the front cover, the first issue of Ahl al Naft featured the inaugural “Word of the Month” column wherein the goals of the magazine are outlined as the basis for the publication’s central messaging (fig. 1).9
Beginning poetically with a call to the people of oil across the Arab World, the editor-in-chief’s address states that the periodical aims to be both mouthpiece and conscience providing articles that allowed readers a platform through which to voice opinions and share knowledge, whilst also educating them on culture, science, and history from around the world and informing them of company operations, and the impacts of oil extraction and refinement.
Embedded in these goals are two underlying objectives that give the magazine its shape and tonality. Firstly, and alluded to already, is the desire to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by ostensibly offering a reader-driven experience and by highlighting stimulating and relevant cultural subjects such as food, fashion, art history, events, news, education, interior design, literature, medicine, urbanism, and travel. Interestingly, a second implicit purpose of the periodical was to constitute and unite a community under a common understanding of what a modern oil-producing nation “should” look like according to a company-approved vision that oftentimes, and unsurprisingly, perpetuates Western notions of modernity and progress. In this, the magazine’s articles often take on a didactic inflection with a ‘how to’ cadence ranging from practical interests—how to dress, how to decorate, how to stay healthy—to more implied and abstract concerns—how to prioritize a particular kind of education, how to ensure a successful future through industry, how to organize time and history, how to perceive yourself and your labor.10
As an art historian, I am interested in how this didacticism trickles into articles on art and culture through two parallel tracks that warrant further investigation—the presentation of a periodized art history, and the showcase of modern art in Iraq and the Arab World. The house magazine of an oil company seems an unlikely place for the dissemination of art historical paradigms and developments in local modern art. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, the combination of culture, history, and industry was a potent mantra carried throughout the IPC’s public relations campaigns that facilitated a subtle but effective message of a beneficial and proprietary modernity supplied by the company and its Western interests.11 The sponsorship of a periodized narrative of art history served the Euro-American definitions of progressive modernity that manifested, for the purposes of the IPC, in the realms of culture and industry alike. The editors of Ahl al Naft followed what would now be considered a Western-driven art historical structure and, although the degree of investment in any kind of indoctrination of Iraqi artists and intellectuals is debatable, there is a clear educational effort to influence the way readers organized history and, by extension, how they perceived the present.
For example, the magazine introduced a serial article in 1956, entitled “Art in the Stages of History,” that provided a well-known survey of art history, covering one period of art for each of the year’s issues (fig. 2).12 Accompanied by photographic reproduction of famous artworks, the series presents to readers familiar temporal and geographical jumps from Ancient Egyptian Art to Greek Art, Islamic Art to the Renaissance, and Neoclassicism to Surrealism. Additionally, the magazine published stand-alone articles that considered historical artistic production from a variety of perspectives.
The editors of Ahl al Naft also made space for regular articles on modern art exhibitions and art education in Iraq. In issue number 62 from 1956, for instance, the magazine profiled the activities of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad outlining its history and goals that were then illustrated in a series of classroom photographs of students playing music in an orchestral setting, painting from live models, and sculpting in the studio—all under the watchful eyes of their teachers (fig. 3).13 Moreover, there were regular articles on exhibitions and cultural events that featured artworks by contemporary Iraq artists. In the preceding issue from the same year, the magazine reported on an exhibition of young artists in Basra referring to the show as a “bold attempt” in painting, sculpture, and calligraphy (fig. 4).14
Also in a 1956 issue, an article entitled “Modern Art in Iraq” by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra reproduces the works of more established artists like himself, as well as Akram Shukri, Ismail al-Sheikhly, Jewad Selim, Atta Sabri, Faiq Hassan, and Kadhim Hayder (fig. 5).15 For a 1952 issue, Jewad Selim himself contributed an article in his capacity as a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad (fig. 6).16
Written in response to the 1952 Ibn Sina Exhibition, Selim identifies the contemporary moment as a renaissance of Iraqi art and urges visitors of the exhibition to recognize artistic trends and developments through a comparison of the represented artists.17 In its way, this article, along with the others, follows the didactic nature of the Ahl al Naft’s general tone as it seeks to create an informed public that can interact “appropriately” with the country’s cultural modernism. While these are admittedly fleeting examples that warrant a more thorough investigation, it is apparent that the editors of Ahl al Naft made a concerted effort to regularly include articles on local artistic practices.
After the Iraqi Revolution in 1958, the IPC public relations program went through a major shift. The anti-Western climate of Abdul al-Karim Qasim’s republican government meant that a continuation or increase in IPC public outreach would only exacerbate the company’s already dubious position in Iraq. In fact, the Iraqi government curbed the dissemination of IPC publications amongst the nation’s public and called for a cessation of IPC outreach. Thus, public relation efforts were significantly scaled back with Iraq Petroleum and Ahl al-Naft ceasing publication by 1960.18 This was not, however, the end of the story. Although under a more limited budget and distribution range, the IPC began a new Arabic-language magazine, Al Amiloon Fil Naft, that was edited and published out of Baghdad and has its own legacy as a significant cultural platform for the work of Iraqi artists and thinkers.19 Returning to the first issue of Ahl al Naft, the editor ended his first “Word of the Month” address with a type of benediction invoking God’s blessing and sending out greetings and best wishes. He then states, “[Ahl al Naft] is an adventure…and our ultimate goal is for our adventure to be successful.”20 The success of the magazine requires definition and is, of course, up for debate. Nevertheless, the Arabic-language publications of the IPC remain complex spaces for not only the expression of company agendas but also as platforms for Iraqi cultural actors to assert their own agencies. This complexity makes these periodicals rich repositories of research material. Thus, the adventure that began with Ahl al Naft in 1951 continues today in the archives of New York University Abu Dhabi.
* Tiffany Floyd is Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Art Foundations at the College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas.
1 Ahl al Naft, New York University Abu Dhabi Archives and Special Collections. Call no. AP95.A6 A435.
2 Author email correspondence with Ala Younis, July 22, 2023.
3 See Murtaza Vali, Crude (Dubai: Art Jameel, 2018); Nelida Fuccaro and Mandana Limbert, eds., Life Worlds of Middle Eastern Oil: Histories and Ethnographies of Black Gold (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023).
4 For brevity, I focus primarily on the issues from 1956.
5 These ‘colonial attitudes’ did not disappear but were simply softened for the sake of cultivating positive public opinion. This was not, however, an unmitigated success as is attested to by the eventual nationalization of oil in 1972. Christopher R.W. Dietrich, “‘Arab Oil Belongs to the Arabs:’ Raw Material Sovereignty, Cold War Boundaries, and the Nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company, 1967–1973,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 22, no.3 (2011): 450–479.
6 For example, expenditure for public relations reached about ₤350,000 in 1957. DD Hayter, “Estimated Public Relations Expenditure,” March 29th, 1966, British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, ARC162027. For a series of excellent studies on oil company film production see Mona Damluji, Visualizing Iraq: oil, cinema, and the modern city,” Urban History 43, no4 (2016): 641; Mona Damluji, “The Image World of Middle Eastern Oil,” in Subterranean estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas, ed. Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 147–164.
7 DD Hayter, “Estimated Public Relations Expenditure,” ARC162027; “The Future of Public Relations within the IPC Group of Companies,” March 3rd, 1966, British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, ARC 162027.
8 Ibid. Iraq Petroleum’s budget was ₤65,000, and it had a distribution range of 20,000 copies per issue. The magazine was primarily distributed in Iraq, but was also sent to other areas of company operation such as Syria.
9 “Word of the Month,” Ahl al Naft 1 (1951): 3. This and all of the following citations for Ahl al Naft were accessed at the Special Collection Library at New York University Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE, March 31st, 2023.
10 A deeper interaction with the magazine is necessary to ascertain the consistency of this inflection.
11 Tiffany Floyd, “Floating on oil and antiquities: Iraq Petroleum, Al Amiloon Fil Naft and Iraqi cultural modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Iraq & the Arab World 15, no. 1/2 (2021): 85–101.
12 Maroun Tunb, “Art in the Stages of History,” series for Ahl al Naft nos. 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 61 (1956): 55.
13 “In the International Arts Parade: The Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad,” Ahl al Naft, no. 62 (1956): 18–21.
14 Aziz Ajam “Basra exhibition of painting, sculpture and calligraphy: A bold Attempt for Young Artists from Basra” Ahl al Naft 55 (1956): 16–17.
15 Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, “Modern Art in Iraq,” Ahl al Naft 58 (1956): 18–21
16 Jewad Selim, “Artistic Tour of the Iraqi Art Exhibition,” Ahl al Naft 20 (1952): 12–13.
17 To learn more about the exhibition, see the Modern Iraq Art Archive, http://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/835.
18 “The Future of Public Relations within the IPC Group of Companies” ARC 162027.
19 Ala Younis, “Al Bahithun, The (re)searchers”, Di’van: A Journal of Accounts, 6 (2019): 120–29.
20 Full quotation from “Word of the Month,” Ahl al Naft 1 (1951): 3.
“هي مغامرة على كل حال, وأقصى ما نصبو اليه ان تكون مغامرتنا ناجحة”.
Cite this article as:
Floyd, Tiffany. "Ahl al Naft: An Adventure." Sawt al-Arsheef, al Mawrid NYUAD (August 2023).