Awali oil settlement

Date of Submission: 04/03/2019
Criteria: (ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture
State, Province or Region:
Kingdom of Bahrain, Southern Governorate, Awali
Coordinates: N26 5 15.57, E50 32 53.55
Ref.: 6397

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Awali is a settlement of approximately 400 buildings located on a plateau above the Mughaidrat plain north of Jabal Dukhan in the Southern Governorate of the Kingdom of Bahrain, where oil was first discovered and exploited on the Arabian Peninsula. Awali is the earliest modern oil “camp” or settlement in the Arabian Gulf, which provided a gated residence and working environment for a new international community of oil specialists and technocrats, who were in key positions to establish and run the new industry. Constructed since 1934 by the Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco), the settlement combines living quarters and multiple public structures and leisure amenities.

The residences were constructed in neighborhoods of different forms and sizes, ranging from bachelor- and bunkhouses for male workers to family houses and small villas of different standards, mostly with private gardens. The office and administration buildings are situated in a central location and administrated the nearby refinery and oilfield. Among its early public community structures Awali retains the Awali church, Awali hospital (with operating theatre and dedicated delivery wards and dental clinic), post office, school (the first mixed gender school in the wider region), supermarket and public library. Designed for leisure time occupation, the settlement includes the swimming pool and tennis courts, a cricket ground, the Awali Hall, the Awali Club building with pub and restaurant as well as the community gardens.

Built predominantly in the 1930s and 1940s, the camp underwent minor enlargement and considerable improvement of living conditions in the 1950s since when its residents enjoy the first central sewage system in the region and the globally first centralized air conditioning system for an entire settlement. Despite further modernizations over the past seven decades, the settlement is largely retained in its design and appearance of the early 1950s, in some, mostly public, structures, including in its interior design and furnishings. Awali is an inhabited and popular residence neighborhood in contemporary Bahrain, which today provides home to a very international and multicultural community including Bahraini families.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Awali is the first and best-preserved oil “camp” or oil settlement in the Arabian Gulf. It acted as a prototype of the expatriate compound settlement typology for foreign specialist workers in the Arabian Gulf. Awali was directly referenced by later “camps” in Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states. The settlement typology became a significant component of 20th century community housing concepts in the region.

Awali reflects the beginnings of the oil-driven modernization, which profoundly changed Arabian Gulf societies. It provides testimony to these changes in both its urban layout and infrastructure but also its socio-cultural role until today. Awali’s urban layout, inspired by the European garden city/garden suburb movement, broke completely with the established local oasis or desert settlement traditions. In terms of infrastructure, especially its first and most significant modernization in the 1950s brought significant advances, including the first central sewage system in the Arabian Gulf and the first centralized air-conditioning system in the world, both still operating today.

In socio-cultural terms, Awali illustrates the beginnings of the Gulf’s contemporary, cosmopolitan post-oil societies. Besides the long tradition of international trade in the region, the need for foreign expertise and the creation of upscale expatriate communities like Awali, which appeared both modern and desirable to especially younger generations of the local community, initiated the atmosphere of openness towards foreign technologies and modernization.

The spatial divisions and living conditions based on economic and functional hierarchies within the industry, differed from local spatial divisions based on tribe, power or trade. The settlement suggested new life models based on success through education but also consumer culture. Its leisure amenities symbolized the technological advances and lifestyle delights which arrived with the exploitation industry. As opposed to other oil “camps” in the region, Awali did not remain a segregated community, but stimulated an interchange with the local society over the decades, documented through the constant increase of the percentage of local population within the settlement.

Criterion (ii): Awali is an early example and prototype of an expatriate expert community settlement which illustrates the arrival of oil modernization and multinationalism in the Arabian Gulf. Introducing western concepts of urban layout, public structures, leisure amenities and mixed-gender society models, which broke radically with local architectural and cultural traditions, it became a gateway towards the social and cultural models which arrived with the technological advances of the oil industry. Among these are the globally first centralized air conditioning system as well as the first sewage system, mixed gender school and asphalted road in the wider region.

Criterion (iv): Awali oil settlement is the best-preserved example of the early 20th century modern oil settlements as well as the first such “camp” on the Arabian Peninsula. Inspired by European concepts of the garden city / garden suburb movement, the settlement, with family houses surrounded by individual gardens and grouped around a central green and public as well as leisure structures, broke completely with local desert and oasis town settlement traditions and introduced new concepts of urban planning, urban layout, architecture and construction materials to the Arabian Gulf region, today conceptually grouped under the term “oil urbanization”.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Integrity: Awali settlement is preserved in its original boundaries and fence line of 1949 and retains the large majority of its original structures. One early bunkhouse, a small number of early family houses, the first drilling tool house, the theatre (destroyed by fire already in 1943) and the cinema were lost. The other private and public structures are retained, at times with signs of later stages of modernization but at times also completely unchanged with their original interior furnishings. As a whole, the settlement retains the capacity to provide a complete and comprehensive narrative of life in the early oil camps of the 1930s to 1950s and testifies to this as the large majority of functional structures remains in use until present times.

The settlement lies outside the central capital area of Manama, in the southern, least densely populated, governorate of Bahrain. It is therefore less challenged by urban development pressures as other areas, which implies that it is largely free of adverse threats, which could negatively impact the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. As all houses and public structures remain in use, continuous alterations occur to keep the settlement in line with contemporary standards of comfort and security. However, based on the community’s awareness and care for the historic appearance and homogeneity of the settlement, these are undertaken with respect to the original design, function and atmosphere. The only negative impact which occurred in the past is the alteration of the setting to the east as result of the construction of a five storey hospital complex, located outside the boundaries in the vicinity of the Awali hospital premises.

Authenticity: Awali settlement is located in its original location and preserves its form and design in urban layout and extension according to its boundaries established in 1949. Its function as a residential compound remains identical, although not every inhabitant remains involved in the oil industry. The great majority of houses retain their original form and design, many in addition material and workmanship and hence provide excellent displays of the various types of residences constructed over the most active production period of approximately 20 years in the 1930s and 40s.

Awali was extended several times in its early years, the latest housing program was carried out in the early 1950s. The settlement hence reflects the developments and demands of the early oil industry. The earliest residences of the 1930s were modified in the late 1940s in order to install the centralized AC system. Some of the bachelor houses were later transformed into family houses, when residences for single workers were no longer needed. Up to date, the various Awali amenities and leisure facilities remain in use, including among others the club, the library, the church, as well as the sports facilities.

Comparison with other similar properties

Awali is the only oil “camp” or settlement of this type and nature built in Bahrain as early as the 1930s and 1940s. Although other compounds were later built for foreign expatriates working in other sectors and industries in the different parts of Bahrain, these occurred several decades later and hence Awali has no comparators at a national level.

Several other examples of oil “camps” or settlements exist in the Arabian Peninsula, as, starting from the 1930s, the region became a key player in the oil industry. In a regional context, Awali can be compared to similar oil “camps” located in Saudi Arabia (Dhahran, Ras Tenura and Abqaiq), Kuwait (Ahmadi) and Qatar (Dukhan). From a chronological perspective, Awali is the first of these oil settlements and its original construction, which started in 1934, precedes all the other oil camps in Dhahran (late 1930s), Ras Tenura (1939), Abqaiq (mid-1940s), Ahmadi (1946) and Dukhan (late 1930s/beginning 1940s).

Awali is not only the chronological precursor of oil “camps” in the Arabian Peninsula, Awali was in fact used as a conceptual and typological model for the later construction of the Saudi and the Kuwaiti camps. In relation to Awali’s constructive phases, which took place between 1934 and the late 1940s, it is also important to recognize the settlement’s expanse in response to the dynamics of population increase, which cannot be found in other camps like Dukhan, where the constant increase in foreign population outgrew the camp quickly and communities settled outside the area of the oil company settlement.

Beyond the Arabian Peninsula, oil “camps” and settlements as a means to provide gated communities to international oil specialists and technocrats have also been used also in Iran (Abadan) and Latin America (Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico).

The Iranian settlement of Abadan was founded as a company town between the mid-1910s and the early 1920s. Despite being an earlier example of oil settlement, Abadan does not constitute the specific oil “camp” typology but combines a collection of diverse urban forms around a central refinery, referencing earlier types of factory or mining settlements. In Brazil, oil exploration started in the late 19th century but the first industrial wells were established only in the early 1940s and no oil “camps” similar to Awali have been recorded. In Argentina and Mexico, oil exploration has been a matter of cooperation between the state and national and international private companies, which did not create settlements comparable to the case of Awali or more generally the Arabian Peninsula.

Different are the examples in Venezuela, where company oil settlements (Andaro, Judibana, Caripito, Las Cupulas, Las Salinas and others) were established in different parts of the county. Most of these settlements are from the early 1930s but a few date back to the late 1920s and hence predate Awali. While some of these camps illustrate comparable architectural features to Awali, they are obviously embedded in a very different regional and cultural environment, and occurred far less opposed to the local cultural and settlement traditions. As result, the Venezuelan camps did not reflect the complex spatial and living conditions established in the Bahraini camp nor did they have the same impact on the local society of the host country. The many technological firsts at a wider regional or global level, such as the first centralized air conditioning system established in Awali, remain without comparators.