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Contesting Concessions: Infrastructure, Imperialism, and the Struggle for Sovereignty in Syria, 1908–1946

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This dissertation analyzes the emergence of popular resistance to the material and infrastructural bases of western imperialism in the Eastern Mediterranean. Centering on the troubled quarter-century of French rule in interwar Syria, it examines the paths by which foreign-capitalized infrastructure companies became targets of widespread discontent, critique and boycott. It proposes the concept of “concessionary imperialism” to account for how multinational, joint-stock companies used the contractual rights of their concessions to implant themselves under Ottoman rule, and how they renegotiated and extended these rights under the French Mandate regime. It is argued that despite their thoroughly multinational character, concessionary companies were mobilized in “national” terms by the French imperial state, in its creation of novel state structures and its attempts at creating the conditions for their long-term survival in the country, beyond the formal end of the Mandate. At the same time, they constituted ready-made battlegrounds for contesting power, exploited by networks of urban activists in their strategic mobilizations against imperialism.

The two central case studies examined are the infrastructural networks whose control and operation provoked most controversy during the Mandate: the Hijaz Railway, and the electricity and tramways utility in Damascus, Tramways et Electricité de Damas. I argue that infrastructure became a rallying point precisely because it stood at the nexus of political sovereignty and economic autonomy. Local control over vital infrastructure, whether expressed in “nationalist” terms, or broader regional or transnational terms, became one of the central political objectives for populist opponents of French imperial rule. Contestations such as these exposed the fractures in the Mandate regime: for it was in the points of weakness between state-sponsored imperialism and concessionary imperialism that resistance was most effectively able to occur. While most studies of interwar anti-imperialism have focused on confrontations with state power imagined at the “national” level, this dissertation unearths the largely forgotten struggles over urban space, economic autonomy and territorial sovereignty.

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This item is under embargo until June 7, 2025.