Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mandana Limbert

Committee Members

Julie Skurski

Ajantha Subramanian

Gary Wilder

Subject Categories

Islamic World and Near East History | Natural Resources Management and Policy | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Extraction, Persian Gulf, Law, Environmental History, Fish, Oil


This dissertation is a historical and ethnographic examination of fish, pearl, sponge, and oil extraction in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. These waters, which were fished and labored upon in much of the same way for millennia, have, in the last two centuries, undergone a sea change. Regimes of property and rights have transformed the ocean from a wild and undifferentiated space into a place which is enclosed, privatized, industrially fished, drilled, and otherwise despoiled. This dissertation, building on recent works in environmental history, Indian Ocean studies, and legal and economic anthropology, probes the many cultural, religious, social, political, economic and legal origins of these claims to ocean-space. The slow creeping tide of the sea’s enclosure has almost always been met with negotiations, counterclaims, and refusals. These denials of hegemonic order, predicated on differing ideas of what can be extracted, for what use, and by whom, also leave their imprint on the sea in profound ways.

Chapter 1 introduces the concept of the extractive seascape – an ocean defined by what is taken from it – and provides a regional and temporal context for the study. Chapter 2 discusses notions of inshore property in Oman and the U.A.E., and reaches back to the conceptual foundations of propertymaking at sea in these contexts: Islamic theology, customary law (ʿurf), and liberal thought associated with classical political economists. Chapter 3 engages with the ideas of the mare liberum and mare clausum and turns to the pearl banks of the Persian Gulf, the avoidance of policy by colonial authorities, and local customary norms around extracting pearl oysters. Chapter 4 brings us back to the ethnographic present and into the recent past with the development of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the largest single enclosure of the planet’s surface in history, and builds on the concept of an extractive seascape to explore maritime borderscapes. Chapter 5 presents fishermen as bold political actors who mobilize and directly confront the state, and argues that fishermen’s organization and activism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries asserts a right to the sea and to decide its governance autonomously. Chapter 6 concludes by taking cues from local comparisons between oil (as a once-living natural resource) and fish (as living but depleting natural resources) and returns to a conceptual discussion of the extractive seascape, offering a glimpse of what extractivism, as a world-historical process, means for local fishermen in a depleting sea.

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