Popular Politics and Epidemics in Eastern Arabia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As communities tried to make sense of COVID-19, media outlets around the world reached for illustrative examples of past pandemics. In Qatif, a city on Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf coast, memories of a 1970 quarantine surfaced in local media as the pandemic unfolded. This article investigates why COVID-19 prompted public remembering of a state-imposed cholera quarantine in Qatif in 1970 by reconstructing three formative assemblages of disease and popular politics. First, a 1953 speech by leftist activist Nasir al-Saʿid in the wake of massive strikes demonstrates how activists rhetorically connected the labor movement in Eastern Province with popular demands for health care. Second, the shift from neglect of localized epidemics to the state's expanding reach into quotidian life from the 1940s through the 1960s shows how even as public health developed as a tool of governance, local people interpreted medical services as manifestations of privilege and inequality. The final section explores how expanding state authority over Eastern Province and the state's embrace of coercive epidemic management converged on the regime's 1970 cholera quarantine in Qatif. In the twenty-first-century COVID-19 response, public memory of the 1970 quarantine has provided a space for people to articulate competing narratives. Linking together these constellations of health and politics renders visible patterns of repression and protest in a public sphere that typically silences histories of dissent.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)74-94
JournalLabor: Studies in Working-Class History
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • epidemic
  • Saudi Arabia
  • media
  • popular politics
  • memory


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