A review of Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, Verso (2020), £20.
“Maritime trade, logistics and hydrocarbon transport,” Laleh Khalili argues in this detailed and enjoyable book, “are the clearest distillation of how global capitalism operates today.” The Arabian peninsula that Khalili describes has been reshaped, going beyond the mere production and transport of oil and becoming a centre for cargo logistics, port terminal operations, maritime services and free trade zones. These are “infrastructures that aim at (though rarely achieve) frictionless accumulation of capital”. They are vast mechanised hubs of warehousing and facilities for “very large crude carriers” (VLCCs) and “ultra large crude carriers” (ULCCs) whose routes are generated by a series of calculations about costs and the value of freight. Routes can themselves become commodities—subject to a global speculative system that gambles on prices and weather.
The history of the rise of logistics in the peninsula is the story of the transformation of the Gulf coastline. From the 1970s the Gulf’s coral reefs were blown up and dragged away. Channels and harbours were dredged to make room for crude oil carriers and ever larger container ships. Land reclamation, dredging and millions of tonnes of concrete have wrecked the Gulf’s delicate ecosystem of shallow, intensely salty water, mud and salt flats, oyster beds and mangroves. Fishing villages have been erased or have to contend with the rising levels of pollution.
Some aspects of traditional life remain. Local and regional cargo routes worked by “dhows” survive. Dhows are traditional, albeit now mechanised, sailing ships that are specifically designed for the shallow waters of the Gulf. The “flexibility and eclecticism of their cargo makes them ideal for smaller volumes of trade and nearer distances.” But Khalili points out that this work is only still available to the dhow sailors because profit margins are so small on this back-breaking work that it isn’t worth any corporation’s while to compete for these routes.
The maritime logistics industry is a powerful and highly politicised sector. An indictor of this was the furore unleashed when Dubai-based shipping giant DP World bought the British company P&O in 2006. P&O (formerly the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company) was then the fourth largest ports operator in the world, and the deal included management of various ports in the United States. Both Republican and Democrat members of Congress were horrified at the idea of an Arab-owned corporation running “their” ports. President George Bush threatened to veto any new law designed to interfere with the deal. Nevertheless, the Emirati government succumbed to pressure and ordered DP World to sell the six ports. As Khalili notes, DP World could have pointed out that it was only doing legally what British warships did by force in 1839 when they invaded Aden to set up a coaling station to service its empire between Bombay in India and Suez in Egypt.
Port complexes are often cut off from the nearest towns and their old harbours by miles of fencing, manned by private security firms. Workers living in squalid dormitories are badly paid and abused in “racialised hierarchies of labour”. Migrant workers’ passports are usually removed when they arrive and their complaints are dealt with by violence. In those Gulf states where strikes are not banned outright, they are still only legal for local citizens. In the 1960s, this difference meant striking migrant workers were beaten and deported without their wages, while local workers were jailed or executed.
There aren’t any unions currently in the ports and docks of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, sporadic resistance continues to break out. Khalili describes a long history of class struggles, trade unionism and national liberation movements across the peninsula—and a nasty record of British military officers acting as “advisers” and organisers of torture and repression against workers.
Of course, the role of the big Western powers in the region is far from ancient history. The commercial peninsular ports often exist cheek by jowl with British and American military bases. The US bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia form the US military’s so-called CENTCOM (“Central Command”) area of operations that stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan. CENTCOM also protects the Gulf aristocracies from the dangers posed to them by both their own people and by migrant workers.
Ports and logistics, with their long “value chains”, contain all sorts of choke points where hold ups or slow downs can create havoc with “just in time” delivery systems. This gives logistical workers huge potential power. One dream of many corporations might be to exclude tiresome workers from the labour process altogether through mechanisation. But surplus value has to come from actual workers, and with these workers comes resistance.
Naturally, there are huge challenges to organising against the low pay and terrible conditions on the docks and at sea. “Hierarchies of labour” onboard ships see European workers paid much more than those from, for example, the Philippines. This is a nasty and divisive system. But it does not preclude workers at sea supporting each other, as Penny McCall Howard has shown in Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea. Khalili adds to Howard’s picture by revealing how strikes and other forms of resistance among shipping workers have been inspired by wider political struggles: from the Indian independence movement and the long battle for Palestinian liberation to the Arab Spring of 2010-11.
The Persian Gulf has become a major holiday destination where billionaires build artificial islands for the super-rich that further erode coastal ecosystems. More ordinary tourists chase an escapist dream of sunshine, air-conditioned shopping malls and hotels and the frisson of being surrounded by unimaginable luxury that is just out of reach. But all of this is only a thin veil for a system based on oil extraction, port complexes and military bases.
Capitalism continuously and restlessly reshapes the world in the pursuit of profit. Local custom and law, ecosystems and human rights are all trodden underfoot. There is no part of the globe where this process has not been as destructive and deadly as it has been productive. Nevertheless, the peninsular coast is a stark example of the rapidity with which the planet and its peoples can be transformed for the benefit of capital.
Of course, speed and sustainability are two different things. Optimistic assumptions about growth have always underlied the model of accumulation of the Gulf maritime logistics industry. However, even as Khalili was finishing this book, world trade was slowing down. Today, the global economic crisis triggered by Covid-19 threatens the region, just as it menaces the rest of the world. Workers will be forced to draw on their rich history of struggle and their capacity for solidarity to resist an increasingly bleak future.