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Black Gold, Blue Waters

Laleh Khalili's new book looks at the importance of shipping in the Arab peninsula for global capitalism – from distributing the world's oil to handling the world's freight, via some of the world's most exploited workers.

Maritime trade is central to globalised capitalism, and the Arabian peninsula is a major hub of international shipping. Ninety percent of the world’s goods travel by sea, including almost 60 percent of the global oil trade, and 70 percent of all world cargo by value. The ports in the Arabian peninsula are among the biggest and highest-volume in the world, shipping in consumer goods, exporting oil and petroleum products, and also acting as conduits for migrants, capital, and military power projection. A new generation of Gulf ports has grown up far from the city centres, extensively automated and heavily  securitised, obscuring both ecological degradation and the intensive exploitation of labour. 

Laleh Khalili’s new book Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula is the result of extensive research conducted while travelling container ships in the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. She talks to landside labourers and shipboard workers, examines port infrastructures and racialised labour regimes, and surveys the logistical networks that bind all this together. There are worse ways to spend a time of lockdown than having Khalili guide you on this journey, as her vividly evocative writing, rich in detail, transports you to these various locations, bringing the subject matter to life with powerful immediacy.

The Arabian peninsula was a fulcrum of trade between Europe and Asia long before the age of European empires, but imperial capitalism, when it arrived, went on to reshape pre-existing trade networks significantly. In 1839, Britain conquered Aden in what is now southern Yemen, making it a centre of colonial communication, including telegraph lines whose routes are now followed by today’s fibreoptic internet cables. ‘Free port’ status was imposed for transhipments, impeding the development of domestic industry as merchant profits were repatriated. This was a precursor of today’s free trade zones, of which there are around 50 on the Arabian peninsula, the vast majority in the UAE, where local sovereignty is effectively suspended or seriously diluted, and taxes, tariffs and regulatory oversight are negligible, allowing for unrestrained capital accumulation. 

Britain entered the Persian Gulf around the same time as the conquest of Aden, and played a significant role in entrenching the authoritarian regional order that we know today. The British, alongside their American allies in Saudi Arabia, equipped and trained the forces of repression, while building national infrastructures designed more for extraction and export than for connecting population centres within the country. In Oman, internal transport was only seriously developed in the 1970s as part of a project to pacify the rebellious interior, while the interior of the UAE was only woven together by a network of roads after British rule had ended. 

The British understood the diverse workforce in ports like Aden in explicitly racialised terms, and dealt with them accordingly. Labour in Aden was made up, it was said, of ‘Anglo American heads, Indo-Pakistani hands, and Arab feet.’ When the harbour on Abu Dhabi’s Das Island was being built, the British lived in a plush compound, Asian workers lived in more modest housing behind barbed wire, and local Arab labourers lived in rudimentary shacks. For their part, the Americans created a parallel of the Jim Crow system in their oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

These workers fought back, and their struggles contributed significantly – through strikes, protests and sabotage – to the post-war anti-colonial wave that gradually expelled the British empire from the Middle East. Striking workers were punished with imprisonment, exile or execution, while non-nationals were deported. Security forces were drawn from separate demographic groups from those the workers would come from, in a classic divide and rule strategy, and were often led by British officers even after nominal independence in 1971. Beatings were frequent in the workplace, while torture was rife in a prison system created under British rule, and which endures today. The history Khalili uncovers here demonstrates that despotism in the peninsula, far from being a characteristic of local ‘culture,’ was actively facilitated by the Western powers to crush popular opposition. 

For all these efforts, conditions for today’s workers at the peninsula’s cargo ports and loading terminals remain squalid and severe. Under the indenture system, meagre wages are not paid on time, if at all, while recruiters keep workers in bondage through upfront fees that cannot feasibly be repaid. Foreign workers are the majority of the population on the Gulf coast with south Asians the largest group, particularly prevalent in the ports 

The maritime networks of the Gulf have always had both a civilian and a military dimension. In the present day, regional rivalries between Qatar and Turkey on the one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other are playing out in competition for strategic access in the Red Sea, where the UAE has already established a string of military bases. But the major naval power of today remains the United States, with the 5th fleet harboured in Bahrain and an aircraft carrier strike group on constant patrol. 

The US enjoys extensive basing rights throughout the Gulf, but due to public opposition, these bases have become increasingly remote from population centres, albeit poised to move inland quickly to defend the client regimes if needed. Meanwhile, major logistics firms and private military companies have thrived at the intersection of commercial and military activity around the shipping infrastructure of the peninsula. 

By far the most significant event in the region’s recent history is the war in Yemen, now scene of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, created, for the most part, by indiscriminate Saudi bombing and a Saudi-UAE blockade. The first act in their 2015 assault was to shut down the key ports of Aden and Hodeidah through repeated bombardment that devastated vital infrastructure. Once Aden was secured by the Saudi-led coalition, the CEO of DP (Dubai Ports) World offered to step in and lead the reconstruction. This was the same DP World that had been thrown out of Aden after the uprisings of 2011, following popular protests against its twenty-five year concession under which promised development and benefits had failed to materialise. This is but one episode in a wider display of opportunism from the Saudis and the UAE governments, who have used the war to establish strategic and commercial footholds across the country’s various ports.

The Covid-19 pandemic that now casts an ominous shadow over the ruins of Yemen has also exacerbated a long-standing threat to the Gulf oil producers. A collapse in global demand has blown a gaping hole in their budgets, and there is no guarantee that demand for fossil fuels will ever fully recover. What place, if any, would these petrostates have in a decarbonising world? Some fascinating books will be written about Gulf capitalism in twenty or thirty years’ time, and they will find in Khalili’s work an indispensable reference point.