The P&O Scandal Was Created By Imperialism

P&O were able to get away with illegally sacking 800 staff because of Britain’s close relationship with the companies’ Emirati owners – a reminder that fighting for workers' rights means fighting the global networks that encourage their exploitation.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

The sacking of 800 workers at P&O Ferries with no notice, over Zoom, caused outrage across the political spectrum. It has been seen, rightly, as an expression of ruthless capitalist disregard for workers, even more unforgivable in the context of a cost-of-living crisis. Even Tory ministers and the right-wing press have condemned this shameless decision, with the company losing government contracts as a result.

Yet the British establishment is deeply complicit in this scandal, and in the predatory capitalism of the Gulf states which ruins the lives of workers in the Gulf, Britain, and around the world.

Much scrutiny has been directed at P&O Ferries’ parent company, Dubai Ports (DP) World, which acquired P&O in 2019 for £322 million. While DP World claims to be primarily a commercial operation, it is ultimately owned by the United Arab Emirates through Dubai Inc. and is widely recognised by analysts as a central instrument of state foreign policy. 

Britain helped create the autocratic fossil capitalist states of the Arab Gulf in the first place. It has provided them with military training and hardware, lucrative financial deals, and unwavering diplomatic support. This has continued despite the human rights abuses and aggressive militarism of countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as their brutal, ongoing seven-year onslaught on Yemen. Workers’ movements should recognise that the close ties between British and Gulf capitalism provide opportunities for solidarity and a critique of how capitalism and military imperialism are intimately connected.

Britain and the Gulf States

The modern history of the Arabian Peninsula cannot be understood without looking at the central role of the British Empire, as well as the continued involvement of ‘post-imperial’ Britain. As David Wearing has argued, Britain’s policy has been consistently conservative—providing crucial support to maintain the authoritarian, monarchical status quo. British officers served in the upper echelons of the region’s security services and defence ministries throughout the twentieth century. For example, until the early 1980s, the majority of Oman’s officer corps were British.

The Empire played a central role in state formation, bringing the entire region under the rule of their favoured sultans. This strategy was about protecting access to the Empire’s Indian colonies, while preserving flows of oil and vital trade and supply routes. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as Britain finally began withdrawing from the region, it worked with local elites to try and tie together the tiny Emirates to preserve them against waves of Arab nationalist, republican, and Marxist agitation and armed struggle in the region. These projects were seen, as one Omani revolutionary quoted in Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s study of the Dhufar Revolution put it, as ‘a colonialist game for tidying up the map’ and keeping Britain’s feudal clients in power. Eventually, these former British protectorates became the UAE.

Britain’s close links with the Gulf monarchies continued following the Arab Spring and the war on Yemen. The acquisition of UK businesses and infrastructure by Dubai-based capital has been directly encouraged by the government. In 2013, the Guardian revealed that a secret group of officials had been established to promote investment by the UAE. This group included former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has close links to dictatorships across the world, including in the Arab Gulf. In this case he was acting in his role as a so-called Middle East Peace envoy.

Gulf capital remains vital to the British government, especially as it seeks to re-position the country’s trade arrangements after Brexit. The push to establish freeports reflects the extreme free-market ideology of the Tory government, a way to create industrial zones ‘free’ of worker rights, regulations, and taxes. Libertarian advocates of freeports have described them as ‘a dagger aimed at the heart of socialism’ and a ‘benign cancer’. DP World is an important part of this policy. Their Jebel Ali freeport is considered one of the most ‘successful’ in the world, offering 0% tax to big multinationals. The company remains slated to play a big role in the Thames Freeport, despite outrage over P&O’s behaviour.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Today, the conservative monarchies of the Arab Gulf are the backbone of anti-democratic politics in the region, and facilitate US and, more broadly, Western dominance in the Middle East. Among these, smaller states like the UAE have pioneered a model of predatory capitalist investments, close connections with international business elites, and domination of their neighbouring states—including through warfare and military expansion. 

In the case of the UAE, this has been centred on the Indian Ocean region. More often than not, deals to build ports have involved privatisation of state-owned enterprises in host nations. This can be seen in the disputes over the Sudanese government’s plan to privatise their main port and sell it to DP World. Similarly, the company took Djibouti’s government to court over the latter’s decision to pull out of a joint venture on a strategically important port. These ports often serve a ‘dual-use’ function, becoming bases for the UAE’s navy and air force. 

International relations scholars Harry Verhoeven and Rory Miller describe the ‘DP World Vision’, in which the UAE seeks ‘to become the dominant geo-economic force in the Western Indian Ocean World’. UAE troops have taken part in various US and NATO operations and DP World’s Jebel Ali port has been a major base of operations for the US military.  The UAE’s plans for regional dominance through buying up port infrastructure has been unwritten by the UK—with £720 million of our development budget invested in a joint venture involving ports in Senegal, Egypt, and Somaliland.

As David Wearing has pointed out, our government’s policies of supporting the Gulf monarchies represent the interests of elite groups in Britain. Gulf wealth matters to the City of London, while arms exports help Britain maintain an advanced defence industry and thus the ability to project military power globally. 

But we don’t need an economy centred on financial services over quality employment and industry across the country, especially not given the urgent threat of climate change and the need for a green industrial revolution. Nor should we support the ruling class’s ambition to maintain Britain as a global military power, a legacy of Empire which sees the UK support repressive elites and regimes the world over. 

Nationalisation without compensation of P&O Ferries—which the RMT and others have proposed—could be demanded as part of a decisive break with the UAE and with Britain’s imperialist policies. The Gulf states are at least as repressive at home, and as aggressive abroad, as Putin’s Russia. If Russian oligarchs’ yachts can be seized, and their accounts frozen, there should be no reason why we can’t treat Gulf wealth and assets in the UK the same way. The difference, from the perspective of British elites, is that Russia is a geopolitical rival. 

The government made a big show of condemning P&O, but the prospect of any decisive action against DP World was likely hamstrung by a desire to retain close relations with the UAE. Alliances with the Gulf states, seen as vital to the UK’s ability to project power globally, are valued over workers’ rights at home.

Workers’ Power and World Politics

Too often, international relations are thought of as a game played by statesmen and diplomats, worked out in elite summits and embassy backrooms. In reality, foreign policy decisions have immediate consequences for the lives, wellbeing, and livelihoods of workers. Just as importantly, states rely on ordinary people—whether as workers or soldiers—to carry out their geopolitical strategies. 

When workers get organised, they can become a real force in world politics. We should not forget that workers’ revolutions in Germany and Russia were crucial to bringing the bloodbath of the First World War to an end. Whether it is dockers stopping the shipment of arms to the White armies in the Russian Civil War, Scottish engineers refusing to repair fighter jets for the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s, or railway workers in Belarus sabotaging the transport of Russian war materiel to Ukraine today, industrial action remains a vital means to oppose imperialism and war. 

The labour movement in the UK needs to revive this anti-imperialist tradition and make the connections between the P&O sackings and global capitalism, looking for ways to link up and act in solidarity with workers in the Gulf and globally.