Laleh Khalili has written a remarkable book on the intersections of shipping in the Arabian Peninsula with the global economic system, social structures, history, and politics. Khalili explains in the acknowledgements section of “Sinews of War and Trade” that when she immersed herself in the field of shipping, she knew very little about it.
A professor of International Politics at the Queen Mary University of London, Khalili was probably as unfamiliar with the world of shipping at the beginning of her project as many of her readers might be.
However, after three years of research and travel in two different ships around the world, Khalili had become the perfect person to introduce us to the complexities of shipping without taking any prior knowledge for granted. In a sense, the reader is in the same position she was before the beginning of the project that culminated in “Sinews of War and Trade.”
Her academic background as a social scientist manifests itself in Khalili’s masterful contextualization of the world of shipping in a much broader political and social setting, with special attention to the Arabian Peninsula.
Khalili describes shipping as increasingly dominated by speculation. The financialization of shipping routes has been animated by the rise of derivative markets. In these speculative markets, buyer and seller can make a bet on the future price of a given commodity, and more surprisingly, on the future price of sea routes. Shipping, however, is as much subject to political influence as it is to objective economic forces.
Colonial and nationalist policies have led to the development of some new ports while existing ones already have gone through a progressive decline. Political factors explain the development of the Saudi port of Dammam and the decreasing importance of Yemen’s Aden port, despite its better natural conditions and strategic location. Harbors are, without a doubt, deeply “political.”
Political factors explain the development of the Saudi port of Dammam and the decreasing importance of Yemen’s Aden port.
The author also pays attention to the increasing deregulation of the shipping sector. National and international legal frameworks, as well as international financial institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank, have heavily contributed to this process. Its clearest expression is to be found in so-called “free zones” which are spaces of low or no taxation where tariffs or customs do not apply. These areas where capital operates unrestrained are common in the Arabian Peninsula. They neighbor ports and often emerge, in Khalili’s words, as “very securitized islands surrounded by moats of highways and barbed-wire fences.”
The book explores the influence of shipping on inland infrastructures, describing the relationship between the roads and rails leading to and from the sea and the different ports in harbors as symbiotic. This was the case in Saudi Arabia, where the oil company Aramco was conscious of the importance of investing in the roads required to connect the ports to the oilfields and developed these infrastructures early on.
The history of the Arabian Peninsula in the oil age is marked by the increasing power and wealth of local capitalists, who benefited from the enormous economic profits of the infrastructure construction and shipping businesses linked to the exploitation of oil. Though local merchants acted as middlemen for Euro-American firms at first, many of them invested their capital on commercial ventures connected to the oil boom and soon boasted large fortunes. The Kanoos in Bahrain and the al-Ghosaibis in Saudi Arabia are two of the most prominent merchant families that have thrived in the new era.
Khalili delves into the working conditions of those whose jobs are related to shipping, either inland or on the open seas. The docks of the Arabian Peninsula are dominated by racial hierarchies in the distribution of labor. There is not only segregation between manual and non-manual workers, with nationals and Westerners in the latter category, but also racialized hierarchies within manual work. Whereas skilled workers in the docks come from places like the Philippines and India, the more menial workers are often from Bangladesh or Nepal.
The docks of the Arabian Peninsula are dominated by racial hierarchies in the distribution of labor.
Manual workers in the Arabian docks are provided poor housing, have their right to unionize denied, and face the looming prospect of further mechanization of the ports. The absence of manual Arab workers in the docks is closely related to the strikes they organized in the 1950s and 1960s demanding better working conditions in a context of pan-Arabist political claims. The non-Arabic speaking migrants that replaced Arab workers and continue to suffer under the draconian kafala system used to monitor them, have proven easier to discipline.
Workers’ rights are not always more respected on board. Although ships flagged to European ports offer decent working conditions, other sailors have been abandoned by ship-owners in foreign ports without economic help to go back home. The tankers containing oil have pioneered automation both aboard and in the docks. From very early on, they were designed so that they would require a limited number of stevedores and seafarers to be operated, thus reducing costs.
While the first seven chapters of Khalili’s book are more concerned with the sinews of trade than with those of war, the eighth and last chapter of her work fills the void by detailing the impact of conflict on shipping in the Arabian Peninsula. The 1967 closure of the Suez Canal, the author explains, benefited maritime commerce in the Arabian Peninsula. The same happened, to a more limited extent, with the October War (or Arab-Israeli War), in 1973 and the Lebanese civil war that started in 1975.
The 1967 closure of the Suez Canal, the author explains, benefited maritime commerce in the Arabian Peninsula.
The effects of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War were very different. The Persian Gulf became an area of combat for Iran and Iraq, which targeted each other’s tankers. The insurance rates for ships operating in the war zone experienced an enormous increase. The conflict also led to a greater presence of US ships in the area, that was further consolidated with the first and second Gulf Wars against Iraq.
Khalili’s latest book can only be applauded. Perhaps the most impressive aspects of “Sinews of War and Trade” are its comprehensiveness and its success in approaching the world of shipping in the Arabian Peninsula from different angles to provide a holistic perspective. Migrant workers, colonial officials, dictators, ship captains, broker-dealers, Yemeni tribes, and corporate lawyers all find their place in the pages of an impressively original, scholarly work.