Review of Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (Verso, 2020).
In July 2019 British marines operating in the Mediterranean blocked the delivery of oil supplies from Iran to Syria, enforcing EU sanctions by seizing the Adrian Darys tanker and prompting a (failed) US Department of Justice attempt to confiscate over two million barrels of oil. The following spring, Saudi military spokesman Turki al-Malki announced the victorious foiling of an “imminent terrorist attack” by Houthi militia members on an oil tanker near the Gulf of Aden. Such incidents are routinely blamed on Iran, with attacks on Iranian ships less widely reported. As once again demonstrated with the Beirut port disaster in August 2020, maritime economy is bound up with politics. As Laleh Khalili shows in her meticulously researched book, the amphibious histories of trade, resources, and labour are inseparable from the power plays of imperialism and war.
Sinews of War and Trade focuses on the Arabian Peninsula, seeing maritime trade, logistics, and hydrocarbon transport as “the clearest distillation of how global capitalism operates today” (2). Drawing on archive research and fieldwork on Gulf ports and tankers, the writing is engaging and accessible, presenting history based on stories rather than over-heavy referencing or exhaustive discussion of academic scholarship. Khalili seeks to get behind a seemingly invisible world of migrant labour and geopolitics defined by capitalist relations through oil, dirt, exploitation, and violence. The result lays bare the reaches of empire and war, environmental impact, and working-class struggles of a world in convulsion.
In brutally seizing Aden in 1839, Britain stamped its name in blood upon Arabian Peninsula shipping, retaining its position as a fuelling outpost until its defeat in 1967 by the Yemeni anticolonial struggle. Occupying Egypt and controlling the new Suez Canal from the 1860s, Britain consolidated both its colonial rule in Asia and supremacy over European and Russian rivals. International capital flows surged massively in this era, fuelling mineral extraction in Africa and Asia. (33) Technological advances simultaneously grew out of imperialist control of the ports and sea routes, and enabled their more fruitful exploitation. Innovations such as steam shipping or the telegraph spurred on global markets for finance capital. Via Walter Rodney, Khalili illustrates that where European powers built roads and rail, these enabled the swift transfer of resources to the seas:
In both Bahrain and Kuwait, petroleum companies had been content to develop those hinterland roads that connected their oil wells to workers’ villages or to their refineries and terminals on the coast and no more. (130)
The ascent of US imperialism as a challenger to British dominance coincided with the discovery and commodification of oil in a period of petrol tankers and an astronomical global rise in petroleum shipping. By 1960, two-thirds of the petroleum transported from the Middle East to Europe passed through the Suez Canal. The surge in extraction and trade of oil over the first half of the twentieth century “had seismic effects in the making of the politics and social relations of the Arabian Peninsula and the world.” (45)
Nasser’s closure of the canal in 1956 hit British interests hard. Khalili analyses a range of phenomena shaping this history, from mega port projects and oil corporation monopolies, to labour struggles and anti-colonial confrontations. The pulsations of warfare are narrated here in relationship to maritime military interventions, blockades, and bombings. British-led war on Egypt had met with US opposition, blocking Britain’s IMF loan in the aftermath. Canal closure led European states to explore oil extraction in Northern and Western Africa; interest in pipeline constructions gathered pace.
Israel’s paralysing attacks on the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus during its 1973 war caused 386 million dollars in damage; and the burning of Beirut docks by the Phalange in 1975, led Lebanese coastal areas falling into the hands of warlords. (248) Kuwait, Dubai, Sharjah, and Bahrain were major beneficiaries of the banking and insurance sectors deserting Beirut. The prosperity of their ruling classes relied on new strategic relationships. Where Britain once established colonial naval bases to protect its interests in Aden, Sharjah, Bahrain, Oman, and elsewhere, by the twenty-first century the United States depended on "marshal access to maritime transport infrastructures" to fight a post-September 11 “forever war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. (256) US bases in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain would not, however, be built without street opposition. (260)
Khalili’s retelling of popular struggles is noteworthy for both its attention to detail and in amplifying history’s forgotten voices. Under British rule, migrant-led strikes of port workers were frequent and took on militant forms, stoking the ire and frustration of the occupiers.
In the late 1940s, a "Syed Hasshin Siddik" was deported by Aramco to Aden via Bahrain because "he was reported to have made inflammatory and communistic speeches to Adenese workers in Dhahran." Even the British officers in Bahrain seemed exasperated by the deportation and wrote,
"It should be pointed out that all oil companies, and especially Aramco, grow hysterical when faced with a rebel or agitator. The latter always delivers ‘inflammatory’ speeches and are, as a matter of course, ‘communistic’.” (205)
Racial profiling of striking workers went hand in hand with colonial rule, with British officials seeing Somalis as “most difficult,” Indians as “hardworking and unimaginative,” and Palestinians as “clever, lazy and politically conscious.” (185)
The question of Palestine was often central to the economic struggles of maritime labourers, with strikes in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle after the Naksa of 1967. Zionist colonisation of Palestine in 1948 had led to large numbers of Palestinians working in Gulf states. Referencing Marxist author Ghassan Kanafani, Khalili shows that the stark life or death struggle depicted in his novel Men in the Sun was painfully close to reality:
The route often began in Qamishli, in northern Syria, and proceeded to Tel Kujak, on the Syria-Iraq border. From there, the Palestinian migrants walked for fifteen to twenty hours across the desert to reach villages from which they could make their way to Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Once in Basra, guides took them across the desert to Kuwait. Many were abandoned by unscrupulous guides and died of exposure. If they went by sea, they traversed the marshlands of Fao, where many drowned. Many thousands nevertheless migrated to the Gulf, especially Kuwait. (167)
Pan-Arabism and communism were leading forces in movements across the colonised Gulf. The British Labour Party during its 1945 government attempted to head off these struggles by installing trade union organisations modelled on the British TUC:
Writing about Qatari demands for unions, a British labour attaché claimed that “although there are obvious dangers of subversion by extremist elements, trade unionism could prove to be a major factor in the gradual political evolution of the Arab world, in internal social reform, and in blocking the course of international communism.” (210)
If there is a political criticism to be made here, Khalili’s language on the socialist bloc is, at times, indistinguishable from her descriptions of imperialism. Marxists must take issue with terming Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as an “invasion,” or seeing Soviet-backed anticolonial forces as “clients” of a superpower (257); nor do we get a sense that the fall of the Soviet Union was a setback for working-class or anti-imperialist struggles. These points aside, Khalili offers an often-neglected view of history from below. Later, authoritarian regimes would violently suppress leftist opposition while accelerating neoliberal policies on coasts and hinterlands.
Sinews of War and Trade makes an important and timely contribution to understanding the environmental impact of Gulf “development” stories, reminding us that the breakneck speed accompanying the mirage-like rise of desert city-states has meant the ruthless scramble for deep harbours and re-carving of landscapes are also stories of ecological degradation. Where the drive for profit assumes the earth and sea to be malleable, oil spillages leave lumps of tar in the sand, and bilge water, pollutants, and sludge are released from ship fuel tanks. (77) The deep dredging of coastal lands brings disastrous consequences to ocean ecosystems, while the bulk shipping of sand from poorer nations devastates rivers and beaches, causing flooding, erosion, and threatening natural protection from sea storms. “The authority to magically create land out of the sea” becomes “a form of accumulation by dispossession, an enclosure of a space held in common–the sea–for the purpose of speculation and sales.” (81)
Khalili shows eloquently that ecological degradation, labour exploitation, and capital are inextricably bound up with the drive to war. The riches of military construction and logistics are shown in the obscene profits of US-aligned companies in the years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In one leading example, Kuwait-based Agility Logistics saw its annual revenue shoot up from 154 million US dollars to 6.3 billion US dollars in five years:
The firms in the consortium that lent to the firm... included Bank of America, Bank of Ireland, HSBC, BNP Paribas (of Brazil), and various Kuwaiti and Gulf banks. By 2010, Agility had received more than US$8 billion in contracts from the US military, second only to KBR Halliburton’s US$39 billion. (262)
The “carpetbaggers” of US military personnel set up consulting firms, turned airports into airfields, ports into warship landing sites, “logistic cities” out of prison camps, and made millions from the failed imperialist ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, we are reminded, “just as easily as military bases become emporia of trade, they can be reconverted into military outposts.” (263) Motives for the UAE role as a partner in the Saudi war on Yemen are further exposed in pre-2011 contracts held by Dubai Ports World in Aden, and in the company’s payments to former president Ali Abdullah Salih. Like the British before them, the United Arab Emirates and its local allies “hold the port of Aden as their prize,” backed up by a military colony at Soqotra.
Khalili’s narrative is recommended reading for understanding the power plays of Gulf capital and, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Bahrain now more openly coalescing, the devil in the detail of this book is suggestive of events further afield, from Lebanon to Libya. In times of sharpening global crisis, shaking the heartlands of global capitalism, the stories of migrant and indigenous resistance shaping Gulf histories hint at ways forward for those on the receiving end of the system and its tentacles.