Laleh Khalili’s book Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula is a surprisingly seductive read. A cross between history, geopolitics and economics, with a bit of a travelogue thrown in for good measure, Sinews of War and Trade… is neither a specialist tome nor too general to be of any great use.
The writer points out that, “The [Arabian] Peninsula has long been a node of trade between Europe and Asia, and in the nineteenth century it became an irreplaceable British command post and anchorage on the route to India.” Furthermore, “the transformations that the internationalisation of capital and the commodification of oil have wrought, including creating titanic maritime infrastructures, are something else altogether.” This book, she tells us, is the story of these maritime infrastructures and how they work.
It has indeed been a radical transformation. The rise of huge ports and coastal cities from Dubai to Aden has had political, social and economic consequences, and changed life in the region.
It is no surprise that Khalili finds inspiration in, and draws analysis from, Abdulrahman Munif’s controversial novel Cities of Salt, which tells the story of the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s through the perspective of a Bedouin settlement. As Khalili puts it, “[Munif] chronicles the cataclysm of capital on the coasts of Arabia.” Indeed, her use of a novel as an analytical framework for understanding politics and history is one of the refreshing aspects of her book. This is not generally the done thing for political scientists and historians.
The author covers ships, ports, laws, transport, labour and other aspects of the development of the infrastructures around the Arabian Peninsula. We hear from financiers and migrant labourers and many in between who keep the system running.
Khalili’s contention is that cargo, ports and shipping are central to the functioning of the global economy. “Shipping statistics illuminate the contours of an astonishing story about contemporary capitalism and trade,” she writes. “Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship.” Discussions about globalisation are notable for how many pay little attention to maritime transport, despite its importance to the process. During her research for the book, Khalili tried to visit each port city and even went there on cargo ships. She documents the people she met along the way and their stories. This cuts to the heart of the book, which is fundamentally about telling people’s stories.
Of particular interest to me is Khalili’s attention to labour movements, migrants and protests in the ports and coastal cities. Many of us are familiar with the occasional human rights reports detailing the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf, but Khalili provides an important insight that transcend the simple facts and provides a comprehensive history.
Exploitation and poor working conditions are intrinsic to the economic systems in the Arabian Peninsula, as is racism, features which arose from Britain’s colonisation of the region. The British introduced a racial hierarchy in terms of jobs and how employers were meant to treat their workers. Migrant labour has played an important role in the building of these coastal cities and the Gulf’s absorption into the global economy. Foreign labour was brought in in order to circumvent local strikes and protests.
“The British were masters of social engineering on a global scale,” says Khalili, “moving prodigious numbers of workers between their various imperial holdings when their plantations, production, or trade required labour. At other times, mechanisms such as passports, visas, labour permits, the machinery of Kafala — or sponsorship system — and quota systems were used to prevent movements of migrant workers.”
Sinews of War and Trade… contains a fascinating array of social, political, and economic history. It also asks pertinent questions about the future. While European powers were key to the development of ports and the cities that support them, China seems to be where the future of the Arabian Gulf lies. The book prompts many questions about the implications of this.
If I have a criticism of this book, it is that I would have liked there to be more details about some aspects of development such as shipbuilding in Arabia, for example, or protest movements in Aden. In many ways, though, this is what makes Laleh Khalili’s book a great read. Anyone can pick it up and get immersed in the topic; no prior knowledge is required. It is also not overly academic in terms of style and structure and so is not particularly daunting to read. I found it fascinating and thoroughly engaging.