Art for All at Sea.
Still from Allan Sekula's "The Forgotten Space."
Harris Feinsod,  August 24

All at Sea

Surveying the watery expanses of the world economy

Still from Allan Sekula's "The Forgotten Space."
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Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula by Laleh Khalili. Verso Books, 352 pages.

The International Labor Organization estimates that in spring 2020, the coronavirus drove a 14 percent decline in worldwide working hours relative to spring 2019, equivalent to some 400 million lost jobs. Yet as economists rushed to measure these staggering unemployment numbers, an inverse calamity unfolded out of view: a rash of workers forced to labor against their will. The International Transport Workers’ Federation claims that, in the midst of the pandemic, the shipping industry coerced at least 200,000 merchant seamen into contract extensions, denied them safe passage home to their families, or required them to forego medical care in port. Still ongoing, this de facto mass conscription resembles a large-scale restoration of the historic press gangs seen during the worst seasons of labor recruitment by the British Royal Navy, and later by the crimps and landsharks of San Francisco’s so-called Barbary Coast. As customs enforcement agencies tightened borders and shipping concerns endeavored to ward off a dreaded cycle of “deglobalization” this spring, each revealed a characteristic indifference to the marine workers who stoke the dynamo of world commerce.

If this neglect feels like an old story, that is because the seagoing edges of capital and colonialism, often sailing in cahoots, entail five hundred years of contempt for marine workers. We can trace these exploitative labor histories back to the sixteenth century, when chattel slavery, facilitated by marine transport, laid the groundwork for the expansion of European empires. Closer to our era, in the nineteenth century, the Egyptian public works department used “Corvée”—that is, unfree—labor to build the Suez Canal. In the early twentieth century, as soon as organized labor made gains for sailors, the flag of convenience began to fly: a legal instrument freed shipowners to open registries in Liberia or Panama, allowing them to circumvent national labor laws protecting seamen. Since the 1960s, the relentless marches of automation and containerization—the use of those now-ubiquitous boxes that streamline movement of goods from ship to shore—have again undermined dockworkers who had only just managed to decasualize.

In recent decades, as remote, securitized transshipment facilities like Dubai’s Jabal Ali have overtaken older, “break bulk” urban seaports—where goods flowed right out of the holds and off the docks into the metropolis—public scrutiny on maritime commerce has only diminished. Now out of view, container and tanker ports continue to be what Allan Sekula once dubbed globalization’s “forgotten space.” The political theorist Laleh Khalili credits this imperviousness partly to the sailor’s own fall from grace as a raconteur, hampered by the age of the container ship. “If there are no yarns to be spun,” she writes in her new book Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, “There is also scant possibility of telling stories over the deafening sound of the electric grinders or power hoses.”

Seafloor ecologies around the Arab Peninsula lie devastated after a century of nearly continual dredging operations.

Sinews offers one of the most outstanding recent investigations into the hard-to-narrate infrastructure of modern ports and their place in the patterns of global conflict and commerce. Much of her book concerns the post-World War II development of tanker, bulk, and container shipping along the coastlines of the Arab Peninsula, and the fantasy futures authored by the speculators, emirates, empires, and mercenary logistics companies that profited from it. Khalili’s deft and forensic investigation brings into focus how the region was shaped and in turn shaped the global energy economy in the age of oil. Moreover, she draws a bright line between regional military and trade networks, revealing the human cost of ordinary logistics. As she notes late in the book, “Quartermasters of capital are so often indistinguishable from the masters of trade.”


Aristotle Onassis talks with Patriarch Athenagoras. | Wikimedia Commons

Consider the origins of the term “Middle East.” It was popularized by the U.S. naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who used it in his 1902 article “The Persian Gulf and International Relations.” As On Barak points out in Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization, what Mahan had in mind was not a region with cultural and political complexity—at the time, the Middle East was defined by complex arrangements between colonial powers and local Emirates and Sultanates—but a “string of British coaling depots” that supplied the steamships of her majesty’s then-expanding maritime empire. (Barak calls this coalonialism.) This understanding of the Middle East is defined by the ligatures traversing it, what the New York Times once dubbed Victorian Britain’s “sinew of empire.”

The discovery of oil in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere across the 1930s and 1940s set off another wave of convulsive changes to peninsular logistics, as “titanic maritime infrastructures” developed atop the sinuous framework. Khalili addresses this process in a brilliant chapter titled “Harbour-Making.” She describes how firms like the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) partnered with late colonial governments and disunited emirates to transform the vast shallows of the Persian Gulf from a hinterland of dhows and lighters—where colonial Viceroys had to be carried ashore only to re-stage triumphal landings—into deep water harbors driving a ferocious new economy. Petro-harbors like Dammam and Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia, and Mina Ahmadi and Shuwaikh in Kuwait, came to exemplify a carte blanche form of corporate sovereignty, as oil companies themselves got into the harbor-making business. By contrast, container ports like Dubai and Sharjah were products of competing emirates eager to secure advantageous access to trade from the British Empire. For Khalili, “in its constant scramble for ever-deeper harbours,” and “in its ruthless moulding, whittling, and carving up of sea into land and land into more land,” Dubai became a typical node in the worldwide imperial matrix of capital accumulation. Today, the seafloor ecologies of the region lie devastated after a century of nearly continual dredging operations.

The ocean floor around the Arab Peninsula was gradually transformed from a commons into a scene of jurisdictional claims by squabbling emirates.

Few personalities populate Sinews of War and Trade. Mostly, Khalili focuses on corporate and state actors in an  array of dull acronyms and indices—Aramco, BAPCO, Baltic Dry Index, and so forth—that require a glossary. One exception is the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, better known as the second husband of Jacqueline Kennedy. Onassis brilliantly amassed a fleet of megatankers just before and after World War II, anticipating the postwar oil boom. In 1953, he secured a lucrative exclusive on the transport of Saudi petroleum, which upset everyone from the Dulles brothers to British Petroleum. Aramco claimed that its 1933 concession included shipping rights that invalidated the Saudis’ contract with Onassis; in 1958, an arbitration tribunal in Switzerland sided with Aramco, effectively valuing the company over the Saudis’ sovereignty. For Khalili, this is a paradigmatic case of how European law abetted multinational corporations as they ran roughshod over postcolonial states attempting to assert sovereignty over their resources.

Astutely, Khalili shows how this process recalibrated the old doctrine mare liberum (“freedom of the seas”), formulated in a 1609 treatise by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. In that earlier age of imperial conflicts, European powers like the Dutch had overridden traces of indigenous law to declare the sea universal property, thereby paving the way for its seizure. This process would be repeated in the 1950s, when the ocean floor around the Arab Peninsula was gradually transformed from a commons into a scene of jurisdictional claims by squabbling emirates keen to get into offshore oil drilling. Their pursuant struggles culminated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1958/1982), which formalized international regulations on the use of maritime resources. Even as it  promised a global commons, the law allowed only those world powers who commanded sufficient technical resources and capital to install the complex infrastructures of undersea extraction.

These submarine scrambles are only one of many “palimpsests of law and corporate sovereigns” that Khalili unpacks in her book. Equally crucial is the development of extralegal free trade zones and export processing zones, which enshrine a variable sovereignty over the corporations that make tax havens of them. Dubai’s Jabal Ali port is emblematic in this regard.

Hard to glimpse behind the layers of security, Jabal Ali is Khalili’s white whale. Escaping regulatory scrutiny, it hosts the frictionless capital accumulation of some seven thousand corporate entities, most foreign, who rely on the docility of laborers from Nepal and elsewhere hemmed in by forced migration. In a recent interview with the “Everyday Analysis” podcast, Khalili recounted that leaders of International Transport Workers’ Federation had encouraged her to look into Jabal Ali, justifiably concerned about the labor conditions there. She twice managed to call on the inaccessible port in her own travel by container ship. But many such ports, built out of view and often refortified with post-9/11 security enhancements, constrict admission for unassorted passengers and other observers.


Arabian Peninsula. | Tablespace

How did dockworkers and sailors fare in the new terrain of corporate sovereigns and remote megaports that emerged in the twentieth century? Khalili’s two chapters on landside and shipboard labor ripple with the tragic energy of workers disciplined by capital in one historical conjuncture after another, even as they erratically resisted. She follows historian Marcel van der Linden in tracing the plight of contemporary marine worker to racialized technologies of rule that created “unfree labour in the colonies,” especially through forced and managed migration. Her evidence includes the history of the lascars, seafarers from South Asian and Middle Eastern colonies who worked for colonial shipping services, usually at lower wages than their European counterparts. Since the late eighteenth century, Britain had relied on lascars as wage labor that could stopgap profits declining after the end of impressment and slavery. Even when white British seafarers began to make important labor gains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these never really trickled down to lascars, who instead found themselves surveilled by new restrictions, such as a 1925 registration requirement for “coloured alien seamen,” and discriminatory wage measures enshrined in British law until 1970.

The vulnerability of contemporary shipworkers was painfully brought home by the recent explosion in Beirut.

On land and at sea, forced migration shaped the manning practices for the neo- and postcolonial corporate sovereigns of the Middle East as well. Khalili points out that Aramco’s hiring of a thousand Palestinians displaced by the Nakba was hardly magnanimity; rather, it was an effort to oust well-organized Italian oil workers. Likewise, in the decades after World War II, as the oil industry devoured skilled laborers from Kuwait and Bahrain, shipping companies relied on unskilled workers from the Trucial States, inventing migrant worker categories to control communities that had long crossed back and forth across land now marked by national borders. Khalili threads together many such details as she deciphers a dense web of forced migration patterns and newly restrictive visa systems, from the housing of Pakistani and Lebanese workers in remote labor camps as they build a U.S. naval base in Oman in the 1970s, to underpaid Punjabi dockworkers in the United Arab Emirates today. One of her most haunting stories is about Nepalese logistics workers recruited in 2004 by Jordanian representatives of the Halliburton subsidiary KBR. Told they would be working in Kuwait, they found themselves hauling cargo on the frontlines of the Iraq war, where several were killed in an ambush.   

A parade of strikes and protests attended these histories of labor discipline. But laborers in the Arab Peninsula were far less successful than their colleagues in ports like San Francisco and Durban, where “dockworker power”—the historian Peter Cole’s phrase—has been remarkably light on its feet at the chokepoints of commodity circulation. In one compelling interlude, Khalili resurfaces a little known 1948 docker strike at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Aden, which she regards as a premonition of the anticolonial struggles of the 1960s. (Here, a slightly wider perspective could have brought to light more intricate entanglements of docker strikes and anticolonialism, as in the Australian dockers who struck on behalf of Indonesian independence in 1946, the subject of Joris Ivens’s 1946 short film Indonesia Calling.)

Another legal technology that effectively stymied sea worker resistance was the invention of the aforementioned flags of convenience in Panama in 1916. These jurisdictional games of Three Card Monte rarely redounded to the sailors’ benefit. In 1981, hungry Filipino crew members aboard a Saudi ship docked in Rotterdam struck for sufficient rations. The Dutch courts ruled that a Philippine law prohibited them from legally striking. No wonder  Filipinos currently comprise 14 per cent of all global seafarers.

The vulnerability of contemporary shipworkers was painfully brought home by the recent explosion in Beirut. The cause of the explosion, as we now know, was a bulk shipment of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that Lebanese port officials had removed from an abandoned ship and stored in a generic quayside transshipment depot. That the Lebanese state authorities were manifesting a time-honored capacity for bureaucratic incompetence is clear enough. Less remarked is why they had to remove the explosives from the ship in the first place. It transpires that in 2013, the MV Rhosus, which was flying a Moldovan flag of convenience, had called at the Port of Beirut, where it was subjected to a random Port State Control (PSC) inspection and failed this safety test. Promptly, the ship was let loose by its owner, Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin, who severed all communications with his crew members. The cargo more or less disappeared as well. Left to their own devices, and deprived of a salary, four Ukrainian crewmembers were held hostage aboard the bomb ship for eleven months, as Lebanese port officials impeded their repatriation, debating how best to dispose of the explosives. The treatment of the workers was scarcely less callous than the eventual handling of the ammonium nitrate.


The final logic of inter-port competition was simply one of humanitarian crisis.

Khalili’s most powerful chapter is her last. Here, she draws on her expertise as a scholar of war to connect the maritime commerce of the Arabian Peninsula to its histories of violence. In the mid-1980s, a stalemate in the Iran–Iraq War led both parties to intensify their attacks on tankers. These “Tanker Wars” expedited the military’s securitization of oil exports, as many ships were reflagged by the U.S. and the Soviet Union eager to protect their corporate interests. “The operations to protect hydrocarbon shipping during the Tanker Wars were one of the earliest arenas for CENTCOM flexing its muscles in the region,” Khalili writes. Iraq’s attack on Kuwait in 1990 offered the U.S. an opportunity to dramatically expand its influence in the region through maritime logistics operations, like the power lift of personnel and materiel during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Likewise, the remoteness and security of Jabal Ali made it a major transshipment point for the staging of the war in Afghanistan.

Khalili concludes by tracing the profiteering of maritime logistics companies, from Haliburton to the lesser known Kuwait-based Agility, who have offered lucrative aid to these military services. She describes Erik Prince as “the most shameless of these carpetbaggers.” After years of Iraq War profiteering through Blackwater, Prince moved to Abu Dhabi and formed companies including Reflex Responses and Frontier Services Group. These mercenary security and logistics organizations engaged in activities from anti-piracy patrolling in the Gulf of Aden to paramilitary protection for Chinese state investments in the port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

Prince is only one such shapeshifter. Another is the UAE and Saudi coalition that bombarded the ports of Aden and Hodeidah in Yemen, where its blockades exacerbated a cholera epidemic, starvation, and medical supply shortages. Here, even more starkly than in the case of the world’s current rash of stranded sailors, the final logic of inter-port competition was simply one of humanitarian crisis. Wherever they are forgotten or unobserved, the arteries of marine commerce remain prone to such catastrophic embolisms. As people sweep the shattered glass from the streets of Beirut, one can only hope this is a lesson they draw.

Harris Feinsod is associate professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University, and a fellow at the National Humanities Center. He is the author of The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford 2017) and the co-translator of Oliverio Girondo’s Decals: Complete Early Poems (Open Letter 2018). 

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