Talk at DIIS on offshoring and corporate ownership

I was invited by the lovely people of the Danish Institute for International Studies to give a talk on infrastructures. The abstract for the talk was:

Monday 19 October, 15.00-15.45
DIIS ∙ Danish Institute for International Studies

Online via Zoom

Accumulation of capital in the maritime industry – like so many other forms of capital accumulation- is predicated on elasticity, evasion, and cooptation. The very mobile and fragmentary nature of the business of shipping; its amphibian nature; its global expanse; and its private and family-owned ownership structures undergird its ability to escape even the most basic forms of scrutiny and demands for accountability. Among the technologies used as an infrastructure for accumulation are offshoring of ownership and offshoring of ship registries (or flags of convenience).

At this webinar, Laleh Khalili sketches these legal devices, invented, facilitated and supported by all the great political powers and the largest corporations involved in the maritime industry. She will explain how these legal infrastructures provide the modalities of accumulation where the boundaries between licit and illicit are blurred and capital evades forms of labour or environmental regulation.

Laleh Khalili is Professor of International Politics, Queen Mary University of London. Her research comprises infrastructures, political violence, war, the politics of gender and masculinities, and collective memory, amongst other issues.

The webinar is part of the Infrastructure as analytical approach series where we explore the potential and implications of infrastructure analysis through state-of-the art talks by leading scholars.

And the recording of the talk can be seen here:

Posted in capital accumulation, infrastructure, shipping conditions | Leave a comment

Interview with Project on Middle East Politics (PoMEP)

Below is my interview with PoMEP founder Marc Lynch on Sinews. It is more focused on the politics of the Middle East than some of the other interviews I have had:

The Podcast can also be heard via this link:

Posted in infrastructure, labour, Middle East, political economy | Leave a comment

Book launch at Princeton

Conversations -formal and informal, over lunch or over Zoom- with Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi are always immensely fun: they are rich, go in unexpected directions and always invoke lots of new ideas, and lots of new ways of seeing even stuff I have written myself.

We had such a conversation a couple of weeks ago about Sinews. Here is the video:

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, infrastructure, labour, Middle East, transport, war | Leave a comment

Brilliantly fun interview with Tank Magazine

Last month the brilliant Thomas Roueché interviewed me on Sinews for Tank magazine. The interview can be found here:

I am not reposting the content, because the piece has such cool graphics on their website!

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, finance and insurance, infrastructure, labour, logistics, Middle East, political economy, ports, shipping conditions | Leave a comment

Interview with Doug Henwood for KPFA’s Left Business Observer

As always it is really fun to talk to Doug, given that he was a merchant marine in his youth, and he is a great conversationalist. We chatted for his Left Business Observer in early August and the conversation went live on on 27 August:

Fresh audio product

Posted in capital accumulation, construction, empire, imperialism & colonialism, infrastructure, logistics, Middle East, militaries, oil, political economy, shipping conditions, transport | Leave a comment

A review of Sinews of War and Trade in The Baffler

I was thrilled to see such a brilliant erudite review of the book by Harris Feinsod.

All at Sea

Surveying the watery expanses of the world economy

By Harris Feinsod, 24 August 2020

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.”

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.

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.

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). 

This review was originally published at

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, finance and insurance, free ports/zones, infrastructure, logistics, Middle East, militaries, oil, shipping conditions, transport, war | Leave a comment

An interview with Katy Fox-Hodess on Logistics, Labour and State Power

20 August 2020

I was honoured to be interviewed by my amazing colleague and comrade, Dr Katy Fox-Hodess (whose own work is also cited in my book and with whom I worked when we put together Below is the text of the interview for Jain Institute’s Phenomenal World:

Laleh Khalili is a professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of the books Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National CommemorationTime in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency and the co-edited volume Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion.

Her latest book, published earlier this year, is Sinews of War and Trade. In it, she connects the themes of war making in the Middle East found in her earlier work with an examination of the contested role of capital, labor and the state in the region—via the maritime logistics industry.

Breathtaking in ambition, Khalili’s analysis draws on a wide range of materials to provide a long-view historical perspective on the economic and political development of the Arabian peninsula through the unequal playing field of global maritime trade. Through thematically-organized chapters on the region, Khalili examines the emergence of maritime routes; the development of landside port, road and rail infrastructure; the role of the law in structuring and securing international investment and ownership; the making of economic and political elites; the working conditions and modes of resistance by both seafarers and landside laborers; and the ways in which all of the above are tangled up with war making.

An interview with Laleh Khalili

Katy Fox-Hodess: Your earlier work focuses on state violence in the Middle East. How did you come to be interested in logistics?

Laleh Khalili: While I was doing the interviews for my book on counterinsurgency, I spoke to several US military officers. One of them was quite sympathetic to my project and very critical of US foreign policy at that time. They said to me, in a joking way, “You academics are interested in the bleeding edge of war, but what you should look at is the money.” It turns out that the money often goes into organizing logistics. Talking with this officer, I learned that payments for fuel for military vehicles, were transferred to Kuwait. The entirety of the Kuwaiti economy had sprouted up through transporting fuel for the US military. I filed this information at the back of my mind.

Some years later, my friend David Hansen-Miller, who worked as a researcher for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, suggested that I research the conditions of dockworkers and sailors in the Arabian Peninsula. There wasn’t much work on the subject, and I knew that many countries in the Arabian peninsula don’t allow unionization. So I began to think about this as well.

And at the same time, I was also ready to be done with writing and thinking about the degree of political violence involved in what I had been working on. It was exhausting and emotionally lacerating. I thought that switching to something that wasn’t so incredibly raw would be more interesting. Of course, there’s a huge amount of violence in logistics, but it’s not the “bleeding edge,” as that military officer put it.

kfh: One of the most wonderful things about the book is the huge array of research methods you used. Can you talk about your mixed methods approach, and about your experiences on the ground doing the research?

lk: My first major project, which was based on my PhD, was a straight-up ethnography. My second book relied on interviews and archival research. As an undergraduate I was trained as an engineer, and before I decided to go to grad school, I was a management consultant. So I’ve built a sense of how things are researched from different angles, and I wanted to be able to reach all of these different areas.

For this book, I did a bit of ethnography onboard container ships, loads of interviews both on land and on sea, and a huge amount of archival work. But a lot of the work on this book actually entailed going through business databases and old trade journals in Arabic and English, which was a new kind of method for me. The different elements of the project required different kinds of thinking and different sets of data; you’re not going to write about the emotional life of a sailor on a container ship by reading business journals, and you’re not going to be able to understand the fantasies of frictionless trade by talking to cynical seafarers who think it’s impossible. You want to access those fantasies, so you read the business journals, and then you situate them within the historical context.

kfh: There’s been a huge proliferation of research and writing on logistics in recent years, but it’s been largely focused on Europe and the United States. What do we learn by looking at the Middle East through the lens of logistics, and what do we learn by looking at logistics through the lens of the Middle East?

lk: Several things attracted me to studying logistics in the Middle East. First, the Arabian Peninsula is not a manufacturing powerhouse like China, Vietnam, or India. The port of Jebel Ali in Dubai is the only port outside of East or Southeast Asia that appears on the Journal of Commerce’s top 10 container ports. In thinking about logistics, we often consider the global supply chain element which begins with the manufacturer and ends up at Walmart. In doing so, we exclude major transit ports like Singapore, Dubai, or Oman. The life and livelihood of those ports is entirely dependent on being middlemen in these routes of trade, and these routes are fundamentally tied to colonial histories. These were trading posts during colonial times, and they were also major and important trading cities before the Europeans came to the Indian Ocean. That was one of the things that I really wanted to examine.

If you study logistics in the Middle East as a lens through which to understand logistics elsewhere, the relationship between surveillance mechanisms and trade and transit becomes very clear. A lot of fantastic critical work on logistics comes from Marxists who focus on manufacturing. (On one of my container ship trips, I took volumes two and three of Capital with me and it was amazing to read his discussion of circulation in that environment.) But in my research I was also occupied by Foucault’s writing on circulation, and how circulation is tied to policing. It’s necessary to think about this because we know that new forms of circulation provide a platform for the creation of new forms of surveillance, and new ways to discipline labor. Your own work shows this. But the surveillance mechanisms are also used to discipline those who live around the ports and shape the conviviality or lack thereof in a port city. Surveillance and securitization are so blatant in the Arabian Peninsula that it becomes a very useful context for thinking about these processes in general.

As for how this research affected my view of the Middle East, I initially wanted to challenge limited stereotypes about the peninsula as either a stage for geopolitics, or a source of oil. Oil is understood as a commodity over which empires fight, but this understanding can exclude both the lives of people who produce oil and the technologies of extraction and transportation that are built around it. People think about Dubai as this awful, blingy place with no soul or culture, but to me Dubai is no different than Singapore or Hong Kong, with exploitation of migrant labor, extreme consumption, and massive inequality. These places are dependent on disciplining noncitizen labor, so the nature of citizenship in these places is also very similar. Yet Singapore and Hong Kong don’t get the same kind of opprobrium that Dubai does. I wanted to show that there is a life, a history, and an entire distinctive politics that underlies the working of these places, which often gets lost when we think at the level of security or bling or oil.

kfh: One of the important interventions of the book within the logistics literature is the centering of imperialism in your historical narrative. Where can we locate the sinews of imperialism outside of regions like the Middle East?

lk: It was impossible not to talk about imperialism or colonialism in the context of the Arabian Peninsula, because many of the infrastructures I studied emerged just before the intensity of postwar decolonization, when oil had been discovered and the empires were on their last legs. The British Empire was fighting tooth and nail to maintain what it could of its foothold in these particular places, at the same time as it was handing over the imperial mantle to the US. The US has always had a colonial presence on its own continent, an imperial and colonial presence in the Pacific and Caribbean, and an imperial presence in the Western hemisphere. But its postwar expansion to a global Empire was central to the story that I wanted to tell. It wasn’t possible to talk about road building or the fight over the continental shelf—who defined it, who designed it, who got to exploit the oil that was there, who got to use it as their exclusive economic zone—without that narrative.

The other thing that became very clear as I was doing this work was that the centers from which capital emanates are proliferating. The US still has the highest number of billionaires, and it still has, in absolute terms, the highest GDP in the world. But the US does not have a substantial maritime industry. It doesn’t have a single company in the top 10 shipping companies. It doesn’t have a single port in the top 10 shipping ports, nor a single port management company in the top 10 port management companies. But it sets the rules by which capital moves, the rules by which trade is conducted, the standards of accounting, the standards of engineering, and the legal infrastructures for the kind of trade that we see in and beyond the Middle East. The kind of free trade agreements that the US engaged in, for example, in the Pacific, has generated this flourishing of jobs for lawyers, accountants, and consultants. They traveled to the Pacific countries that were going to be part of the Pacific free trade agreement in order to standardize according to US criteria. That was fascinating to me, because although capital can now come from Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Hong Kong, or indeed Shanghai and Beijing, the parameters and rules within which capital operates are still firmly North Atlantic.

It is also fascinating to see that the securitization of the ports is not usually dictated by the authoritarian regimes that rule those places, although they have their own concerns about wanting to keep the workers away from the population. Much of the securitization actually comes down from the US, which wants mechanisms for checking containers or for making sure ports function in a particular way. The US Department of Defense maintains a list of strategic infrastructures, and it lists global ports as part of its own strategic infrastructure inventory. Because I have worked on the military, I tend to pay attention to the fact that the US spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined. Much of that sum goes into ensuring naval dominance in these places, while also ensuring that that presence is hidden so as not to provoke resistance from the populations there. Perhaps this is what a declining power does, but more importantly, it’s what an imperial power or a liberal empire does.

That’s also what’s changing a little bit under Trump. His administration is trying to dismantle the liberal institutions which have benefited the US. I’m curious as to whether the changes that Trump is bringing about, and perhaps the longer-lasting changes that might come with the pandemic, will affect these liberal institutions that have been nothing but boons to US-centered capitalism.

kfh: My own work has led me to study the rise of Dubai Ports World and some of the other Gulf-based companies in the maritime capital world. You trace how differently DP World has been able to operate in different regions: it’s quite aggressive within the Gulf, and it’s been quite successful. But when it tried to expand into the US post 9/11 it was shut out of the market. Researching dock labor, I’ve learned that the UK and Colombia both have DP World terminals. The one outside London, London Gateway, began with standard union avoidance practices, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. Now it’s a port with a union recognition agreement and terms and conditions broadly similar to other ports in the UK. Meanwhile, in Colombia, the labor conditions are terrible and the trade union movement is in dire straits. Do you have any reflections on how the local and national textures inflect these logistics multinationals?

lk: Dubai Ports World is a really good example of that. They are very aggressive and underhanded in a lot of the Global South, as evidenced by their work in Djibouti and in Yemen. They got their concession to the port of Aden through bribing then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and they were subsequently thrown out because they were routing cargo to Jebel Ali. They had taken control of this port, and they were running it down. At every port that I visited in the Western Indian Ocean basin—and I visited a lot of them, also beyond the Arabian Peninsula—everybody who worked in those ports would say, in a quiet whisper and off the record, that if DP World has a terminal, they run it down because they want to route everything to Jebel Ali. It’s a very old-school imperial tactic, actually: you take control of places that you don’t want to compete with, and you run them down.

In other places their behavior is completely different. In London they are still quite aggressive, but it remains litigious, rather than underhanded or violent. In 2006, when they were battered back in the US because of activism against their awful labor practices and Islamophobia, they didn’t take the US to court although they could have won. To me, that said something about their sense of the asymmetries of state power. Based on that sense, they take advantage or they bow down. When I was last doing research in the World Bank’s International State Corporation Dispute database, I found that DP World had several active cases against Belgium, London Gateway, and other places in Europe. At that slightly lower gradation of power, they pursue litigation.

What is interesting is that the other states in which DP World operates have discovered that they need to use brute power to challenge them. Djibouti, which has lost two cases to DP World at the Court of Arbitration, invited China to come take over on of its ports. They were, in essence, daring DP World to challenge China. So these small, weaker states are learning the game of geopolitics in order to challenge corporations that are not in the Global North. But as you suggest, there’s a gradation of power and an awareness that there are asymmetries in the power of the corporation vis-à-vis particular states.

I also want to mention that DP World, and their litigiousness, operates in the context of international arbitration mechanisms which were invented in response to decolonization. As soon as Global South countries became decolonized and wanted control of their own natural resources, transnational tribunals were created to discipline them. I have quotes in the book from former judges gleefully talking about how these arbitration tribunals dethrone the state, at the very moment in which these decolonizing states were emerging. I really wanted to write about that unapologetic continuation of colonial hunger for the natural and economic resources of the Global South.

kfh: I appreciated how much you emphasize the role of the state in understanding logistics. In the Gulf, you highlight how states create a migrant labor force, enabling the development of racial hierarchies in employment, and repress workplace and political protests. Activists and scholars who have developed the idea of “counterlogistics” tend to locate possibilities for resistance in the potential to exercise leverage over so-called choke points. But the substantial role of the state in this sector seems to suggest that effective resistance may not be so straightforward.

lk: There is something very appealing about the idea of counterlogistics because it seems so straightforward: if logistics is the scaffolding along which capitalism operates, then you can pull out one rod of the scaffolding and it should all collapse. But that is not the appropriate metaphor here. Although counterlogistics might work in certain settings and in particular moments, it doesn’t always work. Whether one thinks globalization has positively expanded global trade and connections, or one thinks that neoliberalism has transformed states into adjuncts of capital, we all need to more directly account for the agency of states.

The Middle East is an interesting corrective to this because the state is right there. Its security forces and its laws (or its intentional abrogation of law) are all very visible. The ways in which the power of the state can be harnessed or unleashed are often forgotten, and it is very important to bring the state back in, and to understand the coimbrication of capital and the state in order to understand the possibilities for fissure. All of this matters because the tactics of counterlogistics on their own can be employed for right-wing purposes, as in the 1950s in New York, or in the UK, when London dockers downed tools to support Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant policies. This had the form of a counterlogistical strike, but its goals were opposed to the kind of international solidarity that counterlogistics often aspires to. One has to think about the deployment of these tactics in particular political contexts, and in what ways workers engaged in counterlogistical protest can put pressure on the state.

kfh: Building on that, what are the possibilities for resistance in logistics in the Middle East? Where, if anywhere, are we likely to see such struggles emerge?

lk: One of the things that we see constantly, in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, is the prevalence of wildcat strikes by migrant workers, which inevitably leads to their deportation, often with months of unpaid back pay. In order to strategically pressure states, we should think about the mechanisms by which these populations can be mobilized, and how the state could be pressured into allowing new forms of mobilization. In the book, I recount how Kuwaiti workers who tried to form unions in the 1960s originally wanted to incorporate migrant workers. Their documents suggested that excluding migrant workers was a system of apartheid. This concerned the British and the Americans, who pressured the Kuwaiti state to exclude migrant workers from the Pacific from union laws. This system has lasted to this day; Kuwait and Bahrain do have unions, but they can only unionize citizens and often only in state-owned industries.

In the last five to ten years, Omani workers have also been able to organize unions. These have been state-approved, and they have often emerged in contexts where there is internal political tension. For example, tensions between the region of Dhofar and its center in Muscat made it possible for unions to emerge in the port in Salalah by showing fealty to the center. That history is interesting to me because in all of the countries of the peninsula where unions exist historically (Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen), they emerged precisely because the British, who were in control as protector or as colonizer, wanted unions as conciliatory mechanisms to moderate communist mobilization.

But in all of those places—some for just a period, in the case of Yemen up until today—those unions transformed from conciliatory liaison mechanisms between employers and employees into political forces organizing beyond the bread and butter issues. I would love to see more work on how that happens. To me, this is again related to the role the state plays. It’s about setting up the legal mechanisms necessary for the creation of unions, which can then potentially step beyond those conciliatory roles.

There’s another example that I think is interesting in Kuwait. Workers are not allowed to organize, for example, Filipino migrant workers. But they have reached out, in a transnational way, to migrant worker organizations in the Philippines in order to organize. Again, this is not a workplace thing. It is a political movement which requires transnational connections and transnational fora in which these kinds of alliances can be made. These are interesting developments in the ability of workers to pressure states.

kfh: One of the most beautiful examples of international solidarity in the past few years has been the blockades of arms to Saudi Arabia in solidarity with Yemen. What potential do you see for expanding these sorts of initiatives along supply chains, shipping routes, or across companies like DP World which employ workers in different national contexts with differing terms and conditions?

lk: I think these actions are immensely important, even if they don’t have an impact on the ground: those arms ships may not have been unloaded, but the arms nevertheless ended up where the Saudis wanted them. But even so, these actions are crucial because they demonstrate forms of mobilization that go beyond workplace grievances. I always think that political engagement on the part of unions, whether around issues that pertain to their immediate communities or to global geopolitical cases, is enormously important. However brief and underreported it was, we saw different ports in the US downing tools in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One day of action doesn’t really affect the long-term work of the ports, but such a thing could be nourished and nurtured to become more organizationally permanent.

If we have global supply chains, then labor action and organization also has to be global. This is especially important at a time when xenophobia—and the political prominence of nativist fractions of the petit bourgeois and working classes—is such a devastating tool of divide and rule in both the Global North and South. If forms of transnational solidarity can be nourished, it would be enormously important in fending off these kinds of right-wing turns, and also in providing the ground on which new transnational organization can emerge. We have to think about these actions as one instance in a very long chain, and possibly as a starting point for something more permanent.

kfh: What have been the impacts of Covid-19 on the logistics industry in the Middle East?

lk: Every time the global trade system experiences something enormous like coronavirus, we expect that everything will change, and sometimes for the better. I tend to be a bit more cynical and think that the capitalist system is elastic: it recuperates, and it often does so in a much more predatory way.

Shipping in the Middle East has interestingly benefited from Covid-19 and the oil price war that took place between Saudi Arabia and Russia in March. They needed to store all of the oil that was being brought out of the earth, and all the land side storage was filled up. So, people started chartering ships. At some stage, tankers were being charged for $300,000 a day, sometimes at several times what the usual price is. Those shipping companies have benefited.

But the effect of the pandemic has been negative in many other ways—and this is global, not just related to the Middle East—because seafarers have been abandoned aboard ships. Many have finished their maximum contract of nine months, but some have been on board ships for fourteen to fifteen months. Sometimes they’re not being paid for being on board the ship. In the Middle East or in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, the situation can get worse because ships can be abandoned without the necessary legal mechanisms to force the owners of the ship to pay workers or to even get the workers off the ships. The immediate effect is that ship owners, particularly if they own tankers, are making money hand over fist, while the seafarers are abandoned in the docks.

Less trade is taking place; many of these ports have seen something like eleven to seventeen percent drop in the volume of goods that are going through them. It’s difficult to tell what this will all mean in the longer term. What is certain is that Covid-19 has consolidated the suffering of the migrant workers. They are much more vulnerable because it’s much more difficult for them to leave, and they’re far more surveilled and policed under the guise of public health. The long-term prospects may seem quite dire. And the only way these changes can be countered is with political mobilization against these forms of depredation.

kfh: Where do you go from here? What’s the next project?

lk: I’m still doing research for bits that didn’t quite fit in the book. One of them is about The Mission to Seafarers and the idea of “missionary work” in the twenty-first-century, which is now in some cases near-secular humanitarian work. Are there any salvific elements in it, and if there are, what are they and how do they work? How does this missionary work function in places where there are no unions, as in the case of these ships where the Mission to Seafarers operate? That’s something that I’m working on now.

I also want to write something a little bit more literary about the experience of melancholy and loneliness for seafarers aboard ships. For example, Marcus Rediker has written beautifully about older, seventeenth and eighteenth century seafaring, but I want to write something about more modern conditions. And then I want to write about tankers—the development of the mechanisms, and their disciplinary character, required to run tankers, bring them to shore, load them offshore, and so on. I want to excavate that history.

This interview was originally published at

Posted in bureacuracy, capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, finance and insurance, free ports/zones, infrastructure, labour, logistics, Middle East, militaries, seafaring, shipping conditions, transport, war | Leave a comment

Guardian piece about the explosion in Beirut

note: I wouldn’t have used the word “lawless” in the title, as the laws in maritime world are carefully devised to facilitate the accumulation of capital. The sea has always been the site of law — and the law has often been used against those working on the sea and inhabiting its shores:

Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping

The disaster has roots in a global network of maritime capital and legal chicanery designed to protect businesses at any cost

Sat 8 Aug 2020 09.59 BSTLast modified on Mon 10 Aug 2020 15.28 BST

Captain Boris Prokoshev and crew members demand their release from the arrested ship MV Rhosus in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, summer 2014
 Captain Boris Prokoshev and crew members demand their release from the arrested ship MV Rhosus in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, summer 2014. Photograph: Boris Musinchak/Reuters

At about 6pm on Tuesday, a seemingly small warehouse fire near Beirut port’s grain silos began to fizz with red sparks. The sparks led to an enormous explosion, a mushroom cloud of water and debris, and a column of orange-red and black smoke rising out of the warehouse.

The shockwave pulverised nearby warehouses and apartment blocks, lifted doors off their hinges and shattered windows several miles away. At the time of writing, 154 people have been reported killed over 5,000 injured and 300,000 have been left homeless. Dozens of people are still missing.

While attention and anger has focused on the incompetence and dysfunction of the Lebanese government and authorities, the roots of the catastrophe run far deeper and wider – to a network of maritime capital and legal chicanery that is designed to protect businesses at any cost.

Whatever sparked the initial fire, the secondary explosion that destroyed the port and so much of the city was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a port warehouse. A chemical used in both agriculture and construction, ammonium nitrate is associated with the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing in London and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It was also the cause of huge explosions in Galveston, Texas in 1947 and Tianjin port in China in 2015, both of which killed scores of people. How did such a dangerous incendiary end up in a warehouse so close to residential areas of Beirut?

In September 2013, the cargo vessel the MV Rhosus – owned by a Russian, registered to a company in Bulgaria and flagged to Moldova – set sail from Batumi in Georgia to Mozambique. It carried a cargo of ammonium nitrate purchased by Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a company that makes commercial explosives. The vessel was operated by eight Ukrainian and two Russian crew members who came onboard not knowing that the previous crew had left the ship in protest at non-payment of their wages.

When the Rhosus was forced by its owner to make an additional stop in Beirut to pick up more cargo, Lebanese officials impounded the ship for breaching International Maritime Organization standards and failing to pay charges including port fees. Ships can be “arrested” if they do not have the necessary paperwork, are considered unsafe or environmentally hazardous, or as a holding security payment on a debt owed, among other reasons.

The ship’s owner Igor Grechushkin had registered his vessel in Moldova, where ship registry is more lax than most in enforcing labour, health and safety and environmental regulations. Open registries like these are considered “flags of convenience”, where a ship flies a flag of a country different to that of its owner.

Flags of convenience were first devised by American lawyers in client states such as Panama, Liberia and Honduras. Even today, much of the profit of some of the largest open registries is expatriated to private companies in the US. The “convenience” in “flags of convenience”, according to the American essayist John McPhee, is “that taxes could be avoided, insurance could be to a considerable extent ignored, and wages attractive to shipowners could be paid to merchant sailors drawn from any part of the world”.

When Grechushkin realised what the impounding of the Rhosus could cost him, he began bankruptcy proceedings and effectively abandoned the ship and its crew. The Mozambican consignees of the ammonium nitrate also forsook the cargo.

Ships are abandoned by their owners with alarming regularity, often to avoid paying the crew wages they are owed. So often, in fact, that the International Labour Organization maintains an abandoned seafarers database. Sometimes an abandoned ship’s cargo is auctioned off to pay creditors, or the crew’s unpaid wages, or clean-up and disposal costs.

In Lebanon, the resale of the cargo did not happen, and the authorities refused to allow four of the seafarers off the ship without a replacement crew. The captain and remaining crew members were left aboard the ship, still carrying its explosive cargo, for almost a year, with no wages, no access to electronic communications and with dwindling food and fuel provisions.

In effect the crew of the Rhosus were hostages in the negotiation between the Lebanese port authorities – who did not want to assume the responsibility for the ship’s dangerous cargo – and the shipowner. In August 2014, a Lebanese judge ordered the seafarers’ release, and the 2,750-tonne cargo of ammonium nitrate was subsequently moved from the vessel to a warehouse in the port of Beirut.

Although most Lebanese are rightfully outraged by the incompetence of the Lebanese authorities, the deadly dealings of international maritime capital are also to blame.

Not all countries of the world are signatories to the international maritime treaties that regulate working conditions and dangerous cargo. Even if they were, many states do not have the resources to pursue claims against unscrupulous shipping companies. Further, international disputes between governments and foreign investors are rarely decided in favour of governments.

Flags of convenience, essentially an offshoring tool intended to protect capital, allow unsafe ships to sail with crews who are vulnerable to the depredations of unscrupulous employers. Even the wealthiest shipping companies in the world, with headquarters in Europe and east Asia, flag their ships to open registries to save on wages, taxes and insurance.

The removal of these offshoring provisions, eliminating flags of convenience, and an overhaul of the arbitration mechanisms that so often disadvantage seafarers and less powerful states are only the first steps towards addressing the malfeasance that created Tuesday’s tragedy. As the dust settles in Beirut, there is a great deal of work to be done.

• Laleh Khalili is professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula

Posted in bureacuracy, capital accumulation, environment, infrastructure, logistics, Middle East, political economy, ports, seafaring, shipping conditions, ships | Leave a comment

Conversation with Rowland Atkinson about global flows of commodities, capital and people

As part of Verso Live events, Rowland Atkinson, the author of Alpha City, and I had a conversation about the global flows of capital, commodities and people:

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, free ports/zones, infrastructure, logistics, Middle East, oil, political economy | Leave a comment

Logistics after COVID

I wrote the below brief piece for the Foundry, an online publication of the The University of California Humanities Research Institute.


by Laleh Khalili

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, the traffic in the ports of China reduced to a trickle in January and February 2020. Shortly thereafter the volume of goods arriving at the ports of the Americas and Europe and Africa from China also began to plummet. Ships leaving these continents with raw materials or industrial constituents had to slow-steam to their Asian destinations or wait at anchor off the shores of Chinese harbours, since those ports were not receiving goods either. Freight rates for dry cargos dropped, and charter rates for crude oil tankers skyrocketed. The latter was in response to a massive glut in oil, itself resulting from the drop in demand and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia resulting in overproduction; as landside storage tanks were full, and tankers, barges, and any old serviceable floating storage was brought out to store the crude at sea.

Just as maritime journeys and flights slowed down or came to a halt, in much of global North certain elements of logistics intensified. Home deliveries of goods soared. A wave of demand for toilet paper, flour, yeast, and personal electronics used for home-working crested and then subsided. In both the global North and the global South, dependence on poorly waged delivery persons (whether working for logistical behemoths such as Amazon or the mom-and-pop shop down the street) accelerated. States, corporations, medical organisations and individuals throughout the world all frantically conducted global searches for personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, and certain medicines.

In the wake of these upheavals, comparisons and predictions came thick and fast: this was a moment like the Great Depression of the late 1920s, more dramatic than the Great Recession of 2008/2009. Pundits argued that the structure of global trade had changed for good; some even claimed this marked the end of globalisation. The crashing of oil prices led some to prophesy the end of the fossil energy era.

There is an element of wishful longing about these predictions. If capitalism really contains the seeds of its own destruction, then it would make sense that the very same global relations of trade and travel that caused the pandemic to spread so quickly across the surface of the earth will also fall victim to it.

A kind of environmental or pathological determinism sits at the heart of this type of soothsaying. And these types of mechanistic explanations also belie the resilience of capitalism and its cyclical ability to recuperate, often in a much more austere, brutal, rapacious form. Such events as pandemics and subsequent cataclysmic drops in employment and GDP can trigger broader structural changes and result in the creation of new state institutions and regulations. But it is not foretold that these institutions or regulations will be humane, or orientated towards welfare and redistribution.

Perhaps more importantly, the juxtaposition of the pandemic in the first five months of 2020 with the antiracist BlackLivesMatter protests of June reveals the crucial role of constant, relentless and long-standing political organisation, as well as sharp, decisive angry protest and direct action in triggering change. Whether transformations to the symbolic order—statues, stories, commemorative names—or changes, however meagre, to material benefits (for example cuts in police funding), political mobilisation has seen results.

If there are post-pandemic changes to be seen in the logic and operation of global supply chains it will be because of these forms of political mobilisation along the supply chains: from Amazon warehouse workers protesting the shortage of PPE, to essential workers demanding sick pay, to seafarers abandoned at sea threatening to strike in order to be able to go home. Any long-lasting effect will be in response to such activities.

The original blogpost can be found at

Posted in capital accumulation, infrastructure, labour, logistics, political economy | Leave a comment