Interview with Philip Wohlstetter

For a couple of years now I have really wanted to attend the Red May socialist festival in Seattle, but sadly the timing (and the physical distance) have gotten in the way. This year, because of COVID-19, I ended up being able to attend the festival (virtually). I was interviewed by Philip Wohlstetter not only on Sinews of War and Trade, but also about my trajectory – from Iran to Texas and New York and beyond- and also about my other books:


Posted in capital accumulation, empire, finance and insurance, infrastructure, labour, logistics, Melville, Middle East, militaries, oil, political economy, ports, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sinews of War and Trade website

The brilliant Rafeef Ziadah and Katy Fox-Hodess were instrumental in researching and building the project website,

The project website provides a wealth of information about maritime transportation and the surrounding infrastructures in the Arabian Peninsula. It mines both historic and contemporary sources to populate the data spreadsheets and the data-visualisation that give a quick sense of logistics and maritime work in the countries of the Gulf as well as Yemen!

Eseld Imms designed the site. She is also the brilliant map-maker for the book, Sinews of War and Trade. The map below is the one that appeared in the book.


The website includes rich info sheets for all the countries of the peninsula as well as the following maps and graphs: Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 14.46.16.png

Posted in construction, environment, free ports/zones, infrastructure, Middle East, militaries, political economy, ports, transport, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

BBC 3 Free Thinking interview with Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet of BBC Free Thinking was a brilliant reader of the book, having read closely and with an eye for fetching detail. We talked for about half an hour, and the interview can be heard here (my part of the interview starts at 27:40 but the earlier part of the programme is really interesting too):

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Recent lecture: Tankers and Tycoons

Here is a link to a talk I have given a few times, most recently at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It is a talk I am hoping to turn into an article, but which requires a bit more work (and archival research) still:

Posted in imperialism & colonialism, labour, logistics, Middle East, oil, political economy, shipping conditions, ships, transport, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Publication: A World Built on Sand and Oil

This is probably one of my favourite publications, in part because I was pushed and pushed by Lapham Quarterly‘s superb editors. The essay compares the trade in oil and sand today to think through maritime transportation, the building of infrastructures, the world of commerce, and such other ideas.


Oil and sand are not often commodities conjoined in discussions of global trade. The first is the motive engine of industry and transportation, fuel for heating and illumination, the spirit that animates much global politics. Even when priced cheaply—as I write, the price of oil hovers around fifty dollars per barrel (or just under four hundred dollars per ton)—it is considered precious. Humble, ordinary, oft-overlooked sand is, by contrast, the second most consumed good in the world by volume after water. It makes concrete and glass and electronics possible. According to the UN Environment Programme, at least fifty billion tons of sand (often measured in aggregate with gravel) are used annually, in contrast with four billion tons of oil. But sand is not often thought of as valuable: its trade is more domestic than global, and its market price per ton is under nine dollars in the United States and far less than that in the rest of the world.

But there are similarities, too. While China is the biggest consumer of both products, the United States follows close behind as the world’s second-largest consumer of oil and the third-largest user of sand. Depending on its market price, crude oil is often the first or second most exported good in the world by value. Today’s relatively low prices put crude oil exports in second place, after automobiles. At the end of 2015, the U.S. government rescinded a forty-year ban on the export of crude oil from the States, and since then the country has aggressively reentered the global oil market, becoming the world’s third-largest exporter of petroleum and its refined products, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. (Despite being the largest oil producer, the U.S. is not the world’s largest exporter, because it consumes most of what it produces.) The vast majority of the trade in sand is domestic, and the U.S. and China extract the sand they need for construction and industry from their own territories. The world’s biggest importer of sand, however, is Singapore, which uses a great volume of the stuff in its frenetic projects of land reclamation.

The two commodities converge in one other regard. Their commodification and trade hold mirrors to global inequalities and ecological plunder. Both are produced over eons, the one a product of fossilization of prehistoric flora and fauna, the other the debris of rocks’ encounter with wind and water. Both tar and dirt symbolize inferior material. And yet the moment at which they became pivotal to industrialization and urbanization, rocks are blasted, wells are drilled to sepulchral depths, rivers are dredged, beaches are bulldozed away to enable the transformation of these natural resources into commodities. The inexorable proliferation of oil and sand on the global circuits of trade tells us about the shape-shifting ways of production, colonial forms of exploitation, and our reckless wrecking of the global environmental commons. It is about how the commodification of prosaic everyday things affects lives here, now, and half a world away.

The article can be found here:

Posted in capital accumulation, construction, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, infrastructure, Middle East, oil, ports, transport, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Publication: The infrastructural power of the military

Drawing on extensive research in the archives of the US Army Corps of Engineers, this article again draws on my concomitant interest in militaries and infrastructure. “The infrastructural power of the military: The geoeconomic role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Arabian Peninsula” is inspired by the writings of Neil Smith and Deb Cowen on geoeconomics, and was published in the European Journal of International Relations 24(4) in 2018 and can be found here:

Abstract: In analysing the role of the US in the global expansion of capitalist relations, most critical accounts see the US military’s invasion and conquest of various states as paving the way for the arrival of US businesses and capitalist relations. However, beyond this somewhat simplified image, and even in peacetime, the US military has been a major geoeconomic actor that has wielded its infrastructural power via its US Army Corps of Engineers’ overseas activities. The transformation of global economies in the 20th century has depended on the capitalisation of the newly independent states and the consolidation of liberal capitalist relations in the subsequent decades. The US Army Corps of Engineers has not only extended lucrative contracts to private firms (based not only in the US and host country, but also in geopolitically allied states), but also, and perhaps most important, has itself established a grammar of capitalist relations. It has done so by forging both physical infrastructures (roads, ports, utilities and telecommunications infrastructures) and virtual capitalist infrastructures through its practices of contracting, purchasing, design, accounting, regulatory processes and specific regimes of labour and private property ownership.

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

Publication: The Roads to Power: The Infrastructure of Counterinsurgency

It has been years since I posted here, but I am going to quickly provide some links to various publications related to the project here.

The first is an article that conjugates my research on transport infrastructures with my counterinsurgency research. “The Roads to Power: The Infrastructure of Counterinsurgency” was published in World Policy Journal 34(1) in 2017 and can be found here:

Abstract: From the Napoleonic era to the present day, waging war has gone hand in hand with building roads. Laleh Khalili, politics professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, describes how both U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Israeli authorities in Palestine use road construction to impose security and economic regimes on local populations.

Posted in construction, empire, empire, imperialism & colonialism, imperialism & colonialism, infrastructure, logistics, militaries, transport, Uncategorized | Leave a comment