Interstitial Podcast

I spoke with the brilliant David Huber of the Interstitial podcast, which you can listen to here:

He asked me to suggest 4 books and I had to think on my feet, so of course I suggested the following: 2 novels and 2 brilliant books that have shaped all my thinking!

Screenshot 2020-05-13 at 09.21.13

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, labour, literature, Middle East, political economy, ports, seafaring, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Abandoned Seafarers

Abandoned at Sea: Sailors and COVID-19


The stranded Indian crew members on board MSC Grandiosa, docked in Italy at present (Al Jazeera)

On the list of COVID-19 afflicted countries tallied by the Johns Hopkins University Corona Resource Centre there is one entry that is not like the others: a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. With 712 confirmed cases (out of 3,711 passengers and crew) and thirteen dead, at the time of this writing the cruise ship’s number of cases falls somewhere between those of Latvia and Lebanon. The ship, which flies the British flag, was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, on 2 January 2020, after which, the number of those onboard who tested positive rapidly escalated. Although the world press, and especially the press in Britain, focused on the stories of passengers complaining about the quarantine, very few news outlets reported that of the 712 confirmed cases, nearly 150 were members of the crew, many of them from Indonesia and the Philippines. The quarantine had only really been enacted for the passengers, with the crew members still being forced to work and sleep in close quarters, often sharing tiny cabins with other crew members, some of whom were symptomatic.

The Diamond Princess was owned by Carnival Cruises who also own another cruise ship company, Holland America, whose ship Zaandam was also beset by COVID-19. Before passengers began manifesting symptoms, the ship had visited Uruguay and the Falklands, with passengers disembarking and touring the ports. Then, the United States declared a COVID-19 emergency in mid-March and Holland America halted all cruises. By then it was too late for Zaandam. The passengers socialised, danced and ate together and wandered around the ship unimpeded, while the virus began to take hold. As ports in South America denied entry to cruise ships, though still allowing ships to refuel and restock foods, more and more elderly travellers began coughing. With hundreds of ill passengers and crew and four dead bodies onboard, Zaandam was turned away from port after port, eventually met by another Holland America ship, Rotterdam, which carried COVID tests, and medical staff and supplies. What the hundreds of crew members aboard Rotterdam did not know when their rendezvous began was that they were going to receive passengers from Zaandam. And with no comprehensive testing of the transfer passengers, the Rotterdam crew was exposed to the virus. Finally, after two weeks at sea, Panama allowed both ships to steam through the Canal, and the two cruise ships landed in Florida on 2 April 2020, the passengers released by Holland America to take commercial flights home with few precautions and little or no testing. The crew remained onboard, quarantined off the coast of Florida.

In Australia, 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark from the stricken Ruby Princess on 19 March, despite many who exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. The cruise ship is thought to have been the source of at least half of all Australian cases. Hundreds of the ship’s passengers were diagnosed with COVID-19 and 18 have died. As of this writing, the ship is at anchor in Port Kembla, New South Wales, with 66 ill crew members on board, and eleven others evacuated to hospitals in Sydney.

The highest number of COVID cases per passenger, however, occurred on a luxury cruise ship specialising in travel to the South Pole. Only a day after a media report celebrated Antarctica’s status as the only continent unaffected by COVID-19, the cruise ship Greg Mortimer reported that nearly 60 percent of the 217 people onboard had tested positive for COVID-19. The ship had steamed towards Antarctica despite the closure of many South American ports and the declaration of pandemic status in countries around the world.

The fate of cruise ship companies has dimmed, at least temporarily. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator has suspended all cruises until the end of June and laid off 26% of its 150,000-strong workforce; they were not furloughed and therefore they have no access to bridging government funds or any certainties about whether they can be rehired by the company. Carnival’s stock prices are down 70% since January 2020. The US has denied a government bailout to Carnival, as the corporation is registered in the Bahamas, where it pays a paltry $71 million in taxes on $20.8 billion in revenue, at the astonishing rate of a fraction of one percent. The company faces investigations in Australia and lawsuits in the United States. However, Carnival has also seen a significant injection of capital from, inter alia, the Saudi state investment company, the Public Investment Fund. We know less about the fate of the tens of thousands of laid off workers.

An Unequal Maritime Economy

Ships have historically been significant vectors of pandemics. The influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 is thought to have been transported by merchant vessels and demobilising warships from continent to continent and coast to coast. As empires, global trade, and long-distance wars wind the corners of the world together ever more tightly, the same conduits of travel for passengers, soldiers, sailors, and cargos also act as pathways for pathogens. The naval ships of the world’s great military powers today still transmit illness across the seas. The aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and the French Charles de Gaulle each have seen more than 650 of their sailors infected. No one knows whom they may have exposed in their transnational travels in the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

The effect of the pandemic on the maritime economy has been dramatic and well documented. Certainly, the firing of the commander of the Theodore Roosevelt and the scandal around the number of the infected sailors on the Charles de Gaulle—the most infectious case after the effects of the virus were well known—have been reported on the front pages of newspapers in the United States and France respectively. National GDPs have plunged (China’s first quarter 2020 GDP contracted by 6.8%), as has global trade. The World Trade Organisation predicted a fall in merchandise trade of between 13 and 32 percent. As much as 90 percent of this cargo is conveyed by ship to their final destination. In China, whose ports handle 30% of the planet’s freight, lockdowns forced ports to operate with skeleton crews, radically slowing both exports and imports, and in some places effectively shutting down the port entirely. Just as its main cargo ports were slowly returning to normal by the end of February, ports elsewhere were seeing drops in their cargo processing: in the busy port of Long Beach California, by a staggering 50 to 75 percent. Other container terminals in the US and Europe have reduced operations or shut down entirely. The Asia-Europe and Asia-Pacific route (and their reverse) have seen a massive drop in carriage, with hundreds of trips cancelled, and many other ships steaming with no cargo.

Not all maritime businesses are suffering, however. An oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia commenced in early March, with Saudi Aramco deploying its excess capacity to pump oil at the very moment when demand for petroleum and its products plummeted. The price of oil dropped so dramatically that, soon, fracking companies in the United States were facing bankruptcy and the benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate swooped below zero, meaning that traders, faced with saturated storage spaces, had to pay to not take delivery of produced oil. As oil flowed out of the ground and land-bound storage capacity was quickly filled, producers looked to seaborne storage. At the time of this writing, some 60 Very Large and Ultra Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs and ULCCs, some with carrying capacity of up to 2 million barrels) and many other smaller tankers have been chartered to store oil at sea, in what some call the greatest oil glut in history. The owners of ULCCs and VLCCs are able to charge rates as high as $335,000 per day and the stock of tanker companies skyrocketed by as much as 19 percent.

In all this, the pandemic has starkly delineated the inequalities of race, class, gender and geography worldwide. As in other pandemics, those communities already suffering from poverty, neglect, lower life expectancy and higher chronic illness and mortality rates are also those who are afflicted more severely and die in larger numbers because of the virus. However, one of the distinguishing features of COVID-19, as compared with past pandemics, has been that—at least in its earliest stages of transnational transmission—the most significant carriers of the virus have been the affluent, well-resourced, and seasoned international travellers from the global North. Though aeroplane travel has been the primary means of transmission, the stories recounted above of only a handful of ships indicates that leisure travellers aboard luxury cruise ships have carried the virus to the furthest reaches of the world, including the supposedly pristine Antarctica.

The social fractures the pandemic has revealed on land are well-reported: so many “essential workers” are working-class people of colour, and so many are extensively exposed day after day to the virus. In some US states, fully a third of hospitalised COVID patients are people of colour. In the Anglophone world, the proportion of medical professionals of colour who have died because of COVID far outstrips their percentages in the public or even among healthcare workers. As anxiety about the fraying supply chains—especially for food—increases, so does the callousness with which workers all along these chains are treated. Many employers are not providing factory, logistics, and warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and others in essential but badly paid services with paid sick leave if they are self-isolating and provide them with little—and more often no—protective wear as many are forced to work in close quarters with one another or close contact with consumers. One response of workers to the intensified rates of exploitation and COVID exposure has been to strike all along these supply chains.

At sea, the feeling of abandonment is even more pronounced.

Once the passengers of “hot” cruise ships disembarked, public attention largely shifted away from the ships themselves. But many of those ships are at anchor with crew members on board, under a condition of quarantine familiar from past centuries. Some are aboard empty cruise ships, unable to dock at any ports, unable to fly home, sometimes with dwindling supplies. Some will remain onboard ships even when their contracts end and they are no longer paid; others have seen a reduction in pay while they continue to perform necessary maintenance on the docked ships. Aboard the Ruby Princess, some 1,400 crew members remain in isolation, unable to disembark. Of those, nearly ten percent have tested positive for COVID-19. The close quarters of a cruise ship (even with crew members now allowed to lodge in passenger rooms), and the daily delivery of food by handlers who could themselves be ill act as accelerants for the virus. Dozens of cruise ships near the US coast are similar hothouses for confined seafarers. On many of these ships, the non-US crew have their passports locked in the captain’s office, and even if they could book that rare flight home, they would not be allowed off the ship without their passports.

But it is not only the crews of cruise ships who are suffering such fates. The seafarers working cargo ships—container vessels, tankers, automobile carriers and the like—who come to the end of their contracts, sometimes after nine months at sea, are unable to return home. As many as 100,000 seafarers have come to the end of their contracts but remain aboard ships, unable to travel home because of restrictions on flights. Seafarers on smaller ships have been abandoned. Indian fishermen are afloat on the coast of Iran, unable to return to India, without any prospect of repatriation by the state, and with dwindling supplies of food. Towards the end of March, the Indian government advised its seafarers not to sign off ships or try to return to home as borders were closed. Of the sailors abandoned across the world, some 40,000 of them are Indian. Perhaps more alarmingly, even if a seafarer has been able to disembark, their arrival at home has sometimes been met with suspicion, and there have been instances of seafarers being stigmatised and shunned by their friends, neighbours, and landlords who fear they may be carrying the virus.

Ghost Ships and Abandoned Sailors

Hunger ships, abandoned sailors, and ghost ships haunt modern literary seascapes. The plaintive cry of the protagonist of B. Traven’s 1926 novel The Death Ship  was about everyday working conditions aboard ships, where seafarers felt they had no recourse, not even to their own governments:

We are always hungry because a shipping company cannot compete with the freight rates of other companies if the sailors get food fit for human beings. The ship must go to the ground port, because the company would be bankrupt if the insurance money would not save her. We do not die in shining armor, we the gladiators of today. We die in rags, without mattresses or blankets…. We die in silence, in the stoke-hold. We see the sea breaking in through the cracked hull. We can no longer go up and out. We are caught.

The feeling of being caught is now experienced by many. The most universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been containment: the contraction of spaces in which people can move and the closing of borders, confinement to one’s household, closed off businesses, a surveilled, policed and closed-off country. But within and amidst these fixed spaces, the poorer, the less powerful, and the racialised still have to move—as delivery drivers, logistics and transport operators, and any other essential workers commuting between work and home.

Migrants and refugees—many of whom, by necessity, are part of the maritime world—are often forgotten. The migrants and refugees trapped in island camps are one such exposed, endangered, and relatively invisible category. Another are mobile people at sea. With European countries closing their borders, the civil rescue NGO Sea Watch has reported that one migrant boat in the Mediterranean has sunk and three others are in distress. Meanwhile, in the absence of safe harbour guarantees by European ports, other rescue organisations have ceased operation. The coronavirus has provided the alibi the European states have always sought for denying entry to desperate migrants and for abandoning them to illness in camps.

The similar condition of invisibility and abandonment at sea now experienced by quarantined seafarers is only an intensification of the vulnerability constantly present in seafarers’ ordinary working conditions. Even at the best of times—that is,  working on ships registered in countries which observe health and safety rules, and labour and environmental regulations—seafarers are constantly exposed to physical injuries and mental pressures. Cargo ships almost never have doctors onboard, not to mention ventilators or other sophisticated medical equipment. Living spaces are cramped and crew members share cabins with one another. If a seafarer is injured or becomes seriously ill, they almost always have to wait until arrival at a port that will allow disembarktion to be hospitalised or repatriated. Modern cargo ports are often far from city centres and turnaround times for ship loading and unloading is now so swift that seafarers rarely experience adequate shore leave. Ordinary crew members often spend nine months at sea and a month off, while officers have shorter—but still months-long—contracts. Everyday seafaring is hard work, contoured by exhausting schedules, loneliness while confined in close quarters, melancholy and anxiety. A survey commissioned by the International Transport-Workers’ Federation and conducted by Yale University has shown that more seafarers suffered from depression and have contemplated suicide than the general population or any other occupation.

In a pandemic, with cities and borders closed, shore leave and crew changes not permitted by transit ports, welfare visits to ships disallowed, and no clear or consistent end in sight for such restrictions, the world’s 1.6 million seafarers have been feeling anxious—about their own fate, about their families’ health, about their income now and availability of work in the near future. Predictions about when or how global trade may recover are at best wildly speculative. At this moment, the only thing we know for certain is that the very scale and scope of mobility that has so dramatically defined this age of trade is also the factor that undergirds the abandonment and isolation of seafarers aboard ships. In what ways this moment will redefine the parameters of work, encourage yet more fantasies of automation or economies of scale, or ignite new waves of political mobilisation among seafarers remains to be seen.


This post was originally published at

Update: When I first wrote the piece, the numbers were at 100,000; now, today, the numbers seem to be up to 150,000.

Update 2/Correction: Thanks to Conor Ryan who wrote to me that “the Greg Mortimer goes to the Southern Ocean rather than South Pole”!


Posted in labour, logistics, political economy, ports, seafaring, shipping conditions | 1 Comment

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):

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, environment, free ports/zones, infrastructure, labour, Middle East, political economy, ports, shipping conditions, transport, Travels, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Domination, Dispossession and Struggle in the Making of Infrastructure and Logistics

Last night (20 February), Deb Cowen (Toronto), Charmaine Chua (Oberlin), Rafeef Ziadah (SOAS) and I had a conversation about the politics of infrastructure and logistics.  Here is the recording for the event:

Posted in capital accumulation, empire, imperialism & colonialism, finance and insurance, infrastructure, logistics, Middle East, Uncategorized | Leave a comment