Laleh Khalili, professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University in London, has carried out a wide-ranging study of the networks of trade in the Arabian Peninsula. Her research included travelling on huge container ships following sometimes dangerous routes. Khalili’s fascination with all things maritime is palpable. In chapters on routemaking, harbour-making, landside and shipboard labour and the bounties of war she demonstrates the close links between maritime trade and the major oil companies. She also discusses the colonialist and nationalist policies that have led to the development of ports such as Dammam in Saudi Arabia at the expense of others, such as Aden, which had been strategically important for British trade via the Suez Canal. Khalili tracks the history of the complex webs of maritime trade and shows how the colonial past, and the domination of free trade, have influenced and shaped shipping practices. It is a process, the author argues, that has woven the “ephemerality” of sea routes with the political, historical and socioeconomic aspects that have created them. Interconnected with these maritime routes is the market.
For example, the Baltic Dry Index is where the price of goods is set depending on spot contracts — the price of goods at the moment of purchase — and forward contracts, a calculation of the expected price of the particular goods at a future date. Derivatives markets, created in the nineteenth century, speculate on the differences between spot and futures contracts. In a section, Lascars, Asiatics and Others, Khalili addresses the history of the struggles of migrant workers on ships against the brutal conditions imposed by organisations such as the East India Company, which operated racialised hierarchies of labour. Lascars, for example, were seafarers from the European colonies who served on merchant vessels owned by Europeans.
In the eighteenth century they were paid just one seventh of English sailors’ wages. In the 1920s the National Union of Seamen campaigned against companies hiring “non-domiciled Asiatics and other coloured seamen”, despite protests from the All India Seamen’s Centre to the NUS concerning racial discrimination. The role of unions has been significant in challenging laws limiting foreign worker participation. However, punishment such as deportation continues to await those involved, in particular organisers. What also becomes clear is the isolation and loneliness of workers in huge industrial port complexes often several kilometres from cities.
The development of new technologies combined with the business of logistics has increased the exploitation of international workers on land and at sea. Khalili stresses that underlying the decisions regarding worldwide trade connected to the ports of the Arab Peninsula are nationalist considerations with, for example, naval bases having an integral relationship with them. Sea routes created by the demands of warfare become trade routes. In this absorbing book Khalili reveals what she describes as the “sinews of war and trade”, and their exploitative effects on both native and migrant workers. She has also highlighted the resistance and solidarity that has often arisen in such fragmented, isolating and ever changing conditions.
This is a book that is both enlightening and incisive in its critical commentary of shipping and capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula.