To Understand Capitalism, We Have to Understand Shipping and Oil

There is no twenty-first-century capitalism without the shipping and oil industries. And understanding the global economic system means understanding their operation in the Arabian Peninsula.

The MSC Gülsün, a 23,756 TEU box ship. (Mediterranean Shipping Company)

In 1948, dockworkers in the British colony of Aden struck. Their employer, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, later renamed British Petroleum), paid starvation wages, as the company’s own reports admitted. As the strike spread, the port’s shipping companies, which had enjoyed enormous profits during and after World War II, aligned to resist their impoverished workers’ demands.

Capital unleashed its normal array of countermeasures: firing strikers, recruiting scabs, and enlisting pliant police to arrest, beat, and repress. After weeks on strike, AIOC caved and granted modest raises. Crying crocodile tears, other companies refused, claiming they could not afford to pay workers pennies more per day. They also feared “the surrender of [the] White man’s prestige.”

Laleh Khalili tells this story in her sweeping book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. The subtitle accurately conveys the book’s main focus, but she examines much more. The region’s oil and shipping industries are central to the making of the modern world. After all, an incredible 90 percent of all world goods travel via ships, and crude oil alone makes up 30 percent of maritime cargo.

Khalili explores the global history of capitalism by centering the ship and oil, the world’s most important commodity, on the Arabian Peninsula, which possesses the planet’s richest deposits of “black gold.” This fascinating book ably examines the economic and geopolitical importance of the Middle East, whose oil has shaped and still shapes the entire world economy. Everybody wants a piece of this most lucrative industry, ever twinned in Khalili’s book with shipping. Capitalism, imperialism, and trade — economics, politics, and geography — Khalili’s reach is as vast as the sea itself.

The Coalhole of the East

Sitting on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and several millennia before the discovery of oil in the region, Aden already was a vital trading outpost. Ships must pass by in order to enter or depart the Red Sea. Fast forward to 1839, Britain conquered Aden to store vast quantities of coal for its new steamships connecting London to its burgeoning empire, including along every coastline of the Indian Ocean.

Aden’s importance only grew once Egypt and France opened the Suez Canal in 1869. Thereafter, the maritime world was remade, as countless more ships, including British ones, found their way through and past the Arabian Peninsula. The Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is to say western Europe — and its empires, particularly the British — to South Asia, East Asia, and the South Pacific.

Thus, few places in the world became more important to global trade and naval supremacy than the seemingly obscure outpost of Aden, dubbed “the coalhole of the East.” When oil displaced coal as the fuel source of the world’s ships, in the mid-twentieth century, Aden became even more vital due to its strategic location near the world’s greatest oil deposits.

Khalili notes that Aden’s bold dockworker strike in 1948 foreshadowed a much larger wave of labor and political protests in the 1950s and anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s that shaped the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East. (North Yemen became independent in 1962; South Yemen, which includes Aden, became free in 1967. They unified in 1990.) Yet while Khalili rightly nods to Walter Rodney’s still-essential How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, her book could have benefited from other scholars’ work on decolonization. For instance, Frederick Cooper’s On the African Waterfront examined Mombasa dockers who engaged in strikes that were also anti-colonial actions. Similarly, transport workers in Singapore and Durban, in Jamaica and Trinidad, across West Africa, and beyond also engaged in political strikes during and after World War II.

Her chapter on “landside labour,” which includes the Aden strike, makes clear how corporations as well as colonial and government officials depended upon, and fretted over, workers and their discontents. Her chapter on “shipboard work” is equally gripping, describing why ship crews frequently embraced a collective worker identity and clashed with employers. That chapter also vividly describes the “mind-numbing, boring, repetitive labour for everyone, including the officers, and backbreaking toil for the seafarers” as well as how race and racism were inscribed into global shipping, layered on top of European colonialism.

An uprising known as the Aden Emergency in 1967. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

But much of the book, starting with its first four chapters, takes a very different tack, diving deep into subjects like the Baltic Dry Index. Investors watch this particular index to speculate on the future cost of shipping a specific commodity, including oil or, as she describes it, “wild gambling on a completely imaginary future.” If, before I picked this book up, you had told me I’d be rapt upon reading about topics like maritime insurance, I wouldn’t have believed you.

In the book’s very first chapter, Khalili introduces readers to route-making, literally why nearly all ships travel the exact same paths, before exploring the invention of steam engines and laying of telegraph cables across ocean floors, and much more. In chapter two, we learn of the construction of harbors, quays, rails, and roads in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Yemen. In chapter three, Khalili explains the centrality of arcane maritime law in which “corporate sovereigns” dominate Global South ports and countries because laws were written and have been interpreted to protect capital, still bunkered in London and New York, Rotterdam, and Copenhagen. We also learn of battles over who or what legally “owns” the bottom of the sea and, even more crucially, “subsea resources,” namely oil.

We learn of the construction of mighty ports on the peninsula, with uber-wealthy construction firms (many based in the UK and United States, but also in Saudi Arabia) partnering with petroleum corporations and their political handmaidens who, increasingly, are hard to distinguish from one another. And among many other matters related to ship owners and managers, we read about the LinkedIn accounts of advisers and technocrats who populate the middle and upper echelons of logistics corporations, periodically rotating into the peninsula’s government agencies — whose interlocking bank accounts make some oil-rich Emiratis and Saudis vast sums of wealth while importing blue- and white-collar “guest workers” that actually make up a majority in some Gulf countries today.

The book’s protagonist, however, might be the oil tanker and container ship, the largest ships in the world. Khalili personalizes life aboard these mega-ships thanks to two journeys aboard them that she undertook for her research. In doing so, she helps illuminate the importance of what the artist and theorist Allan Sekula named the “forgotten space,” the sea, to globalized capitalism.

A mega ship filled with containers. (Erik Odiin / Unsplash)

Human protagonists become more visible later. In one chapter, Khalili describes events that aptly summarize her searing indictment of oil-soaked capitalism. In 1981, a Saudi-based shipping corporation sought to increase its profits by cutting the food budget for one of its ships. To fend off starvation, the Filipino crew (Filipinos make up more of the mariner workforce than any other nationality) turned to using the ship’s nets to catch fish.

After arriving in Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, the angry mariners deployed workers’ most powerful weapon. Like Aden’s dockers a generation prior, the Filipino mariners struck — and received welcome assistance from the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents maritime and other logistics workers. The port-based ITF inspector sought to make the shipowner, Orri Navigation Lines, sign the ITF Collective Agreement, which would protect the seafarers whose interests typically were (and are) ignored by the Filipino and other governments. But Orri and most shipping lines register or “flag” their ships in a small handful of countries where the laws have been crafted to protect capital and weaken maritime workers. John McPhee writes about “flags of convenience” as follows: “convenience being that taxes could be avoided, insurance could be to a considerable extent ignored, and wages attractive to ship-owners could be paid to merchant sailors drawn from any part of the world.”

Predictably, a series of judges repeatedly ruled in favor of the shipowners. As Khalili explains, that was in no small part because European and US powers already had written the laws of international shipping in their favor. Hence, judges in what many consider the most humane part of the capitalist world, Scandinavia, sided with wealthy shipowners over Filipino workers literally being starved to death. Meanwhile, the Filipino seafarers disappeared from the historical record: “the bodies whose hunger earned profit for the shipowners and upon whose backs the law was made are erased out of the history entirely.”

An Ever-Transforming Industry

In the nineteenth and well into the late twentieth centuries, Arab peoples across the peninsula held little power over what British, American, and Arabian overlords sought and wrought. The peninsula was dominated by the British, who found willing allies among the region’s rulers. That changed in the mid-twentieth century when an anti-colonial mood and, perhaps more important, discovery of oil transformed the region. Oil already had supplanted coal as the world’s most important fuel source for powering ships and automobiles, and for electricity and heating.

Within a generation, newly independent Arab nations sitting on top of the world’s largest oil deposits also found themselves at global capitalism’s center. Over the next two generations, they built a vast array of ports and related infrastructure as well as banks in order to extract, export, and profit from this liquid gold.

Predictably, European and (increasingly) US corporations and governments had no intention to cede the vast wealth, power, and influence they had amassed on the peninsula. British economic and political actors, in particular, had little interest in adhering to the desires of “third-world” peoples for independence. Yet after failing to hold on to most of its “possessions,” the UK continued to exert tremendous military and political influence, which translated into huge profits. Even more so, the United States came to be the dominant power in the region. Khalili demonstrates the legacy of colonialism, especially of the UK but also the indirect empire of the United States, which continues to shape the Arabian Peninsula up to now.

Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula by Laleh Khalili (Verso Books, 2020)

While this book explores the central role of shipping in the Arabian Peninsula, it touches much more. Who knew that the Convention of Constantinople, negotiated by Europe’s “great powers” in 1888, guaranteed that all ships, including warships, had equal access to the Suez Canal? Or that the Suez Canal was closed twice? The first, for six months in 1956–57, happened when British, French, and Israeli military forces invaded the Sinai. The second instance, which lasted for eight years, began in 1967 when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the canal to all traffic after Israel launched an unprovoked attack.

Khalili also taps into the rich veins of maritime literature, invoking Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), B. Traven’s novel The Death Ship (1926), and Abdul Rahman Munif’s epic “petro-novel” Cities of Salt (1984). Quotes from Pablo Neruda and Michel Foucault pepper the text, helping illuminate Sekula’s “forgotten space” for landlubbers.

Some of the book’s main points are reminiscent of Eric Williams’s still-vital book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), which connected the dots between empire and capitalism that arose on the bloody backs of indigenous peoples and Africans forced into slave labor. Sailors, too, are victims of what Jack London named the “iron heel,” legally subject to slave-like treatment on US ships until the Seamen’s Act of 1915, nicknamed the “Magna Carta of sailors’ rights” because it established basic worker protections, including preventing ship captains from the notorious tactic of “Shanghaiing,” the practice that began in the nineteenth century of kidnapping unwitting people to serve as sailors by tricking, intimidating, or committing violence against them. Based upon Khalili’s story of Filipino sailors, little has changed.

Indeed, capitalism, including on the high seas, continues its onslaught in the twenty-first century but is still transforming. For instance, the London-based Baltic Dry Index was purchased, in 2016, by the Singapore Exchange. (That is, stock markets themselves also incorporated, only to be bought by other stock market corporations.) This event is a harbinger of the rise of East Asian ports and shipping corporations in Singapore but especially China, which has become one of the two largest economies in the world and the largest exporter of goods.

In her epilogue, Khalili notes the rise of China as a global power, which has also made it an increasingly large consumer of Arabian oil. No doubt, Dubai’s Jebel Ali and other Gulf ports play an important role in the global economy and will continue doing so. But Chinese and other East Asian ports now command eight of the top ten spots on the globe’s busiest ports. China holds six of those slots, including number one, Shanghai. (Los Angeles–Long Beach is the only US port in the top ten. New York–New Jersey doesn’t crack the top twenty.)

Khalili’s epilogue also notes, depressingly, that Aden has been laid to waste by Saudi and UAE-backed forces with knowing support and ample military supplies from the Obama and Trump administrations. A quarter million Yemenis have perished during the ongoing war. The BBC reported last summer that “almost 10 million of them are considered ‘one step away from famine,’” while Saudi and Emirati firms salivate over the possibility of future control of Aden — as attractive and lucrative a possibility to them as it was to the British two centuries ago.

Khalili’s book is an excellent primer on all things shipping and Arabian oil and, through them, understanding our international capitalist system. Built upon imperialism, genocide, and slavery, capitalism continues to evolve, but it has not fully shaken off its colonial legacies. Retooled in the mid-twentieth century to run on oil extracted from wells on the Arabian Peninsula and just offshore of it, this liquid gold is transported across the world by ever larger, ever more automated oil tankers. What the future holds for oil will be determined in the years and decades to come. But assuming the recent past predicts the near future, it will continue to be shipped from the Arabian Peninsula. Traders on the Baltic Dry Index are betting on it.

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Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently Ben Fletcher: The Life & Times of a Black Wobbly. He is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

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