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

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Laleh Khalili (LK): Towards the end of 2011, I had just finished the manuscript for Time in the Shadows, research for which had been devastating. For years, I had been speaking to torture and detention victims, reading about histories of violence, and lurking on military blogs. I wanted to research something that did not entail plumbing the depths of human cruelty and violence in such a raw, intimate way. My parents had been political prisoners in Iran, and hearing about the confinement and torture of my interlocutors felt far closer to the bone than I had anticipated. Around the same time, a good friend, David Hansen-Miller, who was then a researcher for International Transport-Workers’ Federation, encouraged me to shift my research to the conditions of work for dockers and seafarers whose lives and work touched the Arabian Peninsula. I applied for research funding from the Economic and Social Research Council of Britain with great trepidation: this was the first substantial work of political economy I was researching and I felt like a complete newbie to the subject. Then, to my great surprise and delight, the funding came through, and I was suddenly given three years in which to travel and conduct research. It turned out to be the best research decision I had made, even if (especially because?) I still feel like a student of the subject and I am constantly learning something new.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LK: It is a sprawling book in many ways (and its word count was already reduced by more than fifty percent before going to the copy editor!), in part because I was so curious about everything having to do with the past, present, and future of maritime commerce in the Western Indian Ocean. The book brings together the infrastructures and peoples who have made and make maritime trade in the Arabian Peninsula possible. The chapters have to do with shipping routes; the construction of the ports; the landside infrastructures that support ports; the legal apparatuses that facilitate commerce; capitalists, technical experts, and colonial officials involved in maritime commerce; and the conjunction between war and commerce at sea. But most important, the book tells the stories of dockers and seafarers and their constant struggle over the course of the long twentieth century to secure not only workplace benefits, but also political rights.

I was inspired by Allan Sekula’s photo-essays about shipping, Deb Cowen’s paradigm-shifting The Deadly Life of Logistics, Madawi al-Rasheed’s fearless upturning of standard narratives about the countries of the Peninsula, Paul Gilroy and Marcus Rediker’s brilliant accounts of the Atlantic, and Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (so many of whose luminous passages appear throughout Sinews). In the process of researching and writing, I also learned from many colleagues and friends whose urgent, innovative, and fresh work on the maritime and the logistical challenged and shaped my thinking: Johan Mathew, Fahad Bishara, Charmaine Chua, Jatin Dua, Katy Fox-Hodess, Naor Ben Yehoyahoda, Sharri Plonski, Matt MacLean, and foremost, Rafeef Ziadah (who was my sounding board, playmate, and co-conspirator throughout).

J: What were the most difficult and the most enjoyable elements of research for the project?

LK: The most difficult by far was finding narratives, stories, and voices that countered the official business and state archives. That is why Munif mattered so much, but so did such things as memoirs of leftwing/labor activists from the region (which is thankfully a proliferating genre) in book form, or in retrospective newspaper interviews, or in autobiographic essays. I used short stories, poems, and novels written by the residents and citizens of the region. I spent quite a bit of time trying to become familiar with songs composed and sung by seafarers, pearl-divers, fishermen, and their wives (who were sometimes widowed, sometimes abandoned, but always eulogizing lost stability and comfort). Not all of these sources appear directly in the book; some might do in subsequent articles; others act as a scaffolding or foundation for my approach to the subject. As for the most enjoyable element of research, it was by far my two containership journeys, both from Malta to Dubai but along different routes, which I chronicled in my blog and analyzed in the book.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LK: I always fear this question, in part because I am a bit like a magpie (or like the fox in Isiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox): I am attracted to shiny new projects. Or less flippantly, I shift course to new research projects when something exciting and puzzling catches my eye. And I really like always being a student, learning new things, feeling uncertain and unsure and inexpert in a new field. I think that sense of humility and un-knowingness and uncertainty is intellectually generative. It allows one to be open to new ideas and writings that emerge in the interstices of congealed certitudes and accepted orthodoxies.

That said, if I were to find common threads running through my work, it would be the idea of transnational movement: of ideas and narratives in my first book (Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine); of practices, military doctrines, and counterinsurgents in the second book (Time in the Shadows); and of people, cargo, and capital in Sinews. After I finished Sinews, I noticed that Palestinians are also present in the story, though not as prominently as they were in the first two books. Palestinian migrants—engineers, technocrats, and laborers—built so many of the infrastructures in the Gulf; and their cause inspired so many of the labor protests and strikes in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LK: I intentionally wrote the book in a language and style that I hope will appeal to an intelligent readership beyond the academy. My brilliant husband who is a non-academic read it in manuscript form very closely—and gave ruthless feedback about bits where I was not explaining a concept or its significance well, or where I was using scholarly jargon or style of writing. An old friend who writes for the Financial Times also advised me that I should cut down my sentences in such a way that the reader does not lose track of the thrust of the story. Finally, I tell lots of stories in the book, and I try to theorize with a very light touch. I hope that the book will help illuminate how global maritime trade works today, and to understand the role of the Arab world therein. And I hope that the book will make people look at the Arabian Peninsula and see beyond the clichéd narratives about urban bling, rentierism, security, and exceptional politics. I want to draw out the political similarities and interconnections between, say, Dubai and Singapore, or between the oil producing states of the Gulf and the politics of petroleum production in other parts of the world, not least the United States.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LK: I have nowhere near exhausted the maritime project yet and I have three or four articles I really want to complete writing: about tankers as precursors of the logistical age; a meditation on the embodied experience of seafarers aboard the ships; about the role of Christian missions serving seafarers; and about carcerality and bordering as disciplinary mechanisms tested upon the bodies of dockers and seafarers. I am also going back to a project I started while I was working on Time in the Shadows about the conjuncture of masculinity and managerialism among US Navy SEALS. I set that one aside in 2012 or 2013 but given the stories about Navy SEALS in the news, and the proliferation of retired Navy SEALS in political and business ranks in the United States, I am slowly going back to it and contemplating a short-ish book dealing with the subject.

Excerpt from the book (pp. 4-6)

Think of a port as a bundle of routes and berths, of roads and rails leading away, of free zones and warehouses and the people who make and populate them. The sea routes are evanescent – whether they are ephemeral foam in the wake of a ship or digital fragments flowing through wires. When harbours are built, the material that goes into the concrete comes not only from this land but from the sea and from other places. Sometimes the roads and rail are built long after the ports, as if in an afterthought. Sometimes the free zones are built before the ports, as if in a fond wish. Geographical features near ports and harbours are remade into legal categories to facilitate their exploitation. Commercial rules; the law, in its multilayered, multivalent complexity; and transnational tribunals all reinforce some version of maritime economic and political relations. All are meant to magic into being the intercourse of commerce.

This is a book about the landside labourers who build the ports and work in them: their collective struggles, their migrations, and their gains and losses. It is also about shipboard workers, their racialisation over the centuries, and the work they do today, with eyes trained to gaze far to sea. I write about the colonial continuities of capital, and about finance and insurance and subterfuge and paternalism and pressure that are the hallmarks of these ports; about kings and bureaucrats, advisers and courtiers, and merchants and industrialists, and middlemen and brokers. And, of course, war – and the mutually constitutive relationship between violence and maritime commerce.

But this book is also specifically about the Arabian Peninsula, written from the sea, gazing at the shores. The historical accounts of the Peninsula are often radically bifurcated – a great deal of excellent works tell the story of the Peninsula as a node in historical Indian Ocean trade; many more modern accounts recount the story of a world undone and redone by oil. If maritime trade is spoken of, it is often in the context of the former, not the latter. No matter that the ports in the Peninsula are some of the biggest and highest-volume in the world. Or that there are more of them, and more people working in them, than ever in history. Or that the connections they forge – not just to destinations for petroleum and petroleum products – are global conduits not just for cargo, but for migrants, capital, new financial instruments, management regimes, and legal categories. This book is what Michael Pearson has called an ‘amphibious’ story, ‘moving between the sea and the land’ in telling the story of maritime transportation infrastructures in the Peninsula.

My interest in the area arose partially because of how the ports of the Peninsula seem to manifestly crystallise the confluence of military/naval interest, capital accumulation, and labour. I was also interested in the region because I have found that so much writing about the Peninsula exceptionalises the area or focusses on tired old scholarly clichés (whether around rentierism or the security role of the Persian Gulf). I have wanted to better understand a region whose fortunes are so tightly tied to not only other Arab countries of the Middle East but to South Asia, East Africa, East Asia, and the metropoles of Europe and North America.

The book draws on my research in several archives, including US and UK national archives, India Office Records, the UK Maritime Museum archives, the papers of Lloyd’s of London at the Liverpool Maritime archives, those of Grey Mackenzie/P&O at the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Petroleum archives, papers related to Aramco and Oman at Georgetown University Archives, and several other university archives in the US and UK where private papers of relevant historical figures are held. Other research materials include back issues of a vast range of newspapers, trade magazines, business journals and the like (some via online databases, others from the dusty shelves of libraries); memoirs, poetry, and novels written by people in the region, in businesses related to the region, or visiting the region; and vast repositories of statistics and reports produced by transnational organisations, think tanks, and management consulting firms, and the region’s governments. I also draw on landside visits to most of the main cargo ports of the region (except for those in Saudi Arabia and Yemen), interviews with a range of businessmen, government officials, workers, activists, and others with stakes in the business throughout the Peninsula, as well as my own travel on two different container ships (some of the largest on the seas today) which afforded me shipboard visits to the ports in the regions (including Jeddah in Saudi Arabia).

This is an untidy book. It is curious about everything and hungry to tell stories. Mike Davis writes about one of the sprawling chapters in his idiosyncratic, absorbing, magisterial City of Quartz that ‘I became so attached to every sacred morsel of facts about picket fences and dog doo-doos that I failed to edit the chapter down to a reasonable length. I soon came to fear that I had made a suicidal mistake. “No one”, I told myself, “will ever read this”.’

I also became obsessed with everything maritime: ports and ships and the routes that led to them. The strange conjunctures of capitalism and trade and migrant labour and geopolitics and oil and dirt and filth and violence that make the sector are no less fascinating because they are made so invisible.

As sprawling as the book may be, it does not aim to be comprehensive. It does not sketch out reviews of scholarly literature, nor does it mention all possible sources about a given subject (though it cites whatever it quotes or paraphrases and what ideas have influenced its arguments). I have not alluded to a huge swathe of academic scholarship not because I did not read it or because I did not deem it worthy, but because this book wanted to do something else: it wanted to tell stories. Stories about how ports and maritime transport infrastructures have emerged out of the conjuncture of so many histories, struggles, conflicts, and plans (half-formed, implemented, and failed).