Sinews of War and Trade, Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula

Laleh Khalili, 2020

Laleh Khalili is an academic and this is an academic book, so there are lots of footnotes and, wishing to avoid plagiarism, references to people who first had this or that thought, which maybe we as the general reader, don’t really mind about. Khalili has done a great amount of research, including travelling on the huge vessels herself and has brought to our attention this driving power of the world economy, hidden in plain sight. Her subject is the two gulfs on the west and east of Saudi Arabia, the first on the east edge of Africa leading to the Suez canal, the second on the edge of Iran (the book really really needs a better map/s). Both have many ports, particularly the east side, huge docking areas created by machinery at vast expense and worked by landless, almost stateless immigrants.

The port areas are in a constant state of flux, everything changes, politics, affiliations, demands, the geography. Khalili tells us that 90% of the world’s goods travel by ship, 30% of this is crude oil and the other bulk commodities, coal, grain, iron ore, bauxite and phosphate rock, make up much of the rest. Because China takes the largest portion of these bulk items, much of the gulf traffic is on its way there so geography is a big factor in why these ports are here, but actually other things are more important. Consortiums of large businesses (oil especially) and ruling kings with the connivance of the US, Britain or other countries create Free Ports, areas of land under no or vague jurisdiction where no customs or other charges are incurred. Legal cases over the years generally rule in the favour of the businesses, not the country in which they are situated and the countries must comply due to the large sums of money involved.

It leaves workers poorly protected but much needed. It is a strange, artificial world, where people live only to work within hierarchies based on country of origin, with no thought to nature, the arts or history.

“… fantastic monsters of terrorism, violence, and insecurity are conjured as threats to port or terminal security, and equally fantastical solutions are offered which subject ports and ships to surveillance, security bureaucracies and useless red tape. The conjurers of these nightmares of terror are often security ‘experts’ who along with their cargo of fear, sell their security expertise”


A situation similar to the current Corona hysteria.