Laleh Khalili is a professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of the books Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National CommemorationTime in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency and the co-edited volume Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion.

Her latest book, published earlier this year, is Sinews of War and Trade. In it, she connects the themes of war making in the Middle East found in her earlier work with an examination of the contested role of capital, labor and the state in the region—via the maritime logistics industry.

Breathtaking in ambition, Khalili’s analysis draws on a wide range of materials to provide a long-view historical perspective on the economic and political development of the Arabian peninsula through the unequal playing field of global maritime trade. Through thematically-organized chapters on the region, Khalili examines the emergence of maritime routes; the development of landside port, road and rail infrastructure; the role of the law in structuring and securing international investment and ownership; the making of economic and political elites; the working conditions and modes of resistance by both seafarers and landside laborers; and the ways in which all of the above are tangled up with war making.

An interview with Laleh Khalili

Katy Fox-Hodess: Your earlier work focuses on state violence in the Middle East. How did you come to be interested in logistics?

Laleh Khalili: While I was doing the interviews for my book on counterinsurgency, I spoke to several US military officers. One of them was quite sympathetic to my project and very critical of US foreign policy at that time. They said to me, in a joking way, “You academics are interested in the bleeding edge of war, but what you should look at is the money.” It turns out that the money often goes into organizing logistics. Talking with this officer, I learned that payments for fuel for military vehicles, were transferred to Kuwait. The entirety of the Kuwaiti economy had sprouted up through transporting fuel for the US military. I filed this information at the back of my mind.

Some years later, my friend David Hansen-Miller, who worked as a researcher for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, suggested that I research the conditions of dockworkers and sailors in the Arabian Peninsula. There wasn’t much work on the subject, and I knew that many countries in the Arabian peninsula don’t allow unionization. So I began to think about this as well.

And at the same time, I was also ready to be done with writing and thinking about the degree of political violence involved in what I had been working on. It was exhausting and emotionally lacerating. I thought that switching to something that wasn’t so incredibly raw would be more interesting. Of course, there’s a huge amount of violence in logistics, but it’s not the “bleeding edge,” as that military officer put it.

kfh: One of the most wonderful things about the book is the huge array of research methods you used. Can you talk about your mixed methods approach, and about your experiences on the ground doing the research?

lk: My first major project, which was based on my PhD, was a straight-up ethnography. My second book relied on interviews and archival research. As an undergraduate I was trained as an engineer, and before I decided to go to grad school, I was a management consultant. So I’ve built a sense of how things are researched from different angles, and I wanted to be able to reach all of these different areas.

For this book, I did a bit of ethnography onboard container ships, loads of interviews both on land and on sea, and a huge amount of archival work. But a lot of the work on this book actually entailed going through business databases and old trade journals in Arabic and English, which was a new kind of method for me. The different elements of the project required different kinds of thinking and different sets of data; you’re not going to write about the emotional life of a sailor on a container ship by reading business journals, and you’re not going to be able to understand the fantasies of frictionless trade by talking to cynical seafarers who think it’s impossible. You want to access those fantasies, so you read the business journals, and then you situate them within the historical context.

kfh: There’s been a huge proliferation of research and writing on logistics in recent years, but it’s been largely focused on Europe and the United States. What do we learn by looking at the Middle East through the lens of logistics, and what do we learn by looking at logistics through the lens of the Middle East?

lk: Several things attracted me to studying logistics in the Middle East. First, the Arabian Peninsula is not a manufacturing powerhouse like China, Vietnam, or India. The port of Jebel Ali in Dubai is the only port outside of East or Southeast Asia that appears on the Journal of Commerce’s top 10 container ports. In thinking about logistics, we often consider the global supply chain element which begins with the manufacturer and ends up at Walmart. In doing so, we exclude major transit ports like Singapore, Dubai, or Oman. The life and livelihood of those ports is entirely dependent on being middlemen in these routes of trade, and these routes are fundamentally tied to colonial histories. These were trading posts during colonial times, and they were also major and important trading cities before the Europeans came to the Indian Ocean. That was one of the things that I really wanted to examine.

If you study logistics in the Middle East as a lens through which to understand logistics elsewhere, the relationship between surveillance mechanisms and trade and transit becomes very clear. A lot of fantastic critical work on logistics comes from Marxists who focus on manufacturing. (On one of my container ship trips, I took volumes two and three of Capital with me and it was amazing to read his discussion of circulation in that environment.) But in my research I was also occupied by Foucault’s writing on circulation, and how circulation is tied to policing. It’s necessary to think about this because we know that new forms of circulation provide a platform for the creation of new forms of surveillance, and new ways to discipline labor. Your own work shows this. But the surveillance mechanisms are also used to discipline those who live around the ports and shape the conviviality or lack thereof in a port city. Surveillance and securitization are so blatant in the Arabian Peninsula that it becomes a very useful context for thinking about these processes in general.

As for how this research affected my view of the Middle East, I initially wanted to challenge limited stereotypes about the peninsula as either a stage for geopolitics, or a source of oil. Oil is understood as a commodity over which empires fight, but this understanding can exclude both the lives of people who produce oil and the technologies of extraction and transportation that are built around it. People think about Dubai as this awful, blingy place with no soul or culture, but to me Dubai is no different than Singapore or Hong Kong, with exploitation of migrant labor, extreme consumption, and massive inequality. These places are dependent on disciplining noncitizen labor, so the nature of citizenship in these places is also very similar. Yet Singapore and Hong Kong don’t get the same kind of opprobrium that Dubai does. I wanted to show that there is a life, a history, and an entire distinctive politics that underlies the working of these places, which often gets lost when we think at the level of security or bling or oil.

kfh: One of the important interventions of the book within the logistics literature is the centering of imperialism in your historical narrative. Where can we locate the sinews of imperialism outside of regions like the Middle East?

lk: It was impossible not to talk about imperialism or colonialism in the context of the Arabian Peninsula, because many of the infrastructures I studied emerged just before the intensity of postwar decolonization, when oil had been discovered and the empires were on their last legs. The British Empire was fighting tooth and nail to maintain what it could of its foothold in these particular places, at the same time as it was handing over the imperial mantle to the US. The US has always had a colonial presence on its own continent, an imperial and colonial presence in the Pacific and Caribbean, and an imperial presence in the Western hemisphere. But its postwar expansion to a global Empire was central to the story that I wanted to tell. It wasn’t possible to talk about road building or the fight over the continental shelf—who defined it, who designed it, who got to exploit the oil that was there, who got to use it as their exclusive economic zone—without that narrative.

The other thing that became very clear as I was doing this work was that the centers from which capital emanates are proliferating. The US still has the highest number of billionaires, and it still has, in absolute terms, the highest GDP in the world. But the US does not have a substantial maritime industry. It doesn’t have a single company in the top 10 shipping companies. It doesn’t have a single port in the top 10 shipping ports, nor a single port management company in the top 10 port management companies. But it sets the rules by which capital moves, the rules by which trade is conducted, the standards of accounting, the standards of engineering, and the legal infrastructures for the kind of trade that we see in and beyond the Middle East. The kind of free trade agreements that the US engaged in, for example, in the Pacific, has generated this flourishing of jobs for lawyers, accountants, and consultants. They traveled to the Pacific countries that were going to be part of the Pacific free trade agreement in order to standardize according to US criteria. That was fascinating to me, because although capital can now come from Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Hong Kong, or indeed Shanghai and Beijing, the parameters and rules within which capital operates are still firmly North Atlantic.

It is also fascinating to see that the securitization of the ports is not usually dictated by the authoritarian regimes that rule those places, although they have their own concerns about wanting to keep the workers away from the population. Much of the securitization actually comes down from the US, which wants mechanisms for checking containers or for making sure ports function in a particular way. The US Department of Defense maintains a list of strategic infrastructures, and it lists global ports as part of its own strategic infrastructure inventory. Because I have worked on the military, I tend to pay attention to the fact that the US spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined. Much of that sum goes into ensuring naval dominance in these places, while also ensuring that that presence is hidden so as not to provoke resistance from the populations there. Perhaps this is what a declining power does, but more importantly, it’s what an imperial power or a liberal empire does.

That’s also what’s changing a little bit under Trump. His administration is trying to dismantle the liberal institutions which have benefited the US. I’m curious as to whether the changes that Trump is bringing about, and perhaps the longer-lasting changes that might come with the pandemic, will affect these liberal institutions that have been nothing but boons to US-centered capitalism.

kfh: My own work has led me to study the rise of Dubai Ports World and some of the other Gulf-based companies in the maritime capital world. You trace how differently DP World has been able to operate in different regions: it’s quite aggressive within the Gulf, and it’s been quite successful. But when it tried to expand into the US post 9/11 it was shut out of the market. Researching dock labor, I’ve learned that the UK and Colombia both have DP World terminals. The one outside London, London Gateway, began with standard union avoidance practices, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. Now it’s a port with a union recognition agreement and terms and conditions broadly similar to other ports in the UK. Meanwhile, in Colombia, the labor conditions are terrible and the trade union movement is in dire straits. Do you have any reflections on how the local and national textures inflect these logistics multinationals?

lk: Dubai Ports World is a really good example of that. They are very aggressive and underhanded in a lot of the Global South, as evidenced by their work in Djibouti and in Yemen. They got their concession to the port of Aden through bribing then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and they were subsequently thrown out because they were routing cargo to Jebel Ali. They had taken control of this port, and they were running it down. At every port that I visited in the Western Indian Ocean basin—and I visited a lot of them, also beyond the Arabian Peninsula—everybody who worked in those ports would say, in a quiet whisper and off the record, that if DP World has a terminal, they run it down because they want to route everything to Jebel Ali. It’s a very old-school imperial tactic, actually: you take control of places that you don’t want to compete with, and you run them down.

In other places their behavior is completely different. In London they are still quite aggressive, but it remains litigious, rather than underhanded or violent. In 2006, when they were battered back in the US because of activism against their awful labor practices and Islamophobia, they didn’t take the US to court although they could have won. To me, that said something about their sense of the asymmetries of state power. Based on that sense, they take advantage or they bow down. When I was last doing research in the World Bank’s International State Corporation Dispute database, I found that DP World had several active cases against Belgium, London Gateway, and other places in Europe. At that slightly lower gradation of power, they pursue litigation.

What is interesting is that the other states in which DP World operates have discovered that they need to use brute power to challenge them. Djibouti, which has lost two cases to DP World at the Court of Arbitration, invited China to come take over on of its ports. They were, in essence, daring DP World to challenge China. So these small, weaker states are learning the game of geopolitics in order to challenge corporations that are not in the Global North. But as you suggest, there’s a gradation of power and an awareness that there are asymmetries in the power of the corporation vis-à-vis particular states.

I also want to mention that DP World, and their litigiousness, operates in the context of international arbitration mechanisms which were invented in response to decolonization. As soon as Global South countries became decolonized and wanted control of their own natural resources, transnational tribunals were created to discipline them. I have quotes in the book from former judges gleefully talking about how these arbitration tribunals dethrone the state, at the very moment in which these decolonizing states were emerging. I really wanted to write about that unapologetic continuation of colonial hunger for the natural and economic resources of the Global South.

kfh: I appreciated how much you emphasize the role of the state in understanding logistics. In the Gulf, you highlight how states create a migrant labor force, enabling the development of racial hierarchies in employment, and repress workplace and political protests. Activists and scholars who have developed the idea of “counterlogistics” tend to locate possibilities for resistance in the potential to exercise leverage over so-called choke points. But the substantial role of the state in this sector seems to suggest that effective resistance may not be so straightforward.

lk: There is something very appealing about the idea of counterlogistics because it seems so straightforward: if logistics is the scaffolding along which capitalism operates, then you can pull out one rod of the scaffolding and it should all collapse. But that is not the appropriate metaphor here. Although counterlogistics might work in certain settings and in particular moments, it doesn’t always work. Whether one thinks globalization has positively expanded global trade and connections, or one thinks that neoliberalism has transformed states into adjuncts of capital, we all need to more directly account for the agency of states.

The Middle East is an interesting corrective to this because the state is right there. Its security forces and its laws (or its intentional abrogation of law) are all very visible. The ways in which the power of the state can be harnessed or unleashed are often forgotten, and it is very important to bring the state back in, and to understand the coimbrication of capital and the state in order to understand the possibilities for fissure. All of this matters because the tactics of counterlogistics on their own can be employed for right-wing purposes, as in the 1950s in New York, or in the UK, when London dockers downed tools to support Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant policies. This had the form of a counterlogistical strike, but its goals were opposed to the kind of international solidarity that counterlogistics often aspires to. One has to think about the deployment of these tactics in particular political contexts, and in what ways workers engaged in counterlogistical protest can put pressure on the state.

kfh: Building on that, what are the possibilities for resistance in logistics in the Middle East? Where, if anywhere, are we likely to see such struggles emerge?

lk: One of the things that we see constantly, in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, is the prevalence of wildcat strikes by migrant workers, which inevitably leads to their deportation, often with months of unpaid back pay. In order to strategically pressure states, we should think about the mechanisms by which these populations can be mobilized, and how the state could be pressured into allowing new forms of mobilization. In the book, I recount how Kuwaiti workers who tried to form unions in the 1960s originally wanted to incorporate migrant workers. Their documents suggested that excluding migrant workers was a system of apartheid. This concerned the British and the Americans, who pressured the Kuwaiti state to exclude migrant workers from the Pacific from union laws. This system has lasted to this day; Kuwait and Bahrain do have unions, but they can only unionize citizens and often only in state-owned industries.

In the last five to ten years, Omani workers have also been able to organize unions. These have been state-approved, and they have often emerged in contexts where there is internal political tension. For example, tensions between the region of Dhofar and its center in Muscat made it possible for unions to emerge in the port in Salalah by showing fealty to the center. That history is interesting to me because in all of the countries of the peninsula where unions exist historically (Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen), they emerged precisely because the British, who were in control as protector or as colonizer, wanted unions as conciliatory mechanisms to moderate communist mobilization.

But in all of those places—some for just a period, in the case of Yemen up until today—those unions transformed from conciliatory liaison mechanisms between employers and employees into political forces organizing beyond the bread and butter issues. I would love to see more work on how that happens. To me, this is again related to the role the state plays. It’s about setting up the legal mechanisms necessary for the creation of unions, which can then potentially step beyond those conciliatory roles.

There’s another example that I think is interesting in Kuwait. Workers are not allowed to organize, for example, Filipino migrant workers. But they have reached out, in a transnational way, to migrant worker organizations in the Philippines in order to organize. Again, this is not a workplace thing. It is a political movement which requires transnational connections and transnational fora in which these kinds of alliances can be made. These are interesting developments in the ability of workers to pressure states.

kfh: One of the most beautiful examples of international solidarity in the past few years has been the blockades of arms to Saudi Arabia in solidarity with Yemen. What potential do you see for expanding these sorts of initiatives along supply chains, shipping routes, or across companies like DP World which employ workers in different national contexts with differing terms and conditions?

lk: I think these actions are immensely important, even if they don’t have an impact on the ground: those arms ships may not have been unloaded, but the arms nevertheless ended up where the Saudis wanted them. But even so, these actions are crucial because they demonstrate forms of mobilization that go beyond workplace grievances. I always think that political engagement on the part of unions, whether around issues that pertain to their immediate communities or to global geopolitical cases, is enormously important. However brief and underreported it was, we saw different ports in the US downing tools in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One day of action doesn’t really affect the long-term work of the ports, but such a thing could be nourished and nurtured to become more organizationally permanent.

If we have global supply chains, then labor action and organization also has to be global. This is especially important at a time when xenophobia—and the political prominence of nativist fractions of the petit bourgeois and working classes—is such a devastating tool of divide and rule in both the Global North and South. If forms of transnational solidarity can be nourished, it would be enormously important in fending off these kinds of right-wing turns, and also in providing the ground on which new transnational organization can emerge. We have to think about these actions as one instance in a very long chain, and possibly as a starting point for something more permanent.

kfh: What have been the impacts of Covid-19 on the logistics industry in the Middle East?

lk: Every time the global trade system experiences something enormous like coronavirus, we expect that everything will change, and sometimes for the better. I tend to be a bit more cynical and think that the capitalist system is elastic: it recuperates, and it often does so in a much more predatory way.

Shipping in the Middle East has interestingly benefited from Covid-19 and the oil price war that took place between Saudi Arabia and Russia in March. They needed to store all of the oil that was being brought out of the earth, and all the land side storage was filled up. So, people started chartering ships. At some stage, tankers were being charged for $300,000 a day, sometimes at several times what the usual price is. Those shipping companies have benefited.

But the effect of the pandemic has been negative in many other ways—and this is global, not just related to the Middle East—because seafarers have been abandoned aboard ships. Many have finished their maximum contract of nine months, but some have been on board ships for fourteen to fifteen months. Sometimes they’re not being paid for being on board the ship. In the Middle East or in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, the situation can get worse because ships can be abandoned without the necessary legal mechanisms to force the owners of the ship to pay workers or to even get the workers off the ships. The immediate effect is that ship owners, particularly if they own tankers, are making money hand over fist, while the seafarers are abandoned in the docks.

Less trade is taking place; many of these ports have seen something like eleven to seventeen percent drop in the volume of goods that are going through them. It’s difficult to tell what this will all mean in the longer term. What is certain is that Covid-19 has consolidated the suffering of the migrant workers. They are much more vulnerable because it’s much more difficult for them to leave, and they’re far more surveilled and policed under the guise of public health. The long-term prospects may seem quite dire. And the only way these changes can be countered is with political mobilization against these forms of depredation.

kfh: Where do you go from here? What’s the next project?

lk: I’m still doing research for bits that didn’t quite fit in the book. One of them is about The Mission to Seafarers and the idea of “missionary work” in the twenty-first-century, which is now in some cases near-secular humanitarian work. Are there any salvific elements in it, and if there are, what are they and how do they work? How does this missionary work function in places where there are no unions, as in the case of these ships where the Mission to Seafarers operate? That’s something that I’m working on now.

I also want to write something a little bit more literary about the experience of melancholy and loneliness for seafarers aboard ships. For example, Marcus Rediker has written beautifully about older, seventeenth and eighteenth century seafaring, but I want to write something about more modern conditions. And then I want to write about tankers—the development of the mechanisms, and their disciplinary character, required to run tankers, bring them to shore, load them offshore, and so on. I want to excavate that history.

Katy Fox-Hodess is a lecturer in Work, Employment and Organisations at the University of Sheffield.

Image: Stewart Williams via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This interview was originally published in Phenomenal World, a publication of the Jain Family Institute.