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

Philippe Pétriat
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Verso, London, 2020, 352 p.

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1Laleh Khalili’s Sinews of War and Trade is an original contribution to the Arabian Peninsula’s history and political economy. Although it eventually hints at many references and shows great skills in documenting and connecting facts around the Arabian Peninsula, the book’s ambition is neither strictly academic, nor comprehensive. “It wanted to tell stories” claims the author (p. 6) so that the reader is plunged into the world of ports, in their material and intellectual infrastructures (the first four chapters of the book), among their people (the next three chapters), and in the midst of the war trade that has made these ports flourish and kept their twofold nature (military and civilian) alive until the present. This approach sometimes makes the book patchy and even impressionistic when the reader is left without elaborate conclusions or when stories drive them far away from the Arabian Peninsula without explicit connections with the book’s privileged field. More often than not, however, Sinews of War and Trade efficiently unfolds the many dimensions of shipping practices and their global connections to the East and West of the Arabian Peninsula. To a British archival base, Laleh Khalili adds less common sources. Memoirs and novels by inhabitants of the region, magazines and business journals interweave with interviews and rich accounts of her own fieldwork in harbours and aboard ships.

2The first four chapters deal with the history of both the material (labour, workers, harbours, and ships) and the immaterial (hierarchies of labour, commercial rules and elaboration of laws, insurances and freight) infrastructures of the harbours as epitomizing the fabrics of global capitalism and its tangible effect on the lived environment of the workers and inhabitants. Laleh Khalili develops convincing stories cum arguments about the British imperial and colonial shape of this fabrics (“lubricating the machinery of empire,” p. 32) and the mutual fostering of war and shipping business. She skilfully extends her stories up to the very modern era by enlightening the successive patterns of ports’ building and business until the most recent shipping companies’ alliance with terminal operators. The links L. Khalili establishes between successive patterns and projects of infrastructure are inspiring interpretations for the genealogy of free trade zones and economic cities in the Arabian Peninsula, as for the intriguing lack of a railway network connecting port-cities (chapter 4).

3“Why go through the vast expenditure, investment and effort of creating so many deep-water harbours in these shallow seas?” she asks (p. 52) before elaborating on the political, economic and technological incentives supporting this upsurge by way of case studies that help get perspectives about the changing fortune of harbours such as Aden and Dubai. These three chapters unveil fascinating features of shipping business, the setting of free trade zones, and the regional circulations of capital and investments in the creation and expansion of harbours, not only by European or American companies, but also by Arab officials, experts, businessmen, and activists. Stories sometimes go much further than shipping and capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. They sometimes have a tendency to overemphasize the novelty of the phenomena they tell (e.g., chapter three’s development on road networks and the political and economic motives shaping these network’s unequal distribution).

4The following three chapters (5 to 7) are dedicated to the people plunged in the middle of these “sinews of war and trade.” While Laleh Khalili addresses the topic of the changing forms of capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula and their global expansion, she illuminates the opportunities created by tanker shipping and containerisation for family companies (Olayan, Kanoo) and success stories such as the Kuwait Oil Transport Company (established in 1957), the Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard in 1970s Bahrain, and finally Dubai Ports World’s fortune. She nonetheless makes clear the many reasons supporting an enduring European and American dominance of expertise, shipping, insurance and bank businesses whose roots she traces back to the era of British imperialism in the Gulf and the Red Sea. She provides several examples of personal connections bridging the experiences of port development in the post-WWII Gulf by following the paths of fascinating entrepreneurs like the Bahraini Mahdi al-Tajir and the Qatar Abdullah Darwish in the 1950s. Their history and many others provided in chapter 5 illuminate the massive amount of foreign Arab and non-Arab experts, but also the connected activities of regional businessmen in building the Peninsula’s shipping infrastructures and markets.

5Chapter 6 on workers is more critical and explicitly guided by Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy. Although the stories of strikes and work conditions are still well-documented, the reader wonders where is the specificity of the docks’ milieu and of the book’s precise topic (p. 202) as the chapter expands much of its contents to oil workers and to broader arguments about the political economy of the Arabian Peninsula and its connections to the wider world. In fact, the reader might have wished L. Khalili to re-envision Mitchell’s argument about oil vs. coal and discuss it for the Arabian Peninsula’s societies, not just corroborate it. While the book explains the reasons for the failure of trade unions because of division, vertical (as opposed to sectorial) organization, and state repression, it is less explicit about how the balance of power has reversed from workers and their ability to stop work, to the states and their security apparatus. Chapter 6 and chapter 7 convincingly show how, starting from the 1970s, the “ravages of capitalist retrenchment” and neoliberal policies adopted in the Arabian Peninsula actually built on the colonial legacy of work segregation, hierarchies, discipline. Would Laleh Khalili conclude that capitalism eventually proved even more efficient than authoritarian states in disciplining workers and promising forever rising benefits?

6By offering a survey of the “bounties” of wars from the 1956 crisis to the war led by the Saudi-Emirati coalition on Yemen, chapter 8 provides one of the book’s sharpest conclusions (p. 265). The easy move from trading to military infrastructure through business actually encapsulates the full arguments of the preceding chapters. “Ports bind together cities across the seas to hinterland economies and social relations,” Laleh Khalili reminds us in her conclusion (p. 270). The metaphor can be expanded by saying that ports, and ships, serve as portholes looking at the broader political economy of the Arabian Peninsula, beyond the Peninsula’s most fascinating and advertised points of entry. In a concise and story-telling book as Sinews of War and Trade, this approach and the many connections it hints at might sometimes disconcert the reader. They leave many developments uncomplete or tentative. And yet, the reading of this book is definitively a refreshing and inspiring dive into the very connected history of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 17 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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