Ports, ships and the human economy of global sea trade: an interview with Laleh Khalili
Little has been written about the sea trade in the Gulf. Laleh Khalili’s latest book explores the complex realities that drive this massive economy.
During the COVID-19 pandemic many workers in ports and on ships have either lost their jobs or were stuck on ships with or without wages and with an uncertain future.
Ports in the Gulf, like elsewhere in the world, functioned at a minimum. And the Gulf plays an important part in the global sea trade, harboring global trade companies seeking a place that offers little legal rights to seafarers and workers in order to make a maximum of profit.
Will the sea trade, disrupted by the virus, be the same after the pandemic has passed? In her latest book Sinews of War and Trade (London: Verso, 2020), Laleh Kahlil, Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London, takes us on a journey to understand the complex mechanisms that are behind the global sea trade.
We talked over Skype about her research on the sea trade economy and the humans behind it, as well as the impact of COVID-19.
Tugrul Mende: Could you explain why you chose the topic of your book and the difficulties that you faced while working on it?
Laleh Khalili: In some ways moving from the old project to the new one was actually quite a necessary thing because while I was working on my previous book Time in the Shadow: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford University Press, 2012), it had become incredibly emotionally difficult to work on that project. My parents both had been political prisoners many years back, and therefore writing about confinement and imprisonment and torture was quite difficult. In a way. I really needed to work on a project that didn’t have the same degree of emotional intensity as the previous book but I still wanted to work on the Middle East and look at the way things worked. Because I have an undergraduate degree in engineering, I am really interested in how things work. I wanted to move away a little bit from detention and political violence etc.
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At the same time as this was happening, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to work on. I joked around with friends that I wanted to research bars and beaches in Beirut and in fact I applied for some funding and I managed to get a very small grant and I did produce some research about the politics of beach going, the politics of leisure and pleasure in Beirut. But interestingly bars and beaches didn’t do it for me. I wanted to work on something else and I wanted to be somewhere where I felt like a new student; I wanted to move in an area in which I was not an expert. Learning about a subject is as exciting as writing about it. It allows you to sort of completely shift to new grounds and find new things to work on and new ways of looking at things.
Around the same time I had a friend who was a researcher for The International Transport Workers‘ Federation, which is a global union. He suggested that I should look at the condition of dockers and sailors in the Arabian peninsula, in part, because there is not a great deal of research on this subject and still less researchers working on this subject who know Arabic. There are some really amazing people who work for ITF in the Middle East but they are not necessarily focused on the Arabian Peninsula. A lot of the other countries in the Middle East are more open and have easier access for ITF and, even though they have quite restricted unions they still have unions. Many countries in the Arabian peninsula don’t allow unionization and don’t allow campaigners and activists to access workers. So, I started to look at this project.
The question of worker mobilization tends to be extremely sensitive in the richer countries of the Gulf
Originally, I wanted to situate maritime transport and logistics in the Arab world in a much more historical context. I wanted to understand how these capital-intensive modern ports came about. Around the same time, I got the chance to travel on some container ships, and that was a formative experience. It allowed me to see not only the political and the economic, the infrastructure, and the big macro-political, but it was also the day to day life of the seafarers and the dockers once the ship came into port.
TM: Was it easy to talk with them and approach them as a researcher?
LK: Obviously people are often very apprehensive speaking to journalists or academics in many of the countries of the Gulf because they do worry about surveillance and state repression. In particular, the question of worker mobilization tends to be extremely sensitive in the richer countries of the Gulf. I was very careful about not endangering anybody by trying to approach them from the landslide. The people that I interviewed were mostly mid-level managers and experts. I also interviewed some ministers and deputy ministers. Being on the ship made it easy for me to talk with the workers. As a passenger they were quite happy to talk with me. I also went through the unions’ Facebook groups which is an amazing resource.
TM: According to Statista, Asian economics are experiencing a boom for being home to the world’s leading container ports, and the largest container ship fleets worldwide. In their view, Dubai belongs to this group along with Shanghai, and Singapore. How do you explain this boom especially in the United Arab Emirates?
Laleh Khalili: In the Journal of Commerce lists of the top ten ports of the world, Dubai is the only port that isn’t either in East Asia or Southeast Asia. In the top 10 list you have Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, you have ports in South Korea and elsewhere. There are multiple things at work here. There is an old colonial history which is I think really important to know. A lot of the great ports that today appear on the top ten list used to be colonial city states, and used to be part of the British Empire, as Dubai was for example. There is an entire colonial history of the British having these transit ports which also acted as strategic strongholds. There are other factors as well, I think in the post-colonial era after the Second World War, this happened in a staggered way for different countries.
For Dubai and the countries in the Arabian Peninsula it happened after oil was nationalized. The profits from oil instead of being expatriated to Europe or North America ended up being kept internally and some element of it ended up in infrastructure. In other places, this process happened earlier. This infrastructure investment was important.
Business likes these repressive policies because it allows for maximum profit making
What counts for Dubai is that precise convergence of a lot of different factors including political ones. You end up having a port of transit which operates as a distribution point not just for the UAE but also for the Arabian Peninsula, even beyond, for countries like Iran, Pakistan, or those in East Africa. This role that Dubai has played as a port of transit is comparable to the role that Singapore is also playing.
Neither Singapore nor Dubai have any kind of natural resources. They are both essentially city states. Dubai is part of the UAE but largely it operates as a city state. It has no dominant industry other than trade and tourism. Both cities don’t have a national hinterland except for other countries. I think that port of transit element is part of the reason why Dubai was really successful. They have managed to have the patronage of various imperial powers such as the British in the past and now the US because they have repressive labour policies. Therefore, disruptive and demanding labour forces, whether they are on ships or free zones or on the docks, are repressed politically, and of course business likes these repressive policies because it allows for maximum profit making. This is why Dubai appeares on these lists.
TM: In what way does COVID-19 affect the shipping route of a freighter, if a port is unable to accommodate them because of restrictions made by the government?
LK: What has been interesting about COVID-19 is that it has clearly affected both ports and shipping routes. To start with ports – when the lockdown started in China, it essentially translated into a massive pause in manufacturing which meant that the export of goods out of ports was really radically reduced. There weren’t many ports functioning because of the lockdown. They couldn’t take delivery of all the natural raw material they required. Ports in China, which had been some of the busiest in the world, saw their work drop to essentially nothing. And for a while there were ships lined up near Chinese ports both to load and to unload.
As the pandemic spread around the globe a number of things happened: First, consumption dropped, and that resulted in a massive drop in demand and in manufacturing. The numbers for trade coming out in March show that somewhere between 5 – 13 % of world trade actually dropped. That’s clearly a substantial amount and translated into hundreds of shipping journeys being canceled. Between Europe and China the number I believe approached 500.
A large number of seafarers who have actually finished their contracts three months ago are still onboard the ships and can’t go home
Second, because of the drop in demand and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, there was a massive glut of oil. This translated into two things. First, all of the oil coming out of the ground had to be stored somewhere and land based storage filled up very fast. All the oil producers started to store the oil on ships. Tankers, barges, smaller and bigger ships, were all chartered for storage of oil. These ships have been sitting there for months because there was no other place to store the oil. The result was that the cost of chartering or leasing a tanker went up; at some point to charter a large ship could cost up to USD 300,000 a day. The second thing that happened was that the price of oil dropped so low that it became cheaper for ships to go around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa rather than pay the fees to go through the Suez Canal. This also changed the shipping routes because it was cheaper to travel three weeks longer than pay the cost of going through the Suez Canal. The effects were really complex.
For cargo ships workers and seafarers the effects were different. Workers on cargo or cruise ships are usually working on contracts that last between four and nine or ten months. After that, they usually spend a month at home, and fly out again to get on another ship. But as this became difficult because ports and many airports are closed to seafarers because of quarantine.
This meant that a large number of seafarers who have actually finished their contracts three months ago are still onboard the ships and can’t go home. Some are being paid while others are not. They are stuck until some government policies are put into place to repatriate these workers. Additionally, some shipping companies are probably going under, which means the seafarers are affected as well.
TM: Do you think the measures taken against COVID-19 which are affecting the economy all over the world, will lead to finding a new way to organize trade?
LK: Here I am venturing into speculation. There is always the question of automation versus labour. Of course, that ignores that nothing is 100 percent automated because there is always some human intervention. And there is also the cost of automation. The fact is that workers are going to desperately look for jobs. This means the cost of labour is going to be pushed down by many of the employers. Whether or not this push and pull will happen is difficult to tell. I have been seeing reports about how many shipping companies have been talking about automated ports because then they don‘t have to worry about any pandemic.
The pandemic reinforces the importance of the workers and the human elements and the fact that the optimistic narratives of capital accumulation were extremely fragile
At the same time, the automated machinery has to be operated by at least one person, and if this person gets COVID-19, then the whole port stops working. The fantasy of a fully automated workplace is still largely that, a fantasy. What might happen are other kinds of changes that have happened during other crisis. One example is the consolidation of shipping companies because it becomes more cost effective. We also begin seeing absorptions of smaller companies. We see larger shipping companies actually scrapping brand new ships because they don’t have any use for them. The cycle of production and scrapping accelerates. Those things will probably happen. In terms of the workers it is a lot harder to see because of the question of automation being so central to all of this.
TM: If COVID-19 had appeared before publishing this book, how do you think it would have affected your research project?
LK:I wouldn’t be able to finish the project without being able to travel and research or without being able to go to the archives, because not all archives are digitized. Let’s say that if I had researched the project and now I would write it, would I include anything different?
In the parts that I cut I had a really long section on quarantine. I cut it because I just thought that it is too long. I have all of this material and I have been thinking to incorporate the idea of shipping quarantine into some other writing. If I had done my research and I was just writing the book in the time of the pandemic, I wouldn’;t have changed anything. I might have made references to it but it wouldn’t have changed the content fundamentally. If anything, the pandemic reinforces the importance of the workers and the human elements and the fact that the optimistic narratives of capital accumulation were extremely fragile.
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