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

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How shipping is central to the very fabric of global capitalism

In our networked world, the realities governing the international movement of freight are easily forgotten. But maritime transport remains the bedrock of trade. Convoys perpetually crisscross the oceans, carrying gas, oil, ore – indeed, every type of consumable and commodity. These movements, though practically invisible, mean that control of the seas is vital in an age when no nation can survive on domestic products alone.

Professor and author Laleh Khalili travelled the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean aboard gigantic container ships to investigate the secretive and sometimes dangerous world of maritime trade. What she discovered was strangely disturbing: brutally exploited seafarers enduring loneliness and risking injury to keep the cogs of trade turning. In the Arabian peninsula’s ports, forbidden places encircled by barbed wire and moats of highways, the dockers struggle for benefits and political rights, as they have for generations. Environmental catastrophes threaten with increasing intensity and frequency. Around the oil-trading nations of the Middle East, a history of British colonialism, modern US imperialism, and local autocracies combine to worsen the conditions of modern seafarers, and piracy persists near the Horn of Africa.

From her research riding the sea lanes and visiting the major Middle Eastern ports, Khalili has produced a book that exposes the frayed and tense sinews of modern capital, a physical network without which none of our more abstracted webs and systems could operate.