Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula 
by Laleh Khalili.
Verso, 368 pp., £20, April 2020, 978 1 78663 481 8
Show More
Show More

When​ the Ever Given wedged itself into the side of the Suez Canal on 23 March, many, many people were annoyed and upset. The ship’s as yet unnamed captain and all-Indian crew, for a start: it’s going to be interesting to see what the inquiry concludes not just about the grounding, but also about the giant penis the Ever Given drew on satellite tracking before sailing into the canal. It was also a definitively bad day for the Egyptian pilots who were in charge of the ship during its passage through the canal. Also annoyed and upset: everyone stuck on board the several hundred ships waiting to go through. Everyone worried about the stupefyingly diverse cargo on board all these ships: oil, of course, but also many tons of the world’s most mined commodity (can you guess? It’s sand); and, of course, everything else, from widgets to trainers to computers, from coffee to consoles, from plastic crap of all types to medicines to, well, everything. Since 12 per cent of global trade passes through the canal, the economic damage caused by its closure was significant: a boggling $9.6 billion a day.

And then there’s a smaller community of people who, while not exactly glad to hear about the Ever Given, welcomed the opportunity it presents for consciousness-raising. This is the group who see shipping as the great ignored subject at the centre of the global economy. The truth is that shipping is responsible, as Rose George put it in the subtitle of her classic 2013 book on the subject, for ‘90 Per Cent of Everything’. It is the physical equivalent of the internet, the other industry which makes globalisation possible. The internet abolishes national boundaries for information, news, data; shipping abolishes these boundaries for physical goods. The main way it does this is by being almost incomprehensibly efficient and cheap. As George points out, if you’re having a sweater shipped from the other side of the planet, the cost of shipping adds just a cent to the price. Another way of putting it would be to say that shipping is, in practice, free. This has had the effect of abolishing geography and location as an economic factor: moving stuff from A to B is so cheap that, for most goods, there is no advantage in siting manufacturing anywhere near your customers. Instead, you make whatever it is where it’s cheapest, and ship it to them instead. As Marc Levinson wrote in The Box (2006), his unexpectedly thrilling book about the container industry, shipping is so cheap it has ‘changed the shape of the world economy’.

My own long-standing, slow-burning interest in shipping came from the fact that I grew up in what has become one of the world’s five biggest container ports, Hong Kong, and also because of a decision made by my mother. In 1967, when I was five, with a trip to the UK coming up, she decided that, instead of flying to London, we would ‘take the boat’. (Fellow shipping fans: I know it isn’t called a boat.) She correctly thought that passenger shipping was on the way out as a standard mode of travel, and wanted the two of us to see what all the fuss was about before it went away. She booked us passage on the Benvalla, a ship run by the once famous, irrevocably Scottish Ben Line, based in Leith and trading primarily with Asia. The Ben Line operated a fleet of mainly cargo vessels which also took some passengers. There were fourteen passengers on board the Benvalla and the journey was supposed to take four weeks, including stops. But on 5 June, the day before we were supposed to pass through the Suez Canal, the Six-Day War broke out.

The canal closed. The captain radioed for orders. We waited on the judgment of Leith. Benvalla spent two days at the southerly entrance to the canal, the same spot where hundreds of ships recently waited for Ever Given to come unstuck (come unstuck in a good way). In the absence of motion, the Red Sea was, my mother remembered, unbearably hot. When the orders came, they were to go the long way round, via the Cape of Good Hope, and to make European landfall not in London but in Hamburg. That gave me my abiding memory of the trip: the three-day storm we sailed through going round the cape. I have one visual image in particular: my mother’s bunk bed, across the cabin from mine, pitching down at an angle of 45 degrees, then back up, then down again. I was too young and too ignorant to be frightened, but my mother later told me that even the crew were alarmed by the storm, and at one point a huge wave broke over the bridge. We also crossed the equator (the bosun put on a false beard to dress up as Neptune and dunked the uninitiated in a paddling pool), saw whales, and watched the only child-suitable film on board, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, so many times that it became my favourite movie. (I’ve tried to find it subsequently, but it isn’t available in the UK or Ireland, though Disney will let you stream it everywhere else in the English-speaking world. That’s presumably due to a combination of accent disasters and historical travesty – imagine how awful it must be, for the House of Mouse to forego the revenue.)

The canal stayed shut for eight years. Benvalla only narrowly avoided being one of the fourteen ships caught in it for that whole period. (The crews were allowed to rotate. They formed the Great Bitter Lake Association to manage their pooled resources and lively social lives. They issued stamps and had their own version of the Olympics.) By the time it reopened, both the world and the shipping industry had permanently changed.

The Six-Day War was one of many times the canal has played a role in world-historical conjunctures and disjunctures. In Sinews of War and Trade, Laleh Khalili tells the story of the canal and of the historical and economic currents which have flowed through it and been enabled by its presence. The book focuses on the Saudi peninsula, whose centrality to questions of trade between east and west is apparent to anyone who glances at a map. Add the 1938 discovery of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia to the location of the canal and you can see why this part of the world manifests so many of the ‘sinews’ of which Khalili speaks.

The canal was built by Egyptian labour under the direction of the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. The work used a combination of cutting edge (excuse the pun) technology and forced labour, and took ten years: the canal opened for business on 17 November 1869. The first ship to pass through it was the British warship HMS Newport, without fanfare, a day before the official opening. Khalili feels no need to stress this portent: from the very first, the canal was an instrument of power, and played a crucial role not just in expanding trade between Europe and Asia, but in extending the reach and impact of the British Empire. At the official opening the French imperial yacht L’Aigle passed through, accompanied by a flotilla of dignitaries. The canal was a technological feat in itself, and was dependent on new technology for its usefulness: because it runs from north to south and prevailing winds are from west to east, sailing ships couldn’t use it, so its existence depended on steamships. In turn, steamships needed coal, which meant that they needed ports at which to load fuel, for ‘bunkering’.

That demand reshaped the imperial map. The East India Company had begun switching its fleet to steam in the 1830s. In 1839, the British conquered Aden and made the Yemeni port into a vital node of empire, a hub for logistics and communications. Those communications travelled by cable, an all-important tool of empire. Khalili cites the argument of Douglas Farnie that ‘communication by cable was more pivotal to the maintenance of British economic and political power than railways or steamships because it stitched the internal Indian information-gathering systems onto overseas networks and thus centralised the state’s ability to collect strategic intelligence and expanded its capacity to project state power.’

The next big technological breakthrough to affect the canal was the invention of an Iraqi Jew born in Whitechapel, whose family background was in trading seashells, and who went on to become lord mayor of London: Marcus Samuel. He saw how slow and laborious it was to load barrels of oil onto ships. (The legacy of this is oil being priced in barrels.) Samuel realised that it would be much more efficient if the ship itself was a single big tank. This invention, the oil tanker, led to the modern oil transportation industry, and to the foundation of Samuel’s new firm, whose name nodded at the old family business: Shell. In 1898, the first of its new tankers to travel through the canal – after extensive lobbying by the government, which was worried about the US company Standard Oil getting an advantage in selling oil to Asia – was the SS Murex. Samuel was well qualified to know that the murex is a large, predatory marine snail. An appropriate name, as it turned out. Three years later, in 1901, oil represented 1 per cent of traffic through the canal. By 1960, it was 82 per cent. Shell is still the most valuable company in the UK.

I said that the world had changed when the canal reopened after the Six-Day War. The changes in shipping were mainly to do with size. Everything about ships got bigger, then bigger, and bigger again. The need to go round the Cape of Good Hope, and face those legendarily terrible storms, was in itself an argument for larger, more capable ships. The growing importance of Arabian oil for Western economies, combined with the closure of the canal, increased the size of tankers still further: first in the form of VLCC, Very Large Crude Carriers, and then ULCC, Ultra Large Crude Carriers. Financial innovations were involved in the development of these vessels, as Khalili explains. Aristotle Onassis, one of the driving forces behind the gargantuanisation of ships, would begin by chartering a new ship to an oil company that needed transportation capacity but preferred not to own the assets involved, since it saw itself as being in the oil business rather than the shipping business. Having sold the charter, Onassis would use the promised revenue to insure the ship; then he would use the insurance as the guarantee that would secure the loan he needed to get the ship built. It is a beautiful little story about capital’s ability to generate more capital: you could say that the ship, non-existent at the start of the process, wills itself into being through the magic of finance.

The closure of the canal between 1967 and 1975 had many political consequences too. It contributed to the switch from the decolonising moment of the 1960s to the reactionary petro-politics that followed, and it helped end the significance of the port of Aden. It had boomed because of its utility for the British, who manoeuvred not very scrupulously on its behalf; in 1955 the British prevented Sharjah from being developed into a port in order to preserve Aden’s pre-eminence. Once the Gulf states began to become oil-rich, and the British left, Aden was, from an economic point of view, doomed. As Khalili says, ‘the decline of the port of Aden demonstrates that despite natural advantages, a deep harbour and a strategically fortuitous location, a port can be made to wither and fade away.’ Jebel Ali in Dubai is now the biggest port in the Middle East, and the only one of the world’s top ten container ports not in East or South-East Asia. Dubai Ports World, which bought the historic British firm P&O in 2006, is now one of the biggest port operators in the world, owning, among many other assets, Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe. Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest, is owned by a Hong Kong-based conglomerate, CK Hutchison. Global shipping is now dominated by Asia and Asian companies.

Along with oil tankers, the other type of ship that has grown bigger and bigger since the 1960s is Ever Given’s category: the container vessel. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the container in the modern economy. Containers are the force which has driven the cost of shipping down, and then further down, and then down so low that it has in effect abolished itself as an economic factor. The remarkable thing about the story of the container is that it is such a simple idea that almost anyone could have had it – anyone who has ever tidied up children’s toys, for instance. The idea is that stuff is more manageable if you shove it into a box. That’s it.

This​ might not sound like a big deal. But in the world of shipping it was revolutionary: a single container which could travel from truck to train to boat to destination; which could be made to a uniform scale and was an entirely fungible unit of transport. It was the invention of the American businessman Malcolm McLean, and his achievement wasn’t so much the idea, which pretty much anyone could have had, but the relentless force with which he lobbied manufacturers, regulators, politicians, governments, unions, railway companies, shipping companies, trucking companies and port authorities to bring it into being. The first container ship, SS Ideal-X, set sail from Newark on 26 April 1956, carrying a load of 58 containers. The world caught on fast, because the container ship’s advantages were immediately obvious: speed and convenience and efficiency. The standard container of McLean’s invention, the TEU or twenty-foot equivalent unit, now dominates the world of shipping and transportation.

Before containers, workers unloading a boat might find themselves confronted, Marc Levinson says, with ‘hundred-kilo bags of sugar or twenty-pound cheeses nestled next to two-ton steel coils’. ‘Unloading bananas required the longshoremen to walk down a gangplank carrying eighty-pound stems of hard fruit on their shoulders. Moving coffee meant carrying fifteen-kilo bags to a wooden pallet placed in the hold, letting a winch lift the pallet to the dock, and then removing each bag from the pallet and stacking it atop a massive pile.’ A single ship might carry a pile of cement bags, copper bars too big for a man to carry, steel drums of beef tallow, baskets of oranges, barrels of olives, 440-pound bales of cotton. Levinson describes the cargo of one ship, the SS Warrior, in detail. On a single journey from Brooklyn to Bremerhaven it carried 5015 tons of cargo, consisting of 194,582 individual items: 74,903 cases, 71,726 cartons, 24,036 bags, 10,671 boxes, 2880 bundles, 2877 packages, 2634 pieces, 1538 drums, 888 cans, 815 barrels, 53 wheeled vehicles, 21 crates, 10 transporters, 5 reels and 1525 undetermined items. The Warrior took six days to load (including one lost to a strike), ten days to sail the Atlantic, and another four days to unload (because the American longshoremen worked one eight-hour shift but the Germans worked round the clock). So half of the total journey time was spent loading and unloading.

The container gets rid of all that labour and replaces it with a largely automated process. Ships are unloaded now in a matter of hours, with the order determined by algorithms. Nobody knows or cares what’s in the boxes: the crew’s manifest is concerned only with items that are refrigerated or dangerous. Apart from that, for the crew and the dockworkers, the containers are labelled boxes of who-knows-what. The process is fast, so fast that a whole corpus of image, story and folklore concerning sailors on shore is no longer relevant: they are only ever on shore for a few hours at a time. Much of the increasing efficiency of the process is linked to ever increasing size. In 1980, seventeen ships with a capacity of 20,000 TEU between them were sailing weekly from North America to Japan; another 23 ships were sailing from Northern Europe to North America, and eight more, with a capacity of 15,000 TEU, were sailing to Japan. Impressive: but the Ever Given alone carries 20,124 TEU. The biggest ships in the world, the Algeciras class built by the Korean company Daewoo, carry 23,964 TEU. If you lined up the containers on one of those ships in single file, they would stretch for ninety miles.

The container finished off the old notion of what a port was. Today’s huge container ports no longer have organic links to anywhere specific, only to transport hubs, to networks of road and rail. As Levinson writes:

Cities that had been centres of maritime commerce for centuries, such as New York and Liverpool, saw their waterfronts decline with startling speed, unsuited to the container trade or simply unneeded, and the manufacturers that endured high costs and antiquated urban plants in order to be near their suppliers and their customers have long since moved away … Sleepy harbours such as Busan and Seattle moved into the front ranks of the world’s ports.

No more Brooklyn to Bremerhaven. Today’s container ports are highly secure, almost fortified locations. Factories no longer had any need to be near ports; places with cheaper land and cheaper labour could outcompete major population centres on price. The economic geography of the whole world was changed by the TEU.

The effect on labour was equally profound. The biggest aircraft carrier in the world, the US navy’s Nimitz class, is 333 metres long and displaces 106,300 tons. It carries 6012 people. The biggest container ships are 400 metres long and displace 228,283 tons. They are crewed by about twenty people (the Ever Given, which is 400 metres long, has a crew of 25). As shipping has grown more efficient, its labour force has shrunk. It has also become more fungible, less unionised and more international. Modern patterns of ownership and legislation have enabled this process. The Ever Given is typical: it was built by the Japanese company Imabari and is owned by a subsidiary of the same firm, Shoei Kisen Kaisha; both entities are wholly owned by the Higaki family. The shipping business is still dominated to a remarkable extent by family companies. But the cliché ‘tight-knit’ barely begins to describe the Higakis. The family members have business cards which carry two numbers: the first represents the cardholder’s father’s place in the family succession (the company founder was number 1), and the second indicates which number son the cardholder is. Here’s an account of the firm’s leadership from Nikkei Asia: ‘Managing director Mutsuya Higaki, the second son of Shoichi’s fourth son, has the code number 4-2, while 5-1 is the code for managing director Kiyoshi Higaki, the first son of the founder’s fifth son … An Imabari general affairs manager said the code numbers are useful in “helping us to avoid confusion”.’ If you say so. The company president, Yukito Higaki, is 3-1.

So the Higakis run the Ever Given? Not so fast. Remember the Onassis model: the Ever Given was built to be leased to the huge Taiwanese shipping colossus Evergreen Marine, majority controlled by the Chang family. But they don’t operate it: the ship is run by the Hamburg-based company Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, part of the five-generation-old family-owned Schulte group – the eponymous Bernhard having got his big break when the Suez Canal was closed by the Six-Day War. So it’s a German ship? No, the Ever Given flies under the Panamanian flag and operates according to Panamanian law. As for the crew, press reports tell us that they are Indian nationals.

All​ this is typical of the contemporary shipping industry, especially the combination of behind the scenes family ownership with total internationalisation. Shipping is deeply rooted in specific places and specific traditions, but is on a mission to be as placeless as possible. The crucial legal component is the use of flags of convenience: the registration of ships to legal domains which have no other connection to the owners, operators or crew. The process of ‘flagging out’ has a long history connected to warfare, slaving and piracy, but began in its modern form with the Panamanian ‘open registry’ of 1916. Any shipowner could register their ship as Panamanian, thus turning the ship and its crew, in Khalili’s phrase, ‘into a quantum of sovereignty of that country’. Within the coastal regions of the world, the law of the relevant nation applies up to twelve miles from shore; further out, the ship is governed by the law of its flag. What that means in practice is that it is governed by no law at all. The most common registries are Panama, the Marshall Islands and Liberia, none of them famous for their legal heft. The crew of the ships are never citizens of those countries and are not often citizens of the same country as the ship’s owner or operator; most of the time they are employed on contracts with a ship’s manning company. A huge number of them are Filipino, a country wildly over-represented among contemporary seafarers.

The resulting structures are Russian dolls of legal impunity, and abuses are so rife they almost aren’t abuses, but a terrible norm. As Rose George puts it, ‘who do you complain to, when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, and managed by a Cypriot, in international waters?’ And that is a simple story by the standards of contemporary shipping. She cites the example of the Erika, an oil tanker which sank off Brittany in 1999 and extensively polluted the coastline. The ship had been chartered by the French oil company Total, but nobody knew who owned it. The initial owner seemed to be Tevere Shipping of Malta, which had outsourced management to Panship Management of Ravenna, which had chartered it to Selmont International of Nassau, which was represented by Amarship of Lugano. There were twelve layers of shell company between the ship and its ultimate owner, and the French authorities could not penetrate them all: ‘Many of the companies were a brass plate in a Maltese or Monrovian street, but that brass plate can act as a mighty drawbridge, hauled up, when flag states provide anonymity.’ The punchline? ‘When Erika’s owner finally came forward weeks later – he claimed he had been skiing and had not realised he now owned an environmental catastrophe – he was revealed as a London-based Neapolitan, Giuseppe Savarese.’

Add all this together: the shipping industry is bigger and more consequential than ever; it is the main driving force behind globalisation. At the same time, it is more out of sight than ever, hidden behind impenetrably secure, razor-wired ports, which have less and less contact with the places around them and have turned into pure nodes of transportation. Ships and their crews are as close as possible to entirely fungible beings: none of us cares how our goods get to us, and the only reason anyone is thinking about it at the moment is because the Ever Given got stuck. The outcome of all this internationalisation and legal smokescreening is that shipping is mysteriously invisible. There are 85,000 large working ships in the world, and according to the International Transport Workers Federation two thousand seafarers lose their lives at sea every year. Yet we never think about them. When you think of how central the sea has been across human history to the songs we sing, the stories we tell, the books we read, you have to ask yourself – where has that all gone?

The shipping industry has worked hard to hide itself from view, and we have colluded with it. We don’t want to think about how that 90 per cent of everything got here. The labour of an entire industry has been successfully put out of sight, out of mind. Occasionally something happens which reminds us: the trade slowdown caused by Brexit, or the Ever Given’s mishap. But then we go back to our deliberate not-thinking. And yet the tankers and the containers never stop. Those $67 billion of goods held up by the Ever Given are chugging towards us as we sit. The single biggest enabling force behind the global economy might as well be invisible, even as it drives down workers’ pay and living conditions, as it contributes to climate change, as it reshapes the planet’s economic geography. And, of course, it helps to keep stuff cheap. Shipping is a modern miracle of efficiency, interconnection and technology. It might also be the definitive example of modern capitalism, at the moment of its peak supremacy over labour. George quotes a schoolchild’s prayer, written on the wall of the library in the Felixstowe Seafarers’ Centre: ‘Make all the people on the ship safe so we can have all the food from the ship that the seamen bring us. If other countries were not so nice, we wouldn’t have so much food. Thank you. Amen.’

Listen to John Lanchester discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 43 No. 10 · 20 May 2021

John Lanchester writes that much about international shipping is mysteriously invisible (LRB, 22 April). While catastrophic events such as the sinking of the oil tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999 attract international attention, the continuing threat posed to the safety of navigation and the marine environment by more than a thousand containers lost at sea each year is largely overlooked. In 1997, stormy weather caused 62 containers to be washed overboard from a Tokio Express container ship off Land’s End. Just one of those containers carried 4.8 million pieces of Lego. Almost a quarter of a century later, Lego pieces are still washing up on Cornish beaches. As climate change has contributed to a rise in sea levels and extreme weather conditions, the likelihood of shipping accidents at sea and lost cargo has increased.

The legal smokescreen obscuring ownership and operational responsibility in international shipping is not entirely impenetrable. Governments and other stakeholders should develop practical ways of co-operating – at the level of the Safety of Life at Sea convention and through the work of regulatory bodies such as the International Maritime Organisation – to ensure proper reporting and management of the problem of lost containers.

Paul Cullen

The force of John Lanchester’s remark that shipping goods around the world today ‘is, in practice, free’ was made tangible to me yesterday. I was having a hospital lunch in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The requested diced pears arrived in a small plastic container with one of those nearly impossible to remove lids. While examining the lid for the safest point of attack, I saw the words ‘packaged in Thailand’. Also on the lid were the words ‘see side for country of origin.’ On the side I found ‘product of South Africa’. My pears had made a long journey to find me. Pears are grown locally in the Shenandoah Valley, where I live, but can’t compete on cost in the modern shipping economy.

Lex Miller
Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Vol. 43 No. 11 · 3 June 2021

John Lanchester mentions that his mother, referring to a forthcoming sea voyage, said they would ‘take the boat’ (LRB, 22 April). ‘Fellow shipping fans,’ he adds in parenthesis, ‘I know it isn’t called a boat.’ Quite right, on salt water. Where I live, on the Great Lakes, all floating vessels have traditionally been referred to as boats, though in common usage ‘ship’ is increasingly used to refer to any large vessel. In sailing terminology, the word ‘ship’ properly refers only to a ship-rigged vessel (square-sails on at least the main and foremasts for running before trade winds), as distinct from a brig, sloop, ketch etc. A ship-rig is ideal for constant, reliable winds, but on the Lakes wind direction can change in an instant, so that ships are liable to capsize before their sails can be reset. This is what may well have happened to the first European-style vessel on the Lakes (which was properly a ship), Le Griffon, lost on the return leg of her maiden voyage in 1679. Subsequently, boats on the Lakes were mostly schooner-rigged.

David Ritchie

Vol. 43 No. 14 · 15 July 2021

The discussion of what defines a ship as distinct from a boat reminds me of what my father, who served on a troop ship in the US navy in the First World War, said when, as a little boy, I asked him what the difference was (Letters, 3 June). He replied: ‘A boat is any vessel which can be carried on a ship.’

John Eliot Spofford
Boston, Massachusetts

On a voyage in the Canadian Arctic ten years ago I was reproached for calling the vessel in which we were sailing – a former Soviet research ship – a ‘boat’. It apparently offended the Russian captain. Our communications officer, a former Royal Navy submariner, said to me afterwards with a twinkle: ‘Dinna fash yersel, Martin. In the navy we just call them all “targets”.’

Martin Rose
Saffron Walden, Essex

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences