It may not be hot off the presses, but ‘Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and capitalism in the Arabian peninsula’ by Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London, remains a must-read for anyone interested in how history has shaped patterns of trade and investment in and around the Arabian peninsula. 

First published in 2020, the book takes readers on a journey across time and borders, calling at some of the main “sinews of war and trade” in Arabia. It weaves from the thriving trading outposts of the Age of Sail and the recent coaling stations of the Age of Steam to the more contemporary bunkering stations and free ports. 


The author anchors the stories of major ports in the region — success and failures alike — to the twists and turns of colonial and post-colonial history. She does this with the rigour of academic research, but her work is not confined to the desks of libraries and archives. Instead, the author embarks twice on a container ship to gain direct access to some of the region’s otherwise secretive biggest ports, adding a unique flair to her narrative. 

“The mechanised ports I have written about are undoubtedly seductive, in the way the vastness of engineering and technological modernity, the symmetry of metal and concrete, and the effusion of colour, movement and sound can be seductive,” she writes. “Container cranes are balletic, large ships awesome. Even the vision of ships at anchor, whether shimmering in the distant haze or on a ship’s automatic identification system screen, gives a sense of worldly transactions, of the hidden movements of money and commodities that make capitalist accumulation and the production and consumption of goods possible.”

The author also brings back some of those unexpected turns in the history of capital accumulation. If the region has been a major source of capital accumulation for the global north — first and foremost the UK and the US — which has shaped local trade routes and infrastructure accordingly, a few local companies turned the table upside down in recent years. Among them, DP World is a prime example.

In 2006, then Dubai Ports World acquired Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) for around £4bn. 

Founded in 1837, P&O was one of the first British shipping companies to take advantage of steam technology. P&O vessels became a common sight in the Indian ocean as they carried mail, goods and passengers along the trade routes connecting the eastern provinces of the empire to the motherland. By the mid-1920s, the author reports, P&O owned more than 500 ships. 

“The story of the creation of P&O and the absorption of some of its subsidiaries by Arab capital is notable in many regards,” she writes.


“Shipping is a global business and has a fundamentally global character ... The transnational firms formed intimate relationships with local capital. Mercantile capital on the peninsula has from the very first a transnational character, and the coming of oil in the 20th century gave the merchants of the peninsula an even longer global reach. Local merchants comfortably negotiated their roles as agents or brokers for foreign capital; eventually many began new businesses in their own right, accumulating capital through setting up factories, organising the circulation of goods, and providing shipping and agency services.” 

The author addresses not only the accumulation of capital, but also its exploitation — particularly human capital — outlining the cycle of repression and revolt that came as a flipside of trade and capital accumulation. 

The book is finely written and researched. Whether you take it as academic literature or simply travel writing, this engaging work can reveal a great deal about an area of trade history that is relatively unknown. 

This article first appeared in the February/March 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.