The Politics Of Canals, Gulfes, & Straits In Maritime Freight Transportation



This conversation recorded in London on May 18, 2015 with Laleh Khalili for The Funambulist podcast evolves around her on-going research about the geopolitics at work in the capitalist and military ship transportation around the Arabian Peninsula. This interview is structured in a geographical manner, reproducing her February 2015 trip on a container ship between Malta and Jabal Ali (Dubai’s container port). 

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Before we describe your research trip on a container ship, could you tell us how civilian infrastructure have been always intertwined with the logistics of war?

LALEH KHALILI: At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the first military strategist who decided to use logistical material coming from behind the lines, rather than being requisitioned from whatever place to which the military marched. His strategic decision to, in fact, use railways to bring in materiel, food, medicines, medical and military equipment from behind the lines changed the face of war-fighting. He is often thought of as being an amazing tactician, an amazing strategist, but part of that was also the ways in which he completely transformed the face of operational sites of warfare, which people often don’t talk about, but it was crucial to his military successes.

The subsequent Franco-Prussian wars which went on intermittently and episodically all the way through the 19th century, drew on Napoleon’s logistical experiences, on building these railroads that delivered materials to fighting armies across western Europe. Building railways and of course laying down roads were incredibly labor-intensive processes and required buying from communities that live alongside the roads or railroads, or actually coercion of communities that live alongside it, requisition of vast amount of lands, of huge amount of labor going into laying down rails. So, the rails that we use today have their origins in many of those tracks that were laid down during the Franco-Prussian war. I think that reading that work by van Creveld was really interesting to me, because it seems to me that logistical thinking, which is to develop dual-use forms of infrastructures, which can very easily be converted from civilian use into military use, has been crucial to the policy-making of states.

States always have this logistical reason in mind when they build infrastructures, and particularly transport infrastructures: roads, railroads, and ports. Certainly, the U.S. Military has constant planning for what they call “strategic transports assets,” and sets out policies and regulations for, for example, requisitioning or contracting civilian airlines for their various wars. So not only transports of materiels and soldiers, but also requisitioning civilian airlines, American Airlines or United Airlines or whatever, for the work of the military. Roads are similarly considered to be dual-use types of infrastructures, and in fact, there is a lot of research being done right now about how the US road-building projects in Afghanistan, which are ostensibly supposed to be humanitarian projects, are in fact, very easily convertible into military infrastructures. Looking at this kind of traffic between military and civilian transport infrastructures has been of great interest to me but I am now focusing mostly on the maritime side of this.

This dual usage element in maritime transport is not always as clearly on view. When one reads about the various U.S. wars in the Gulf area, one reads about how the U.S. made enormous contracts with commercial maritime shipping companies, with U.S. merchant marine but also with foreign shipping companies to transport its materiel. It becomes very clear that this use of civilian transport as strategic assets is an on-going project. When you look at the way that the U.S. was moving out its materiel as it was slowly drawing down from Afghanistan for example, the way that it works is, materiel is moved from Afghanistan via planes, to the the Emirates, to Jabal Ali port in Dubai, put on ships and shipped home to the U.S. from Jabal Ali. The Jabal Ali port area in Dubai acts as this kind of logistical hub: it is the eighth largest container port in the world and the largest port in the Middle East, but it also acts as this kind of military storage and transport facility for the U.S. military. This is also part of what I became really interested in this project.

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Map of Laleh Khalili’s February 2015 trip on a container ship. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2018).

LL: Now talking about your research trip on this container ship and slowly aiming at something I like to call “the politics of narrowness,” which here would be the passages through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz, three key points in the infrastructure that you’re describing, we can first address its personal dimension. Could you tell us how you end up climbing on a container ship carrying not much more than a copy Moby Dick and Das Kapital?

LK: And Fernand Braudel’s History of the Mediterranean! I’ve been blessed with a nice research grant, which gave me lots of time to do research on the project so I do have time to incorporate lots of research methods, including archival work (in business archives as well as national archives of the U.S., the U.K. and any other that I can get into), interviews, data collection, business reports, and various othr kinds of approaches. However, I found some difficulties in getting into container ports to do port visits. Some ports are much more welcoming than others. So that’s was one of the attraction of actually taking a container ship which dropped you off at these inaccessible ports. Another part of it is also that for my undergraduate work I was trained as an engineer and I have always had this unhealthy love of the massive technological kind of structures; a fascination with enormous buildings, bridges, ports, container ships. When I discovered that I can actually take a container ship trip, I took that chance. It was probably the best research experience of my life. I managed to repeat it again the following year and it was also amazing, to get on a container ship in Malta, to go through the Suez Canal, through Bab-el-Mandab and the Indian ocean, and then through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. It was absolutely fascinating.

LL: You’ve been writing before, while and after this trip on this online platform The Gamming.

LK: Yes, I set up a blog, to allow me to think through the things I was interested in and to keep a record of it.

LL: Parts of it are academic research proper, but other parts are more incarnated. For instance, you describe the birthday of one of the crewmembers, doing a karaoke, or other events of the kind. At another moment, you make a Marxian reading of the ship as a factory. Could you tell us more about how the ship is part of the added value production system?

LK: I mean, part of it was, doing straight-up ethnography, so being there with the crewmembers, while doing karaoke singing, is ethnographic, but it also says something about the leisure practices on board this ship. It says something about the way that there are now nationally distinct divisions between officers on this container ship, who tend to be European, and crewmembers who tend to be from the Global South, that permits for example dual-wage systems. As for the question of transport being part of the value added, Marx in both Grundrisse and Capital Volume II, which I took with me on board, talks about how this kind of transportation actually adds to the value of a good, because it takes it from a place where a good would have cost less, a smaller exchange-value, to another place that has a higher exchange-value and therefore there is a value added. So that is unsurprising. But what was striking to me was the kind of factory style conditions of particular forms of work on the ship: the engine room in particular seems to me to be the one that most closely conforms to a kind of a Marxian platonic ideal-type of proletarian work, physical, requiring skill, a set of workers who were particularly proud of this work. Of course, this is not an original observation at all. Trotsky wrote about this when he wrote about Battleship Potemkin, where he talked about the engineers on ships being the real proletarians. And the great and irreplaceable Allan Sekula wrote about this in his wonderful Fish Story, where he has a very long discussion of the ways in which engineers onboard ships are often seen as a kind of a proletarian aristocracy. For example, the European officers who work in engine room have a set of skills that are perhaps more easily transposable and transportable outside the business. But their work is also much more arduous; they don’t get to the see the sea because they’re bound up inside the belly of the ship. They have to constantly deal with this environment, which is physically, corporeally, affectively, a very different sort of space than the deck, where you have a view of the sea and a sense of horizon that is very far away, whereas when you’re walking in the engine rooms, it is extremely loud, extremely noisy, very hot. You’re essentially like Jonas in a belly of a metal whale. It’s an amazing place to be! There is also an exciting younger scholar named Charmaine Chua [n.v.d.r. Ed.: see her article in the present issue], who has also written a series of blog posts about the same sort of experience around the same time as I was taking my trip. She took a trip from the West coast of the U.S. to Taiwan. She actually worked on board the ship, she put on a boiler suit, and emptied buckets of oil, cleaned things. Her account of the physical labor she did on the ship is much more exciting than mine, because she had a sense of the tedium and the hardness of the work, which was totally experienced by her because she did the work, that for me was slightly more abstract or at least, observed kinds of qualities.

LL: You seem to be fascinated by Melville so I’d like to go back to it and ask you what did he add to your reading of the situation you were in?

LK: I grew up avoiding reading Moby Dick. Every time I tried it when I was very young, I just couldn’t get through it. I found it very difficult. But three or four years ago, I picked it up again. This time I read it all the way through and I was completely blown away by Moby Dick. I thought that it was, it is in my opinion, the greatest novel written in the English language. There is no comparison, nothing else compared to it. It is extraordinary in its richness, its depth in the ways in which it can be read in a literal sense but also in an allegorical sense, in an historical sense, and in an ethnographic sense. It is an amazing book, and it’s also very funny! It’s one of the funniest novels with all sorts of slapstick humor, a kind of cinematic humor and a subtle and ironic humor. Anyway! I had read this and in the same time, I was developing my interest in the port project. When I decided to go back on the ship I decided to take the book with me. It is an extremely cliché thing to do, as apparently everybody who has been taking a container ship has also been taking Moby Dick on board with them. But I am really glad I did, because, talking about the ship as a factory, of course Moby Dick is the first book in which it very explicitly uses that language. Whale ships were not only ships for catching whales, but also, for processing the whale already, in order for them to be able to transport the material that has been collected from the whale, the whale oil, various bits of it, bones etc. back to whichever home city their port was. There are these wonderful chapters in Moby Dick, in which he talks specifically about these massive fires being built, in which the whale fat is rendered in order for it to be liquefied, and then of course solidified into barrels and stored in the ship. C.L.R. James, the great Caribbean Marxist historian, writer, essayist and revolutionary, also actually thought that those Moby Dick scenes in which this kind of labor happened were some of the first proletarian literature ever written. I completely agree with him. What makes Moby Dick so wonderful is that Melville, having been a sailor, on the one hand, conveys something of the romance of being on a ship, but doesn’t shy away from showing what incredible back-breaking dangerous labor it is as well. It was great reading it on board because I was reading about the Pequo, crossing the Indian ocean at the same time I was going through the Indian Ocean, and I found that serendipity quite lovely.

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Crossing the Suez Canal. / Photograph by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

LL: Since you brought up C.L.R. James, I think we can also make a connection in how the ship is not only a facilitator of that system but also very much a necessary active part of it, as we can see in his introductory description of the slave ship at the beginning of The Black Jacobins. Without the slave ship, without this piece of design, there just couldn’t be any slavery; one cannot kidnap ten million African bodies and forcefully displace them from Africa to the Americas without the ship. A similar analysis can perhaps be made between the container ship and the global capitalist system. Remembering this and starting to describe your journey, first by talking about the Suez Canal, which I learnt through your writing, it is incredibly expensive for ships to cross, is that right?

LK: Yes, they have to pay some outrageous fee to cross the Suez Canal. They have to pay 600,000 or 700,000 euros in fees to go through the canal.

LL: It is a man-made canal and was nationalized in the 1950s by Nasser. Because of its narrowness, when the canal was closed during the wars of 1956 and 1957, you wrote that it takes 16 extra days to actually go around the African continent, which doubled the trip. Could you tell us about this tension that is occurring at this very specific point of the earth?

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Crossing the Suez Canal. / Photograph by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

LK: This canal is very interesting. There seems to be at this very moment a rush of canal making. As you know the Egyptian regime is now trying to build a parallel canal to the existing Suez Canal, in order to facilitate two-way travel [n.v.d.r. Ed.: this new canal was opened in August 2015, a few months after this conversation]. Because at the moment, the only bit of the canal where two-way travel can happen is the Great Bitter Lake, in the middle of the length of the canal, between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. There is also of course a widening and deepening of Panama Canal on the way as well as there is talks of another canal being built in Nicaragua, and another canal being built, that is going to cut some of the length of Malaysia or Indonesia — I can’t remember which — but there is a canal that is supposed to cut off four days of travel time through there. This latter canal would actually end up circumventing Singapore, so Singapore is not too happy about it.

What is interesting about the narrowness of these places is that this narrowness, is partially constructed, in a sense that if the ships that were going through Suez were not as big as the ships that I was on, or the ships that followed behind us — there was very large chemical carrier behind us — if these ships weren’t that large, then Suez would not be seen as so narrow. At the moment ships are becoming larger and larger, because of the shipping companies trying to save money through economies of scale. What then becomes an issue, with something like that, is that as the ships get larger, larger and larger, the fixed infrastructures end up becoming unable to deal with this.

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Crossing the Suez Canal. / Photograph by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

It’s not just the canal that now has to be dredged in order to facilitate deeper and deeper draughts on the ships, and wider and wider ships, but also ports for example. Certain kinds of super big ports are now unable to handle the width of some very large ships. So, on the one hand, the physical narrowness is there and it is real. There is no question that Bab-el-Manded is so very narrow, but part of it is also that this narrowness is constituted, constructed through a whole series of processes, of war making, commerce making, and regulation making. I was speaking to somebody who is an expert on the Aden port, and he was telling me that, for a long time in the 1980s, the water between these little islands off of Aden and the Yemeni coast were mined. And they did not know who had mined them, which country in the world had actually mined these waters! So, the entire shipping route had to be shifted around. In some senses, the shipping route becoming much narrower precisely because some unknown country, which they now think might have been Libya — God knows why! — had mined these parts of Bab-el-Mandab and narrowed down the shipping lanes. Again, that’s a very constructed thing. On the one hand, yes Bab-el-Mandab is narrow but on the other hand it’s made much narrower by human hand. There is a kind of a politics that goes into this, which is about economies of scale, geopolitical calculations, and route-making processes, which push people through certain routes.It is out of trying to sort out these power configurations that one begins to realize how such infrastructures are constructed, who benefits from them, who pays for them, and what is the human cost in terms of the blood and treasure that go into the labor in building these places and the blood and treasure that is spilled in defending them or trying to conquer them. It ends up making these places so incredibly significant in human politics and geopolitics.

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Crossing the Suez Canal. / Photograph by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

LL: To go back to this idea of dimensioning, it’s interesting to see that, this entire infrastructural system can only function if the dimensions are uniformized, as they were between 1968 and 1970. Through the uniformization of the container itself, the boxes that go inside the container are calibrated, but also the cranes, the ships, the highways, the trucks, etc.

LK: Of course, the original standard containers were 20-foot equivalent units (TEU). The vast majority of containers are now 40 TEU, so they have doubled the size of the original containers. And there are now also 45-50 TEU size containers being built. So, on the one hand you have these processes of standardization, but on the other hand there is also the impulse to save through having larger and larger containers. There is going to have to be a breaking point on this. As I mentioned, one of the striking things is that, as the ship draught becomes deeper and deeper, this becomes a problem of dredging for ship channels, or ports, or harbors. In some of these places dredging is cheaper or more efficient than in other places. It shows that what we think of as “nature” is being constantly remade, constantly redone, so it is really not natural at all.

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Map onboard the ship. / by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

LL: That’s what really differentiates the two next geographical sites: the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz: they are not artificial. Somehow, their narrowness is incidental and it’s only after that, the interpretation that is made of them, this is a very interesting aspect of how the laws of the sea were changed internationally, to go from 3 nautical miles of national water for each country from the coast, to 12 — this is not recognized by the U.S. itself because it would compromise their right to bring their ships to closer coasts than other countries. A particular aspect of your research was about the militarization of the zone of Aden. That’s also something that we can put in parallel with Deborah Cowen’s work and these invisible routes for ships that they’re all using, which are considered as more or less safe, with dozens of military warships from so many countries, which I think most people including myself don’t really realize.

LK: The strait of Hormuz bristled with warships, but almost of these warships belong to the littoral countries. But in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden the warships were truly international: China, Djibouti, the European countries, the Dutch, the Italians, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was in that area at the time in January 2015. This particular section of the route, from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea through Suez, seems to be the most militarized segment of my trip, even though we often hear about the strait of Hormuz being a kind of a security zone. This Indian Ocean area was just astonishing; the number of warships that went through there. That was partially interesting because it was before the Saudi war on Yemen, and it is long after Somali pirates had been construed as a problem for that area. The number of piracy attempts has gone done from something like 400 a year to 40 a year. So that was not an issue at all. And yet these ships were there and this is where Deborah Cowen’s argument becomes true, which says that the securitization of this route is constitutive of this whole process of trade, it’s significant to it. It makes trades possible, but trades also make securitization possible. There is a co-constitutive relationship between war and trade there.

This also happens of course through a whole set of other processes which completely normalize this. For example, and it appears in the Admiralty Charts, there are now zones within the Gulf of Aden in particular where the international maritime bodies recommend ships to convoy together in order to prevent the possibility of pirate attacks. This zone goes right in the middle of the sea and that convoying actually allows better surveillance by warships because of course the warships also travel in this particular channel. Our ship didn’t travel in this particular route. We actually stayed very close to the Yemeni coast all the way up in the Indian ocean. It was a very interesting experience because of course that zone in the area we were going through, which was away from the channel where all the big ships would go through, there were no other ships! We had gone from the Red Sea where at any given moment the RIS system, which is an electronic ship tracking system, showing something like 200 ships, to go down alongside the Yemeni shoreline where, at some moment, the area showed maybe two ships. At one point there were no ships on the RIS screen. So, there is this interesting way in that the sea is all populated in this variable way which corresponds very closely to the geopolitics of the space. Again, you don’t learn about these things unless you’re on the ship, which is part of the reason why this ship trip was such an exciting experience because I was learning things I would have never imagined before.

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RIS screen of the container ship. / Photograph by Laleh Khalili (February 2015).

LL: In this context of the density of ships taking place, and before arriving to Hormuz, there is this particular port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, which is useful for the entire region as it is a big port, but also a place where many connections to submarines Internet cables reach land on that spot. Do you happen to know the geopolitics mobilized by that space?

LK: I don’t know that much about these geopolitics of submarine cables there, but I suppose the location is very useful because it is on the Gulf of Oman, rather than on the Persian Gulf side, so it avoids having to go through the strait of Hormuz. Fujairah is the site of most of the oil and chemicals coming from Abu Dhabi. I think it is the main oil and chemical terminal for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is also, on the landside, as you mentioned, it is a very sparsely populated area. In terms of questions of security, I’m sure it’s a much easier place to monitor, surveille, and maintain a security umbrella over. What was really striking about that was on the RIS screen, when we were approaching Fujairah, the entire sea was like one huge mass of tankers either waiting at anchor, or staying on there. Apparently, tankers, if the price of oil are volatile and quite low, remain anchored until the price of oil goes up and then they heave anchor and travel wherever they can sell the oil at better prices. So, there were hundreds of ships that were anchored near Fujairah. I suspect that part of it was ships waiting to come in and because of port congestions, part of it was ships simply remaining on anchor until the price of oil became either more stable or went higher.

LL: A little bit north of Fujairah, we find the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran in the North and, surprisingly enough for those of us who are not familiar with the region, the southern coast is in Oman, not in the U.A.E.. As we said earlier, the territorial of maritime sovereignty is of 12 nautical miles, so which obviously creates a 24-width of sovereign maritime national waters for Oman and Iran, while the strait is only 21 miles, so you’re obliged to go either one of the other sovereignty, and I’m guessing that it might be more towards Oman than Iran in general?

LK: Probably so, but also, what is interesting about that region is that maritime territorial sovereignties are divisible, they are overlapping, as Toby Craig Jones argues. They are constantly fragmented, defragmented and reset by new configurations of power into which the U.S. always has a hand. Now, one of the interesting things about the Strait of Hormuz is that Iran and Oman have had a more or less friendly relationship for several decades. So, this question of overlapping sovereignty has not mattered, unless of course the U.S. or other U.S. allies have tried to destabilize it.

But there are also geological reasons for one to be closer to the Omani coast: the Persian Gulf is a remarkably shallow sea in relative terms. As ships get bigger, it becomes more and more difficult to navigate them in certain parts of the sea. The channels that leads to Jabal Ali needs to be dredged often both in order to accommodate the draught of the ships and also to attenuate the effects of shifting sands on the floor of the sea. The ships that I was on kept at the center of the channel, mostly because they were very big ships with a very deep draughts. I’m not entirely sure how they negotiated, which territory waters they were going in, I don’t think I asked any questions about that, but certainly for the entire length of the trip, once we were in the Persian Gulf, you could hear on the ship radio the Iranian navy demanding recognition, names and information for the ship we were going through. You could also hear Abu Dhabi authorities, you could hear Dubai Jabal Ali port control, you could hear lots of different kinds of people demanding some information about the ship. There is multiple and overlapping sort of maritime authorities, that feel they have something of a role to play in controlling who passes where, and in what direction and to what end.

LL: Something that I find very illustrative of how this entire transportation of goods is perceived as part of the national sovereignty of each nation, is the particular example of Japan. Japan still has constitutionally an army that can only be an army of defense, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, probably one of the most war-minded Prime minister since the last World War, has been stating that if Iran were to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, the Japanese Navy would be involved in the demining process, which would be also perceived as a strong military action. Given that Japan is several thousand kilometers away, it is interesting to observe how this little strait of 21 nautical miles wide would constitute such a crucial point for as far as Japan would be.

LK: I suppose part of this is because oil trade is 12% of world trade, that partially explains why everybody feels like they have a stake in the Persian Gulf. Part of it is also the imaginary construction of what the Persian Gulf is, this kind of narrowness, which is construed in an imaginary rather than in an actual sort of way. There’re lots of narrower places, a lot of much more difficult places to navigate than the Strait of Hormuz but of course this has become now a kind of a geopolitical and imaginary map, which is supposed to be a particularly dangerous spot. Part of this Japanese sort of sovereignty over ships, coming out the Strait of Hormuz several thousand miles away from its own borders or from its own maritime waters is perhaps more of a performance of both Japanese warrior masculinity, if you will, in a larger international system. Part of it is an assertion of alliances with the U.S., and part of it is a way of wanting to “reassure market.” There is an entire language of reassurance of security, of safety, of insuring all of that, that happens around oil, which is astonishing; I don’t think a huge amount of work has been done on the kind of discourse that is deployed in order to justify all sorts of military actions. While that language goes on there, what is again striking to me, is that the discourse around Strait of Hormuz is often far more belligerent than the actual practical presence of warship in the Gulf of Aden.
There are so many ships in the Gulf of Aden, and not nearly as many warships in the Strait of Hormuz or at least not so many that were visible. While there is a lot of talks about the Strait of Hormuz but there is a lot more practical securitization in the Indian ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This kind of a fragmentation of sovereignty, and the assertion of sovereignty over spaces that are thousands of miles away from here, of course this is one characteristic of imperial types of sovereignty. But this is also something that the U.S. did when, during the tanker wars of 1980s, it flagged certain ships as its own and then claimed that any attacks against U.S. flagged ships would be considered an attack on U.S. sovereign territories. It’s an interesting way of redefining flagging. I mean flagging has always, ever since its establishment as part of international maritime regulatory practices, has had an element of territorial sovereignty to it. But the way flagging becomes a part of a belligerent landscape of U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, it provides a significant model for Shinzo Abe.

LL: I know that makes us drift further away from your actual trip that ended in Dubai but, something that we don’t necessarily always have in mind when we don’t know the region so much is that Iraq has around 20 to 30 kilometers of coastal line on the Persian Gulf. Deborah Cowen’s book, The Daily Life of Logistics, show us how a particular city of this coast that used to be a U.S. military basis and also operated as a prison in the so-called “war on terror” by the U.S, that has been now privatized and function as a container city for what you call trans-shipments, but a sort of securitized private logistics.

LK: Deborah Cowen has written about this very beautifully. Camp Bucca was one of the three major detention centers in Iraq; it was incidentally also where Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of ISIS, was detained. When the U.S. was withdrawing its main military divisions out of Iraq (and leaving behind advisors and contractors), it advised the Iraqis to transform Camp Bucca into Basrah Logistics City. And this area is sitting as you say, on the very tiny bit of coastline that Iraq has on the Persian Gulf. It’s privatized, there are contractors, any many of the people who have businesses in there have ties to the regime in Baghdad. So, you’ve gone from a detention center in a counter-insurgency hub to a logistics hub. Again, this traffic between civilian and the military function is fascinating and pernicious. An afterthought to add to this is that the Kuwaitis are planning on building a very large container port on the island of Bubiyan which sits right across from Um Qasr. Should this port actually ever be built, it will definitely affect both the ability of the ships to go to Um Qasr and it will probably take business away from it. So old political rivalries are also playing out in Bubiyan, which itself was a major point of contention between Iraq and Kuwait; and one of the excuses that Saddam Hussein cited in 1990 when invading Kuwait. So, this traffic between political economy, reasons of the state, geopolitics, war, and logistics all meet in this little piece of ground.

Interview transcribed by Flora Hergon for The Funambulist (2018).