Maritime transport statistics can be mind-boggling: estimated seaborne trade in 2015 –the most recent year recorded by UNCTAD– exceeded 10 billion tonnes. Upwards of 90 percent of world’s goods travel by ship.
Maritime transport statistics can be mind-boggling: estimated seaborne trade in 2015 –the most recent year recorded by UNCTAD– exceeded 10 billion tonnes. Upwards of 90 percent of world’s goods travel by ship. Of the world’s cargo aboard ships, some 40 percent was loaded in Asia. Oil transport accounts for nearly a third of world maritime trade. Some 346 billion cubic metres of natural gas was transported by ship worldwide. The global commercial fleet consisted of nearly 91,000 vessels in 2015. While bulk carriers and tankers account for 43 and 28 percent of the world’s fleet, containerships, only 13.5 percent of the world’s fleet, probably carry the largest percentage of the goods by value.
All these statistics point to the centrality of maritime transport in today’s global economy. Maritime transport infrastructures, and especially ports, reflect these economic facts. While today China and other countries of East and Southeast Asia are the factories of the world, and Europe and North America the primary consumers, Middle Eastern ports, and especially the ports of the Arabian Peninsula are also of regional –and in a few cases, global– significance.
The Journal of Commerce ranking of the world’s top 50 container ports indicates that the only port in the top ten that is not located in East or Southeast Asia is Jabal Ali in Dubai. But in the last few years, other ports on the Peninsula have also appeared among the top fifty, though some have moved down a few positions, while others have gained.
These have included Salalah, Sharjah, Khor Fakkan and Jeddah. The parastatal corporation that manages Jabal Ali’s container terminals, Dubai Ports World, is the world’s fourth largest operator and holds concessions to operate numerous container terminals across the world, including some of the largest terminals in Rotterdam, Le Havre, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Buenos Aires, and Vancouver inter alia.
The Peninsula also hosts the world’s foremost tanker-loading terminals, and the United States government’s Energy Information Agency claims that two of the straits that flank the Peninsula, Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab straits, constitute the world’s most significant crude transport chokepoints.
But the Arabian Peninsula also has a long history of commercial trade that pre-dates oil and container transport, with many of its ports as significant entrepôts and emporia of Indian Ocean trade for a millennium or more. Jeddah, Aden, Mokha, and Muscat all have long histories as centres of commerce. Coastal and trans-oceanic trade have profoundly influenced the histories of these ports and their hinterlands.
This website is part of a larger ESRC-funded project (ES/L002833/1) which aims to understand the mutual effects of politics and maritime trade on seaports of the Arabian Peninsula specifically and its broader history more generally. The historical commercial and strategic significance of the Arabian Peninsula has only been reaffirmed in the twentieth century and with the discovery of oil and natural gas there. In this long history, strategic and commercial concerns –war and trade– have been almost impossible to pick apart.
While so much of the world’s liquid and bulk and containerised cargo travel in and out and through the ports of the Arabian Peninsula, these ports have also been crucial staging grounds for the wars the United States has fought in the region. Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have at one time or another served as strategic military bases for the imperial powers of the era, Britain first, and later the United States.
But popular struggles –whether anticolonial, nationalist, or structured around workplace equity or broader demands for social justice– have also played a role, both intentional and inadvertent, in the transformations of these ports.
The material in this website provide a window –however narrow and partial– into these large-scale transformations, especially over the course of the last century. Through this website we hope to provide not only statistical information about maritime transport and the infrastructures that support it, but a sense of the social and political changes that underpin these transformations.
This website is not the final word on this material, especially as the maritime transportation sector can swiftly change. As our project matures, with further publications and research material emerging, we will continue to update the website.