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 UAE Maritime Infrastructures and Regional Geopolitics 

Rafeef Ziadah


Over recent years there has been an increasing scholarly interest in analyzing the ‘science of business logistics’, namely the significant shifts in the management of commodity circulation in the global economy through complex supply chains across networked transport infrastructure, logistics hubs and trade corridors. Scholars have pointed to the set of technoscientific innovations, such as the container and computerized modelling, which helped to standardize and reduce circulation time (Levinson 2008), integrating regions differentially into what Tsing (2009) has termed “supply chain capitalism”. In relation to our discussion on Space, Scale, and Region, I find this logistics space an interesting lens through which to trace intra-regional relations and geopolitical shifts.  


The logistics literature has largely focused on the major logistical nodes in the Global North and/or East Asia. Whereas the corporate press is rife with information about opportunities in the Middle East’s logistics market, scholarly work analyzing this development lags behind. Broadening the literature to incorporate emergent maritime infrastructures across regions allows us to examine the contradictory and uneven developments taking shape. A hyper focus on conflict/destruction in the literature on the Middle East has tended to obscure the spaces of construction and investment, which are as important in shaping geopolitical and geoeconomic outcomes. For example, a closer study of investments in maritime ports, roads, rail, airports and logistics cities highlights shifts in intra-regional economic geographies across the Red Sea littoral with multiple powers intervening to dominate this important maritime route. Multiple investments in transport infrastructures and military bases are helping rearrange relations between regions, assert economic and military dominance, while blurring the lines between public/private boundaries.


To take one example, through a mix of direct military intervention (Yemen), long-term infrastructural concessions by state-owned conglomerates, the provision of military bases and police training, the UAE is increasing its influence across the Horn of Africa. From the long-term concession at the Sokhna Port at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, to the investment in Berbera Port in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, an important story of intra-regional dynamics emerges. These infrastructural interventions have long lasting implications, laying the groundwork for geopolitical dominance in trade routes and within China’s proposed One Belt One Road network. Yet, despite the win-win scenarios promoting inter and intra-regional connectivity, this expansion is rife with tensions, inserting new actors into existing local conflicts and generating contradictory rivalries and alliances.


Tracing these logistical spaces and supply chains also points us to the increasing overlap in the crossborder spatial cartographies of military operations, humanitarian aid delivery, and commercial transport firms.  For example, the UAE’s commercial cargo planes were key to its military strategy, helping create air bridges/refuelling when needed. Meanwhile, it is well-documented how private UAE based logistics firms have helped to circumvent the arms embargo on Libya. Both international and regionally based logistics firms operate across multiple sectors, servicing militaries on one hand, while also forging long-term partnerships with aid organizations. Deciphering how these commercial, military, and humanitarian interventions overlap across logistics space underscores the need to consider internationalized hierarchies, whereby military equipment and techniques, models of counter-insurgency and approaches to the securitization and neo-liberalization of aid circulate across international and intra-regional coalitions.


Rafeef Ziadah is Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East in the Politics and International Studies Department, SOAS, University of London. Her research interests are broadly concerned with the political economy of transport infrastructures, war and humanitarianism, racism and the security state, with a particular focus on the Middle East.