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Imperialism and Resistance in the Red Sea

Imperialism and Resistance in the Red Sea

Jesse Harasta describes the complex dynamics of contemporary imperialism and resistance. Understanding a world system divided into Core, Semi-Periphery and Periphery is essential to the workings of global capitalism. Harasta argues that Gulf states have engaged in an active imperial re-peripheralization of the Horn of Africa.

By Jesse Harasta

Since the beginning of the 2023 Israeli assault upon Gaza, the Red Sea has been the most significant non-Palestinian theatre of the war. The Houthis of Yemen have presented a potent challenge to the global movement of goodsthat has precipitated the full intervention of the United States and others in a so-far unsuccessful containment campaign.

At the same time, in an apparently unrelated event, the BRICS alliance announced its long-awaited expansion by welcoming five new members – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iran and the UAE – all with significant involvement in the Red Sea area.

If these events seem recent and coincidental, it is only because we have largely overlooked elements of the complex dynamics of contemporary imperialism and resistance.  The Red Sea region uniquely combines three aspects of the imperial world system: it is a central conduit for global trade, a site of violent re-peripheralization, and home to dynamic resistance to those trends. This confluence is several decades old now but has been under analyzed; by developing a subtler understanding of the layered dynamics of contemporary imperialism, we can better interpret these events.

Understanding the World System 

For decades, Marxist scholars developed Capitalist World System theory upon the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and others.  They view the current global distribution of wealth between the Global North and South not as a product of policies or culture of particular nations, but instead of a single system. Put simply, the Global North is wealthy because the Global South is poor and vice-versa.

Within this system, the world’s nations are roughly divided into three categories: the Core (wealthier regions with complex economies, effective states able to project military power, and corporate power centers), the Periphery (regions producing only a few basic products for the global economy, with weak or non-existent states, and decentered from corporate decision making) and the Semi-Periphery (those states that mediate between the two, in a position of both exploiter and exploited).

The most important aspect of the World System is its central dynamic: the exploitation of the Periphery by the Core, generating a net outflow of wealth generated by the Periphery’s labour and natural resources.

This system, like all entities founded upon exploitation, is inherently unstable as the exploited will inevitably resist oppression. It must be ultimately maintained through force and therefore, different iterations of the World System have been dominated by a central Hegemon. America is the current Hegemon, singularly able to enforce the central dynamic through the projection of military might.

A common misconception is to define only actions coordinated by the Hegemon or Core states as “imperialist,” which blinds us to many important processes. Instead, we can more usefully define “imperialism” as any act that reinforces the core dynamic of the World System, including acts by Semi-peripheral or Peripheral elites seeking to ‘rise’ in the system.

I explored this process in my recent essay “Non-Hegemonic Imperialism within the Capitalist World-System: A Rwandan Case Study”, in Socialism and Democracy. There, I differentiate between Hegemonic Imperialism, which includes actions by the Core to maintain and deepen existing relations of exploitation, and Non-Hegemonic Imperialism, actions by Peripheral and Semi-peripheral elites to renegotiate their states’ position.

This process of renegotiation necessarily requires the creation of new peripheral zones dependent upon the emergent Semi-Periphery. Because the entire globe is currently integrated into the World System, this is “re”-peripheralization. As Hegemonic Imperialism supports the status quo, it often maintains situations created through historic brutality, but with minimal levels of ongoing violence. Re-peripheralization, however, involves the creation of new peripheral zones dependent upon the emergent state, a process which inevitably involves the creation of new class relationships, often involving violent hyper-exploitation.

Importantly, while the Core always eventually benefits from these processes, they may run counter to the immediate goals of particular Core states and can be conducted by the emergent power without Core involvement. Core elites have tremendous, but not infinite, power and have an interest in keeping down World System maintenance costs. Hence, it is possible for a Semi-Periphery to carve out zones of influence without significant Core response.

Role of the Sea

Naval power has long been the primary path to hegemonic power projection. Because of the crucial importance of security along sea routes, the Core powers have it in their interest to support relatively strong states along their shores. In fact, the structure of the British Empire was explicitly organized around seizing and maintaining control over sea chokepoints.

Connecting the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea/Suez are among the most important trade routes in the world. Vast quantities of trade pass through here, making it profoundly important to Core economies and elites: the 2021 Suez Canal blockage cost US$6-US$10 billion in profit losses.

Among the globe’s great trade choke points – Malacca, Panama, Gibraltar, and Hormuz – the Red Sea is the only one where trade is threatened by active insurgencies, civil war, and significant non-state actors.

The United States has taken direct steps to protect the Red Sea trade routes. It has been a military ally of Egypt for decades, and more recently has set up a significant presence in the small nation of Djibouti at the Sea’s southern end. Djibouti is particularly remarkable for hosting the militaries of ten states and its elite has carved out a space as the stable, pro-Core anchor in an otherwise unstable region.

This raises the question: if the Core prefers stability along the shores of the Red Sea what counters their interest and undermines stability in Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia? To understand the remarkable capacity of war-devastated peoples to threaten invaluable trade routes we need to understand not just the imperial actions of the Core states, but also the aspirations of regional Semi-peripheral state elites.

Re-Peripheralization of the Horn of Africa

Duffield and Stockton’s 2023 article “How capitalism is destroying the Horn of Africa: sheep and the crises in Somalia and Sudan” in ROAPE [based on their journal article here] demonstrates how the Gulf states have engaged in an active imperial re-peripheralization of the Horn of Africa. They start with the seemingly paradoxical observation that at the height of the conflicts and famines in Sudan and Somalia, these regions exported unprecedented meat to the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

They link the rapid urbanization of the post-1970s Gulf to the rise of voracious “militarized ranching.” Militarized ranching is “an environmentally destructive mode of militarised livestock production that, primarily involving sheep, is necessarily expansive, land-hungry, livelihood destroying and population displacing” (p.4). It is hostile to the central state and traditional substance agriculture and pastoralism and puts ethnicized communities in a state of perpetual war. In this context, Gulf and other regional powers compete over Red Sea ports, reorienting economic and political control away from national capitals and traditional domestic elites and towards new dependent classes – militia leaders and import-export compradors.

This violence has never been separated from the events of the Gulf, as “the Horn and the Gulf are locked into a deadly destruction–consumption embrace. […] Rather than separate national economies, Horn countries are organic parts of a single, ethnically structured geopolitical economy that differentially integrates the region’s labour” (p.4). This system violently inserted the region into a new peripheral relationship and, in the process, reorganized the relationship of both regions to the World System.

It is not only on the western shores of the Red Sea that Gulf Semi-Peripheries are aggressively annihilating pre-existing political, and socio-economic systems.  Since 2015, the Saudis and Emiratis have fought a brutal war to re-peripheralize Yemen. While this campaign has not yet been successful, both sides have occupied strategic territories.

The aristocratic/corporate Gulf elites seek to alter the World System and move their states into Core status, but doing so requires that they create their own dependent peripheries.  This is Non-hegemonic Imperialism, as it does not challenge the fundamental dynamic of the capitalist world system but instead seeks to alter the list of Core nations.

This brings us back to the expansion of BRICS. Despite early hopes that it might serve as an anti-imperial force, it is increasingly obviousthat the BRICS elites seek to strengthen their hand in the world system, not to overturn it. Even more so after its expansion, BRICS is a gathering of the most aspirational and aggressive of autocratic semi-peripheral elites willing to violently create dependent peripheries, especially as the power of the Hegemon wanes. In this context, we should expect to see the Red Sea become the stage for even more of the coming confrontations between the old Core, rising imperial powers and the people’s resistance to them.

Resistance

This conflict of imperial interests, with the Core desiring stable shorelines, and the Semi-periphery seeking to re-peripheralize new dependent territories, has resulted in unique forms of anti-imperial resistance.

Core states have avoided direct involvement in Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, leaving the conflict to Semi-peripheral proxies under the UN banner and the unfettered interest of Gulf livestock importers. The outcome was economic, social, political and ecological devastation in Somalia, resulting in a vacuum of power with no central state able to protect nearby sea routes. The emergence of repeated waves of increasingly sophisticated piracy off the Somali coast was an understandable outcome of this situation.

These pirates are not primarily politically motivated but still presented a significant threat to the Core profits, resulting in naval operations by Core and prominent Semi-peripheral states which contained but never fully eliminated the threat.

While Somali piracy re-emerged in late 2023, the primary regional news was the organized anti-shipping campaign launched by the Houthis, a Shi’a aligned, revolutionary movement from the highlands of Yemen whose seizure of power sparked the Saudi-Emirati war.  Over-hyped Iranian assistance aside, the Houthis are homegrown and have developed a sophisticated resistance to Saudi aerial warfare.

While they have attacked Saudi warships and shipping in the Red Sea since 2015, their willingness to join the Palestinian cause in late 2023 with missile attacks against Israeli-affiliated shipping was a major departure from their previous actions. While an American naval buildup has been largely successful at preventing strikes on shipping, the costs are high and, barring engagement on the Yemeni mainland, bear little chance of preventing a Houthi strategic victory.

Ultimately the remarkable capacity of the Houthis and Somalis to disrupt shipping is a product of the inevitable resistance born out of the Gulf states’ willingness to fuel their own urbanization and advancement in the World System on the backs of re-peripheralized regions.

If we limit our definition of imperialism as only pertaining to its Hegemonic forms, we miss most of what is happening on the ground in the region. We are left conceptually weak, not only in the Red Sea region, but in other front lines of re-periphalization, including the Donbass, the Eastern Congo, and Artsakh.

Jesse Harast

Jesse Harasta describes the complex dynamics of contemporary imperialism and resistance. Understanding a world system divided into Core, Semi-Periphery and Periphery is essential to the workings of global capitalism. Harasta argues that Gulf states have engaged in an active imperial re-peripheralization of the Horn of Africa.

By Jesse Harasta

Since the beginning of the 2023 Israeli assault upon Gaza, the Red Sea has been the most significant non-Palestinian theatre of the war. The Houthis of Yemen have presented a potent challenge to the global movement of goodsthat has precipitated the full intervention of the United States and others in a so-far unsuccessful containment campaign.

At the same time, in an apparently unrelated event, the BRICS alliance announced its long-awaited expansion by welcoming five new members – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iran and the UAE – all with significant involvement in the Red Sea area.

If these events seem recent and coincidental, it is only because we have largely overlooked elements of the complex dynamics of contemporary imperialism and resistance.  The Red Sea region uniquely combines three aspects of the imperial world system: it is a central conduit for global trade, a site of violent re-peripheralization, and home to dynamic resistance to those trends. This confluence is several decades old now but has been under analyzed; by developing a subtler understanding of the layered dynamics of contemporary imperialism, we can better interpret these events.

Understanding the World System 

For decades, Marxist scholars developed Capitalist World System theory upon the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and others.  They view the current global distribution of wealth between the Global North and South not as a product of policies or culture of particular nations, but instead of a single system. Put simply, the Global North is wealthy because the Global South is poor and vice-versa.

Within this system, the world’s nations are roughly divided into three categories: the Core (wealthier regions with complex economies, effective states able to project military power, and corporate power centers), the Periphery (regions producing only a few basic products for the global economy, with weak or non-existent states, and decentered from corporate decision making) and the Semi-Periphery (those states that mediate between the two, in a position of both exploiter and exploited).

The most important aspect of the World System is its central dynamic: the exploitation of the Periphery by the Core, generating a net outflow of wealth generated by the Periphery’s labour and natural resources.

This system, like all entities founded upon exploitation, is inherently unstable as the exploited will inevitably resist oppression. It must be ultimately maintained through force and therefore, different iterations of the World System have been dominated by a central Hegemon. America is the current Hegemon, singularly able to enforce the central dynamic through the projection of military might.

A common misconception is to define only actions coordinated by the Hegemon or Core states as “imperialist,” which blinds us to many important processes. Instead, we can more usefully define “imperialism” as any act that reinforces the core dynamic of the World System, including acts by Semi-peripheral or Peripheral elites seeking to ‘rise’ in the system.

I explored this process in my recent essay “Non-Hegemonic Imperialism within the Capitalist World-System: A Rwandan Case Study”, in Socialism and Democracy. There, I differentiate between Hegemonic Imperialism, which includes actions by the Core to maintain and deepen existing relations of exploitation, and Non-Hegemonic Imperialism, actions by Peripheral and Semi-peripheral elites to renegotiate their states’ position.

This process of renegotiation necessarily requires the creation of new peripheral zones dependent upon the emergent Semi-Periphery. Because the entire globe is currently integrated into the World System, this is “re”-peripheralization. As Hegemonic Imperialism supports the status quo, it often maintains situations created through historic brutality, but with minimal levels of ongoing violence. Re-peripheralization, however, involves the creation of new peripheral zones dependent upon the emergent state, a process which inevitably involves the creation of new class relationships, often involving violent hyper-exploitation.

Importantly, while the Core always eventually benefits from these processes, they may run counter to the immediate goals of particular Core states and can be conducted by the emergent power without Core involvement. Core elites have tremendous, but not infinite, power and have an interest in keeping down World System maintenance costs. Hence, it is possible for a Semi-Periphery to carve out zones of influence without significant Core response.

Role of the Sea

Naval power has long been the primary path to hegemonic power projection. Because of the crucial importance of security along sea routes, the Core powers have it in their interest to support relatively strong states along their shores. In fact, the structure of the British Empire was explicitly organized around seizing and maintaining control over sea chokepoints.

Connecting the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea/Suez are among the most important trade routes in the world. Vast quantities of trade pass through here, making it profoundly important to Core economies and elites: the 2021 Suez Canal blockage cost US$6-US$10 billion in profit losses.

Among the globe’s great trade choke points – Malacca, Panama, Gibraltar, and Hormuz – the Red Sea is the only one where trade is threatened by active insurgencies, civil war, and significant non-state actors.

The United States has taken direct steps to protect the Red Sea trade routes. It has been a military ally of Egypt for decades, and more recently has set up a significant presence in the small nation of Djibouti at the Sea’s southern end. Djibouti is particularly remarkable for hosting the militaries of ten states and its elite has carved out a space as the stable, pro-Core anchor in an otherwise unstable region.

This raises the question: if the Core prefers stability along the shores of the Red Sea what counters their interest and undermines stability in Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia? To understand the remarkable capacity of war-devastated peoples to threaten invaluable trade routes we need to understand not just the imperial actions of the Core states, but also the aspirations of regional Semi-peripheral state elites.

Re-Peripheralization of the Horn of Africa

Duffield and Stockton’s 2023 article “How capitalism is destroying the Horn of Africa: sheep and the crises in Somalia and Sudan” in ROAPE [based on their journal article here] demonstrates how the Gulf states have engaged in an active imperial re-peripheralization of the Horn of Africa. They start with the seemingly paradoxical observation that at the height of the conflicts and famines in Sudan and Somalia, these regions exported unprecedented meat to the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

They link the rapid urbanization of the post-1970s Gulf to the rise of voracious “militarized ranching.” Militarized ranching is “an environmentally destructive mode of militarised livestock production that, primarily involving sheep, is necessarily expansive, land-hungry, livelihood destroying and population displacing” (p.4). It is hostile to the central state and traditional substance agriculture and pastoralism and puts ethnicized communities in a state of perpetual war. In this context, Gulf and other regional powers compete over Red Sea ports, reorienting economic and political control away from national capitals and traditional domestic elites and towards new dependent classes – militia leaders and import-export compradors.

This violence has never been separated from the events of the Gulf, as “the Horn and the Gulf are locked into a deadly destruction–consumption embrace. […] Rather than separate national economies, Horn countries are organic parts of a single, ethnically structured geopolitical economy that differentially integrates the region’s labour” (p.4). This system violently inserted the region into a new peripheral relationship and, in the process, reorganized the relationship of both regions to the World System.

It is not only on the western shores of the Red Sea that Gulf Semi-Peripheries are aggressively annihilating pre-existing political, and socio-economic systems.  Since 2015, the Saudis and Emiratis have fought a brutal war to re-peripheralize Yemen. While this campaign has not yet been successful, both sides have occupied strategic territories.

The aristocratic/corporate Gulf elites seek to alter the World System and move their states into Core status, but doing so requires that they create their own dependent peripheries.  This is Non-hegemonic Imperialism, as it does not challenge the fundamental dynamic of the capitalist world system but instead seeks to alter the list of Core nations.

This brings us back to the expansion of BRICS. Despite early hopes that it might serve as an anti-imperial force, it is increasingly obviousthat the BRICS elites seek to strengthen their hand in the world system, not to overturn it. Even more so after its expansion, BRICS is a gathering of the most aspirational and aggressive of autocratic semi-peripheral elites willing to violently create dependent peripheries, especially as the power of the Hegemon wanes. In this context, we should expect to see the Red Sea become the stage for even more of the coming confrontations between the old Core, rising imperial powers and the people’s resistance to them.

Resistance

This conflict of imperial interests, with the Core desiring stable shorelines, and the Semi-periphery seeking to re-peripheralize new dependent territories, has resulted in unique forms of anti-imperial resistance.

Core states have avoided direct involvement in Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, leaving the conflict to Semi-peripheral proxies under the UN banner and the unfettered interest of Gulf livestock importers. The outcome was economic, social, political and ecological devastation in Somalia, resulting in a vacuum of power with no central state able to protect nearby sea routes. The emergence of repeated waves of increasingly sophisticated piracy off the Somali coast was an understandable outcome of this situation.

These pirates are not primarily politically motivated but still presented a significant threat to the Core profits, resulting in naval operations by Core and prominent Semi-peripheral states which contained but never fully eliminated the threat.

While Somali piracy re-emerged in late 2023, the primary regional news was the organized anti-shipping campaign launched by the Houthis, a Shi’a aligned, revolutionary movement from the highlands of Yemen whose seizure of power sparked the Saudi-Emirati war.  Over-hyped Iranian assistance aside, the Houthis are homegrown and have developed a sophisticated resistance to Saudi aerial warfare.

While they have attacked Saudi warships and shipping in the Red Sea since 2015, their willingness to join the Palestinian cause in late 2023 with missile attacks against Israeli-affiliated shipping was a major departure from their previous actions. While an American naval buildup has been largely successful at preventing strikes on shipping, the costs are high and, barring engagement on the Yemeni mainland, bear little chance of preventing a Houthi strategic victory.

Ultimately the remarkable capacity of the Houthis and Somalis to disrupt shipping is a product of the inevitable resistance born out of the Gulf states’ willingness to fuel their own urbanization and advancement in the World System on the backs of re-peripheralized regions.

If we limit our definition of imperialism as only pertaining to its Hegemonic forms, we miss most of what is happening on the ground in the region. We are left conceptually weak, not only in the Red Sea region, but in other front lines of re-periphalization, including the Donbass, the Eastern Congo, and Artsakh.

Jesse Harasta teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio where he works in the Department of Academic Inquiry and scholarship 

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