Galeano in Mogadishu: Sheep and the Emergent Geography of Gulf Capitalisms

Date: 2024-06-07T17:12:08+00:00


Adapting radical Latin American theories of economic geography, Jaime Litvak argues that a regionally-centered, extractive economic subsystem links the Arab Gulf and northeast Africa.


Capitalism is polarizing on intra- as well as international scales. This venerable insight, associated first with Trotsky and later with the CUNY-centered school of Marxian geography is sometimes muted in more explicitly anti-imperialist traditions.1 Unequal exchange literature overwhelmingly focuses on a process taking place only across national borders, with the original account of Arghiri Emmanuel being both premised on and meant to explain wage differentials between nation-states.2 But this picture is incomplete, at least in the case of extractive peripheries. Socially-necessary labor-time, embodied labor—debates about value theory versus energy economics are outside the scope of this article—is at the end of the day an input of energy into production. That is why Marx is so concerned with reproduction costs—without calories, rest and other resources,  the worker has no bodily energy which can be purchased for a working-day by the capitalist.3 Resource-extraction is also a process of making quantities of physical matter and energy available for conversion into capital. The difference between human labor-power and raw materials is one of medium and of specific utility, but not of nature. It’s simple physics. Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged—and under capitalist social relations, such a rearrangement occurs via the accumulation process.4

What is meant by “extractive periphery?” One exception to the general inattention to intra-national core-periphery differentials has been radical economic geography in Latin America (particularly the Southern Cone and Brazil), starting with Galeano’s masterpiece and continued—albeit in a non-Marxist form—in the work of Stephen Bunker.5 Agro-extractive production evidently happens in the countryside, whose material losses in the process of delivering its soil nutrients and energy sources up to urban areas were already theorized by Marx—but in the core, rural incomes are nevertheless quite high owing to an imperialist armature of international trade mediated by extensive state support.6 In the periphery, by contrast, the already much-lesser income is returned not to the country as a whole but in the first instance to urban centers—where the finance, administration, transport etc., sides of an export economy are located. Since peripheral capitalists, by definition, have a purely external orientation and no interest in the internal market, little or no export profit actually makes it back to the rural interior where the commodities in question are physically produced. As a result, extractive capitalism in the periphery consists, in essence, of outright plunder by the cities of their rural hinterlands.7

This essay argues, in brief, that a similar, regionally-centered subsystem to that existing in Latin American countries like Argentina and Brazil has in recent decades linked the Arab Gulf (primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar) and northeast Africa (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and, increasingly, Kenya). While undoubtedly peripheral in the world economy, the Gulf states exploit northeast Africa as an agricultural (particularly pastoral) hinterland, which allows their citizens to enjoy the same living standards as traditional metropoles. As such, the “development of underdevelopment” of the countryside by the city which occurs in Latin America within national borders occurs here across them, but only by virtue of the small size of Gulf national containers, and with their geographically-proximate neighbors becoming similarly-reduced to “peripheries of the periphery.”8 Aside from giving an ironic new (economic) connection to the traditional cultural links between the Arab Gulf, Somalia, and Sudan, this has also driven recent crises of state disintegration in northeast Africa. It remains to be seen whether the Gulf subsystem is an effort by local bourgeoisie to compensate for overall capitalist breakdown, but what is less in doubt is how its formation has been driven by permanent war.

Uneven Development I: Argentina

Development economics is confused by Argentina, perhaps not so much because of its former wealth, as by the islands of such which still exist. If the classic example of an extractive periphery (or equivalent in mainstream parlance) is the DR Congo or Gabon, this type of formation should be expected to feature grinding poverty for all but the ultra-wealthy, even in urban areas. But Argentine cities boast a substantial middle-class who have all the same automobiles, consumer electronics, international vacations, etc., as average citizens of the opulent United States. Countries like Argentina might export mostly low-value-added primary commodities, but they nevertheless draw migrants from seemingly much poorer neighboring economies to work in urban service industries like the countries of the Global North do. To the unfamiliar eye, the relationship between Argentina and Bolivia (or for that matter, Russia, and Tajikistan) can look an awful lot like that between Mexico and the United States.

The picture of Argentina described above is one found frequently in Anglosphere visions of the country, which in both right- and left-wing accounts is described by such terms as developed, wealthy, and middle-class. That is, an image of wealth is often transmitted to the outside world because wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the geographic areas where cultural production, academic institutions, and communications technology are most intensely clustered—namely, urban centers. Buenos Aires (that is, the capital city, not its suburbs or the surrounding province) tends to be the sole part of the country seen by petit-bourgeois foreigners and it, of course, holds the predominance of English-speakers and literati who represent Argentina to the outside world. It is true that CABA (Autonomous City of Buenos Aires) is an island of wealth, but the key word here is island—in a surrounding sea very much of the Third World.

Buenos Aires is, in many ways, the nerve center of Argentine and Southern Cone capitalist development. During the nineteenth century, the South American interior was reinserted into global capitalism as a supplier, primarily of food products rather than monetary metals, necessitating the generalization of private property and wage-labor outside of island-like zones like the Potosí mining complex.9 In Argentina, for this to take place first required the victory of an externally-oriented porteño (lit.: port city) elite over various strongmen backed by workers, peasants, and gauchos. Where introverted modernizers did hold power—namely, Paraguay—their experiment with “escape from the periphery” was liquidated by an invasion and subsequent genocidal counter-insurgency on the part of Argentina and Brazil.10 Military triumph for the porteño bourgeoisie not only in Paraguay, but in the Argentine Civil Wars as well, reflected British financial, as well as direct material, support.11 It allowed for the dispossession of gaucho herders and indigenous peoples in order to form large agrarian estates oriented toward the export of beef and cereals to the world-market.12 Buenos Aires became a privileged intermediary between the agro-extraction in the Argentine interior—as well as in neighboring economies like those of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay—and successive imperial powers, skimming off a share of rural surplus-value through the upstream financial and transport stages of export.

Thus, just as wealth in Europe is possible only because of poverty in the colonies, wealth in Buenos Aires is the result of poverty in Santiago del Estero, Tucumán, and Jujuy. Core-periphery type dynamics like labor migration between Argentina and Bolivia, exist mainly because Bolivia is geographically-contiguous with the equally-exploited Argentine interior. What takes place is not an imperialist exploitation of Bolivia by Argentina, but an exploitation of the broader region by the parasitic middle class of Buenos Aires.13 We could just as easily substitute Bolivia, Tucumán and Buenos Aires with Tajikistan, Saratov, and St. Petersburg, which is why it is obnoxiously wrong to speak of “Russian imperialism” in Central Asia. But that is a different essay entirely.

Uneven Development II: The Gulf/Horn of Africa Complex

Peripherality only tends to mean poverty. There have been some peripheral formations that were extraordinarily successful, if,usually, only for a small, ethno-racially defined segment of their population. The classic example of a “most successful” periphery is the antebellum U.S. South.14 Fueling Britain’s textile-sparked Industrial Revolution with raw materials grown by literal slave labor created the picture of the ostentatiously-wealthy Southern planter class so familiar from American popular culture. If the description is accurate; the takeaway, however, is not: the most successful peripheral economies in history are without question the Arab Gulf states. Core-type capitalist development had to be imposed on the American South through armed force, so enthralled were the planters by resource rents. The Gulf, by contrast, has profited so spectacularly from its peripheral integration into the capitalist world-economy that it is now trying to use accumulated rents as a platform to simply jump into the core, and it stands a very real chance of succeeding. Southern planters were not the red-carpet clients of London banks, nor did they own huge tracts of the ritziest cities in the world, or a large share of the global leisure industry. The Saudis alone meet this description.

Both the antebellum South and the contemporary Arab monarchies can be classed as peripheral economies in the classic sense, in spite of their wealth—this only serves to create the category of “historically-exceptional periphery,” without challenging the overall classification. Neither is or was at all competitive, or even a player in, the most technologically advanced, capital-intensive production processes of the day. Peripherality is probably easier to understand in the antebellum case. Here we have a formation which is based on its labor force being mobilized through pure, physical coercion with no wage payment of any kind. It cannot, nor was it ever intended to, develop an internal consumer market of the type needed for investment and thus, meaningful capital-accumulation, to take place. Plantation profits do become capital, but this is entirely exported abroad in order to pay for luxury goods produced in the industrialized countries of Europe and the Northern states. From a rational standpoint, the Southern planter-capitalist is content with this arrangement—his labor costs are zero, so there is no incentive to raise productivity by investing in machinery. So far, nothing is needed beyond the basic categories developed by Marx.

The explanation lies in the unique nature of West Asian petroleum as compared to other primary commodities. First, the share of world wealth that accrues to it through peripheral production is actually enormous—both because oil is central to contemporary capitalism as cotton never was to its 19th-century incarnation, and because it is subject to a unique, political, pricing arrangement agreed to by the strongest military power in history. Second, the Gulf monarchies are, for the most part, literal city-states and thus demographically tiny. Oil is also unique among commodities in being incredibly labor un-intensive. So basically, the entire population gets a cut in resource rents.15 In other words, citizens of the Gulf are, in their high standards of living, not comparable to Northern labor aristocrats but rather to any other peripheral bourgeoisie. The Gulf economies are unique because they are peripheral economies where (roughly) everyone gets to be the peripheral capitalist.

However, if anything, the Gulf should have no upper-/middle class comparable to the New World cases discussed, or at least an infinitesimally small one; it physically lacks an agrarian hinterland to exploit. First, with the exception of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the Gulf states are simply too small in the most literal, geographical sense. While in the KSA, an exploitative rural-urban dynamic does exist between the major population centers and the Shia-majority regions where the bulk of oil reserves are actually located, this does not allow it to escape the second problem. The Arabian Desert is probably the most climatically-extreme zone of permanent human habitation outside of the Arctic Circle. Buenos Aires and Moscow are not only enriched by their respective interiors, but fed by them. Lack of internally-generated agrarian surpluses in the Gulf historically forced its peoples to rely heavily on nomadic pastoralism as their main source of food supply. For thousands of years, this was how the Bedouin forebears of present-day oil sheikhs lived, herding ruminants from water source to water source. That is what Saudi King Faisal famously alluded to in 1975, during the oil embargo, when he warned the Americans that while they could not live without oil, his people could happily return to the desert and once more live simply on goat milk. What is ironic is that the Saudi upper and middle-classes, in fact, did and do live like Americans, and if it was debatable to imagine then that they would be content to give that up at the drop of a hat, today the proposition veers into absurdity.

All of this is to point out that the Gulf “extractive-peripheral” formation has, by necessity, to extend beyond the borders of any one nation-state. This is only a slight tweak to the argument we have been making so far with examples drawn from Latin America and Eurasia. The Buenos Aires-es of the world do, to a certain extent, exploit arenas beyond their own nation-state containers. But this is only the wake of a dynamic in which they live by sucking the blood out of the vast productive zones contained within their own, expansive, nation-state borders. Now, the fact that the Gulf capitalisms have such limited domains should, according to the present model, mean that societal wealth is virtually nonexistent. It implies that, unlike in geographically larger and more environmentally welcoming peripheral states, there is virtually nothing for the upper- and middle-classes to skim off from the surplus they deliver to core countries. This is, of course, not true in reality. Dubai is fast becoming a byword for extravagance. Why?

Diet can serve as one microcosm of an answer to this question. The Gulf monarchies have among the highest rates of obesity and heart disease on the planet reflecting, among other factors (cultural, etc.), heavy red meat consumption.16  Data varies widely, reflecting the speed of increase in demand; but at around 65 kg per capita, Saudi Arabia (KSA) ranks among the largest animal protein consumers in the world. Unlike in North America—or certain middle-income states like Russia and Argentina—Saudi meat consumption does not reflect spectacularly favorable natural conditions for stock-raising. The Gulf is overwhelmingly food-import dependent. In the case of KSA alone, around 80% of meat is imported—and this is with the largest domestic livestock complex by far of any of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) member countries.17 Imports mainly come in the form of live animals, raised and shipped a short distance across the Red Sea from northeast Africa—particularly Sudan and Somalia. The cattle, sheep, goats, and camels are then slaughtered and processed within the consumer states. It is essential to point out that the impoverished livestock suppliers are deprived of the higher value-added activities related to animal agriculture. Here is a case of Andre Gunder Frank’s “development of underdevelopment” if there ever was one, since the increase in live animal exports over time only further fuels growth and employment elsewhere, rather than advancing the Sudanese and Somali economies to ephemeral higher stages of technical complexity.

Overgrazing caused by increasing herds to the sizes necessary to keep up with Gulf meat demand is the primary cause of a truly horrific drought currently gripping the Horn—one whose origins in class and empire are elided by international development institutions under the depoliticized rhetoric of “climate change.”18 Recent critical treatments, spurred by the present civil war in Sudan have sketched an ethnically-mediated land dispute between farmers (“Black/African”) and pastoralists (“Arab”).19 Intervention by Gulf governments in favor of the latter group, most visibly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its patronage of the Arab-led Rapid Support Forces (RSF) rebels in the Sudanese conflict, makes such a picture compelling. The RSF has engaged in extensive ethnic violence,20 and it would be grotesque to suggest that any discussion of such constitutes a repetition of the mainstream Africanist “ancient hatreds” cliché. Inexorable state-disintegration in the longue durée of Gulf meat frontier expansion is equally illustrated by a case whose incorporation into the regional complex began decades earlier than that of Sudan, and where ethnic cleavages should in theory be less significant as an explanation in themselves. That case is Somalia.

Somalia is by far the most ethnically homogeneous nation in Africa, with ethnic Somalis making up at least 85% of the population, and the rest being largely Somali Bantu. Although historical racialism exists—with Somalis cast as culturally/ethnically “Arab”/pastoralist and Bantus as “Black”/farmer—it is both more muted than in Sudan, and less satisfactory as an explanation of conflict dynamics given the situation of overall homogeneity. The overlapping civil wars that have gripped Somalia for decades have been primarily between different Somali clan federations (i.e., within the pastoralist ethnic group). The leadership of the last truly unitary Somali state, that of Siad Barre, was in no way dominated by Bantus. Whatever the historical racist animus faced by Somali Bantus for their language, animist religion, and “Black” features, Somalia fell apart because of mutual hatred and othering between ethnic Somalis who could all share cultural pride in not having these traits. Siad Barre was overthrown by a group called the Somali National Alliance, led by Mohamed Farrah Aideed and whose ideology entirely consisted of defending Hawiye (the largest Somali clan family) interests. Their primary grievance was the perception that Siad Barre was ruling on behalf of his own Darood clan, evidenced by its overrepresentation in his government. For that matter, the largest ongoing secessionist dispute in Somalia has nothing to do with ethnicity or even Salafi jihadism. It is about the desire of the Isaaq clan federation to carve out its own statelet called Somaliland.

Extractive production denudes certain geographic areas for the benefit of others. The previous section demonstrated how some parts of a given, extractive formation are relatively less denuded and thus able to attain greater comfort or stability. But, in areas which suffer only a net ecological loss, governance and state-formation become impossible.21 Bunker offers a particularly vivid illustration in his case studies of the Sisyphean task faced by federal bureaucrats in the Brazilian Amazon when trying to implement any kind of national development project. There is a reason this part of the world gets compared with the American Wild West.22 Of course, Washington and New York eventually transformed their Western states into something beyond a source of gold and timber. Brasília and Rio, benefiting from their place at the center of a peripheral formation, have no incentive to do the same. What seems apparent today is the formation of a “Brazil” stretching from Kuwait to Darfur, Somalia and Sudan incorporated as part of a pan-GCC hinterland. The price for Somalia itself is that as it is bled dry, the resources for stable state-formation disappear. Since it is relegated to being a land solely of pastoral herders, who sell their livestock to intermediaries for convenient shipment to the nearby Arab states, it is only logical that the forms of identification created by this archaic agrarian system should remain more salient than modern ones like the nation. Indeed, since Somali pastoralism is not continuing as it always did but rather being intensified—with ever-growing herds an imperative of pastoral capitalism— it is only logical that traditional divisions like those between clans would be deepened and become far more violent.


This short essay has sought to broadly sketch how the dynamics of internal peripheralization familiar from large, extractive nation-state formations may now be appearing in a configuration which technically transcends national borders in northeast Africa. Societal wealth makes the class and social characters of the Arab Gulf states quite distinct from those of other peripheral formations, creating broad access to, and expectation of, living standards found only in core countries or among the privileged middle classes of some semi-peripheries (primarily in Latin America). However, ecological factors and the unique politics of oil mean that such living standards and consumption derive not from the exploitation of an agrarian hinterland, but rather from politically-determined energy rents. The result is that in the midst of opulence, the Gulf states lack any means to provide the materially-intensive diets demanded by their citizenry except importation. Such contradiction has been resolved through increasing orientation toward pastoral economies in northeast Africa (Sudan and Somalia), from which live animals can be purchased cheaply and at a short geographic distance. Cheapness and abundance increasingly characterize the Gulf meat supply, but pace Ricardo, not because of the harmonious interplay of geographical specializations. Rather, the external orientation of northeast Africa has been imposed by the actions of predatory armed actors—not only abstractly incentivized by food capitalism, but often directly supported by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. The resulting violence may spread further south and west in coming years, given the present drought gripping (particularly) Somalia and Sudan, whose exhausted ecologies increasingly no longer support export-oriented overgrazing.

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  2. Arghiri Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
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