Automation Zones: Expanding the Digital “Frontier” of Labor and Trade in Aqaba

Zak Tobias, Queen Mary University of London

 

Introduction

The multiple narratives surrounding the Aqaba Digital Hub (ADH), the self-proclaimed “new gateway to the Middle East,” present a puzzling window into the spatial dynamics of digital transformation within Jordan and the wider region. According to The Economist, ADH forms part of “Israel’s data-cable diplomacy” enabling Israel to further normalize ties with its neighbors through Google’s Blue Raman submarine cable.[1] This will land at Aqaba (via ADH) before crossing the border into Eilat, linking up with Google’s three data centers in Israel as well running connections into Europe thereby superseding Egypt’s “Digital Suez” (the internet’s pre-eminent bottle neck).[2] Others attribute these developments to Saudi Arabia “redrawing the map” of regional digital infrastructures, as they rush to implement “vision 2030” by raising their internet capacity through Blue Raman and adjacent cable projects such as the Trans Europe Asia System (TEAS). Like Blue Raman, this will also bypass the Digital Suez via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, this time via a new terrestrial route. By boosting regional internet capacity and computing power, these cables will therefore provide an infrastructural footing for projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s highly publicized (and wildly ambitious) smart mega city. Meanwhile, given the sheer weight of Saudi and Israeli-centric narratives, it would perhaps be easy to overlook how ADH features within the Jordanian state’s own economic vision to pivot from “buffer to bridge” in part by (re)marketing Jordan as a vibrant digital hub emerging from the shadows of its more dominant neighbors.[3]

How might these multiple narratives reflect, complicate or at times completely obscure what digital transformation, as a spatial project, really entails?[4] From the perspective of critical logistics scholars, ADH’s bid for digital transformation inside the apparatus of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) cannot be contained, no less explained by any one narrative of national economic development, but instead must be situated within the growing imperative of global capital to circulate.[5] Seen through this lens, as Jordan and its neighbors’ economies re-route towards global demands through the “modular” technologies of free zones, they require greater internet and cloud capabilities to help automate their just-in-time trade geographies. Meanwhile, scholars working at the intersection of platforms and logistics point to how digital infrastructures not only graft onto or accentuate trends encapsulated through the “logistics” revolution but also create infrastructural footholds for new forms of “scale thinking” within a nascent digital economy.[6] These footholds enable the rapid spatial expansion of tech firms like Google, Amazon or Uber by tapping into the machinery of financial markets and venture capital.[7] Finally, scholars of managerialism outline how the ideological moorings of capitalism today are increasingly tethered to a universalizing ethos of technologically driven empowerment, enacted by “quasi-revolutionary” networks.[8]

In this essay I delve into these literatures to help unpack the spatial politics of digital transformation in Aqaba. I aim to do this by exploring how digital transformation is produced as an identifiable, if largely imaginary, capitalist frontier which is reified through infrastructural changes that suffuse across economic geographies. Within this, I build on two concrete points. First, that ADH, as a digital hub, grafts spatially onto both the city and the SEZ in ways inextricably tied to the historical and temporal processes of these sites’ ongoing formation. Second, as hubs like ADH grow, they shape broader transformations in economic geography across multiple scales of formality and patterns of circulation. These transformations are as much political as they are technical in nature, held together by and in turn reproducing what I label somewhat speculatively an automation effect.

Grafting on Cities, Producing Hubs

The frontier designates horizons of progress at the point where spatial expansion ends yet is seemingly forever resurrected in capitalism in the name of expanding knowledge and markets to continue processes of accumulation by other means.[9]Frontiers, both imagined and in various stages of materialization and expansion, help to fashion the (re)production of capitalism across multiple temporalities and trans-urban geographies. They provide a useful framework for thinking across histories of colonialism and the early expansion of cities, to urban reproduction today. Processes of (neo)liberal development relate to this episodic production of frontiers by relying on racially-constituted imaginaries of a tabula rasathrough which development can expand while erasing, appropriating, or destroying that which was there before.[10]

Seen in this light, the expansion of a digital frontier within an old city like Aqaba, which has become a new SEZ and incipient digital “hub,” appears to graft onto ongoing processes of urban renewal. ADH builds upon previous frontiers that were erected, expanded, and repurposed prior to and since the neoliberal era. These new geographies of labor and trade are engineered through processes of development encapsulated by successive waves of infrastructure. Indeed, the literature on SEZs suggests they help catalyze this process by engineering geography to maximize trade and the accumulation of capital.[11] In Max Hirsh’s view, SEZs engineer “frontier urbanism”—occupying the remote borderlands of national cultural spheres and the apex of global networks of capital and trade. In the case of Aqaba, hemmed into a narrow buffer zone between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Red Sea, this nascent urbanism has catalyzed processes of spatial reconfiguration of the city, economy, and state.[12] It spells “ruination” for neighboring cities like Ma’an, whose long decline as a permanent trade hub on the now defunct Hejazi railway, directly contrasts with Aqaba’s growing regional gravitas.[13] Meanwhile, within Aqaba, processes of urban center renewal are catalyzed by erasing allegedly illegal informal settlements like Shalalah, dismantled to make way for the relocation of the container port.[14]

Through the lens of temporality, the establishment of the SEZ in Aqaba and subsequent attempts to graft infrastructurally upon it through the development of ADH constitutes a collision of timescapes as Aqaba synchronizes with global supply chains. Taking Harvey’s macro lens, this appears to set in motion cycles of accelerated urban dismantlement and renewal which is reflected in the work on social engineering and dispossession well documented in Jordan and across the region.[15] Yet, seen through Bear, there is also a “corrosive” temporality of the everyday made more tangible by this rising pressure to synchronize with capitalist time across neglected, or partially neglected infrastructural geographies.[16]Paradoxically, rising global rhythms of capital rely, not just on the uneven implementation of technologically more advanced infrastructures but also older infrastructures whose willful neglect has become a prominent feature of the neoliberal state in and beyond Jordan.[17]

The simultaneous move to expand the frontier of development and synchronize Aqaba into the rhythms of global trade builds on the technological advent of SEZs which, seen through an urban lens, appear “retrofitted” within neoliberal geographies inhabited and ultimately shaped by informality.[18] Yet, this view of zones also reflects how urban temporality is continuously altered by new rhythms of connectivity both prior to and since the era of digital transformation.[19] ADH then, appears to graft itself upon the spatial and temporal processes set in motion by previous infrastructural and urban intensive development. However, as I explore, in attempting to graft a digital frontier, digital hubs (re)engineer economic, urban and infrastructural geographies, thus inscribing new conditions akin to a spatial effect of automation.

Logistics and Spatial Dynamics

The idea of automation as a spatial effect intertwined across different patterns of circulation and across varying degrees of labor formality, resonates with Neilson and Rossiter’s thesis on the “environmentality of automation.”[20] They argue that automation differs from mechanisation in so far as it engineers kinetic feedback across infrastructural, media and logistically networked geographies. In this view, automation does not simply displace labor as some have argued, rather it changes its environmental conditions.[21] That is not to say automation is capable of rendering geography into a unified “hyper object” of governable space as others have argued, but it does provide grounds for considering how different forms of power are newly mediated within networked geographies.[22]

Digital transformation via the expansion of the cloud is already inscribing Aqaba’s economic geography with the effect of automation.[23] One example is the deal signed with the digital arm of AD Ports Group for “an advanced Ports Community System (PCS)” to “generate considerable cost and time savings for stakeholders and customers, reduce CO2 emissions and streamline services.”[24] ADH will provide the infrastructural basis for this deal, helping to connect fragmented geographies, making them synchronous across different “timescapes” and thereby providing a necessary boost for Aqaba’s SEZ as a conduit of global capital circulation.[25] Yet, in producing allegedly green, automated shipping zones, such projects overlook the severe labor struggles, where recent strikes have contested oppressive and at times lethal working conditions.[26] The port therefore represents a pertinent case where Aqaba’s logistics-led accumulation is reproduced by digital infrastructure in ways that embed labor imbalances, reflecting concrete ways that the “environmentality of automation” makes its presence felt.[27]

ADH also markets its capacity to export high-powered connectivity over the border to the “all-green, all-sustainable” Neom, Saudi Arabia’s controversial smart region project which promises to be “underpinned by the best ICT infrastructure [that] engineers can imagine and money can buy.”[28] Within this, there are fascinating parallels between plans for Oxagon, “the industrial hub of Neom” which claims to be “the world’s first truly-integrated port and logistics hub” and Aqaba’s Container Terminal which aims to make Aqaba a “new sustainable gateway to the Levant.”[29] The latter envisages a logistical and industrial hub in which shopping, community and recreation are all integrated around the container port. This is mirrored by Oxagon on a grander scale, rebranding zone and city through “new paradigms of livability.”

These smart projects reflect the “vision” described by Jordan’s minister of the Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, to “create a digital environment that supports growth, motivates entrepreneurship and at the same time plays a major role in social and political stability.”[30] Yet, often overlooked is a political grammar of exclusivity, elided within these socioeconomic visions which the designs of automated urbanisms bring to light. These projects will in fact rely upon a preponderance of precarious workers who are not so much displaced or removed in practice but eviscerated from the aesthetic imaginary of high-tech urban life.[31]  Furthermore, as discussions within urban studies attest, patterns of global circulation also bleed into milieus of informal labor which simultaneously calibrate and are calibrated by these patterns.[32] In these cases, the volatility of algorithmically governed and deregulated financial markets in the neoliberal era introduce new temporalities within localized patterns of circulation where people are forced to adapt to the incessant and unpredictable rhythms of price rises.[33] These rhythms suffuse across labor geographies as workers are forced to mediate global capitalist time.[34] Within this, platform labor arguably reflects a particular technological means of reframing labor as the sole mediator of these volatile fluctuations of demand.

Performing Automation in Aqaba

In this final section I delve into the practices of businesspeople and technology consultants who I suggest play a key role in the rearticulation of digital transformation in Aqaba and thus the proliferation and reification of automated spatial imaginaries. These visions, through repertoires of business “expertise”, render technologies designed to exacerbate labor precarity and exploitation into enlightened innovations through recourse to “security,” and business friendly “talent landscapes.”[35]

Indeed, Aqaba’s SEZ and within it, ADH, are shaped and reshaped by the design practices of business consultancy firms. These practices are inscribed with what Laleh Khalili has called the “theology of capital,” which subdues labor power with managerial expertise, makes businesses more “efficient,” and state planning more amenable to capital accumulation.[36] In Aqaba the consultancy firm Bearing Point (now Deloitte), successfully advocated replacing the municipality government with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) and later its “economic” responsibilities were delegated to the newly established Aqaba Development Corporation (ADC). Not only were the large number of business experts populating these new institutions allocated eye-wateringly high salaries, but they made huge returns for the ruling monarchy, among other regional and international investors, as they privatized and sold off state-owned lands.[37]

Delving into the business practices surrounding ADH, a similar theology is clearly at work.[38] Through its peering networks (clients connected to its digital network) and LinkedIn presence, ADH imbeds itself into corporate and state circles. For example, associates of ADH recently attended digital conferences like MENA ICT where they struck deals with Palestinian ministries and telecoms against the backdrop of sermons about “Jordan’s talent landscape” from international consultancy firms like PwC.[39] Associates were also at the Special Operations Forces Exhibition (SOFEX) attended by Jordanian royalty, esteemed military generals, and a host of military industry representatives who discussed “long-term strategic industrial policy and future programs.”[40] Seen in this light, ADH mediates between two different, but overlapping networking venues: a corporate digital transformation realm, as well as a special forces realm animated by securitization logics. At these sites, capitalist theology is practiced and performed, the spatial imaginaries they construe illuminating the potential of digital transformation for catalyzing the expansion of trade and labor geographies.

Within this milieu, the securitization thread reflects the blurring of trade and military boundaries through processes of commercialization.[41] This can be linked back to the logistical turn as the militarization of trade speaks to but also goes beyond processes to inflect trade relations with a military logic of precisely choreographed supply chains.[42] Indeed, what Rafeef Ziadah describes as “the close imbrication of the UAE’s humanitarian logistics networks with the country’s military and commercial ambitions,” resonates with business-military networks within Aqaba and Jordan.[43] Not only has Jordan’s enormous US-sponsored security budget turned the military into a commercial venture, the effects are simultaneously rendered through the securitization and militarization of Jordan’s economic geography.[44] Within this process, digital transformation helps produce increasingly automated and securitized networks of supply within SEZs.[45]Meanwhile, from the bordered trade geographies of SEZs to its urban attachments, this automation effect suffuses into life beyond the zone with the increasingly granular surveillance of urban space through ongoing investment in the smart city.[46]

Seen in this light, ADH’s role as mediator and catalyst reflects an important infraction point for a networked business elite for whom digital transformation is integral to the expansion of their own wealth via the symbiotic processes of military commercialization and securitizing business environments. Perversely, the growing gulf between rich and poor help justify the policing of those increasingly vocal about their visible neglect by the state, making securitization and its commercialization appear as both a product and ongoing imperative of neoliberalism.[47]

Highlighting the soft power through which this process is enacted, Benjamin Shuetze points to the inculcation of authoritarian and neoliberal logics in Jordan produced through new hierarchies crystallizing around “protector/service provider and protected/customer.”[48] He suggests that this synthesis of military and commercial hierarchies plays an important role in forging the conceptual space through which entrepreneurial leadership is theologized.[49] This resonates with but also creates a certain tension in the neoliberal language of leadership that ADH’s networked business world embraces, a language that foregrounds a universalizing vision of tech empowerment embodied by the catchall metaphor of “talent landscapes.” In contrast to the process identified by Schuetze whereby military hierarchies filter into the corporate-authoritarian veneer of business culture, ADH appears to speak to a more recent trend in managerial dogma that attempts—at least superficially—to flatten hierarchies.[50] Seen through the lens of automation, this channeling of empowerment narratives appears patently performative. It does not so much reflect the humanitarian solutions of an altruistic business elite as it does the artificial flattening of class dynamics in order play into processes of automation. Indeed, how might an emphasis on “talent landscapes,” where a precious few are empowered, gloss over labor geographies characterized by displacement, precarity, and securitization? And if this provides even a glimpse into the machinations of networked assemblages as they perform automation by forging frictionless, secure, and compliant trade corridors, what are the broader implications for digital transformation?

Conclusion

Digital transformation as a capitalist imaginary of connectivity and set of business practices that invoke tangible infrastructural changes across transurban environments, reflects an understudied political force at multiple scales.[51] It produces spatial effects with repercussions across geography, restructuring these differentiated yet interconnected scales of circulation in the process. In this sense, we need to take seriously the transformative capacities of projects like ADH within spatial and political spheres underexplored by previous research.

Indeed, in her excellent account of Masdar, an underwhelming smart city project in Abu Dhabi’s desert, Gökçe Günel points to its “dynamic materiality” and capacity to inhabit “different scales” which, while unable to galvanize it into a success, produces an ongoing effect that is politically generative, encoding the present condition of capitalist rule into the future.[52] However, when compared to ADH, pertinent questions surrounding the broader dynamics driving digital transformation remain unanswered. What are the politics embedded in the production of Aqaba as it attaches to a similar imaginary repertoire to Masdar while grafting onto much broader shifts in transregional geographies of trade? Can we really square Aqaba with Masdar’s designation as a mere “technical adjustment?”[53]

I suggest that ADH operates somewhat differently to Masdar whose “innovation frontier” is, according to Günel, a tenuous, market-led one, leaving minimal imprint on the geo-economic landscape and more bent on tethering futures to relations of power inscribed (if no longer fully sustained) by economies of oil.[54] Though Günel makes a compelling case for Masdar, a gap exists between the status-quo-inducing fantasy realm it frames and the wide-reaching processes and effects of digital transformation taking shape in Aqaba. This gap reflects a dynamic materiality underpinning Aqaba, more rooted in the ongoing changes that are entangling distribution, production, and the automation of geo-economic space. Multiple scales are interacting in ways that strategically streamline capitalism and profoundly alter its scope, reach, and environmental effects. Wading further into this digital, political, urban, and logistical milieu—imbricated within processes of political transformation and effect—will be the object of future research.

 

 

 

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[1] The Economist, “Israel Hopes New Data Cables Can Make Friends of Former Enemies.”

[2] Middle East Eye, “How Saudi Arabia is redrawing the map of the future with fibre-optic cables,”

[3] See the online interview with Jordanian Minister of Digital Economy. Woodrow Wilson Centre, “Jordan’s Digital Future.”

[4] As Adam Hanieh has shown, the broad political and economic milieu inscribed within regional digital transformation is highlighted by the elaborate multisector plans that Gulf (and Gulf financed) telecommunication companies have drawn up for the implementation of Smart City projects. Hanieh, Money, Markets, and Monarchies, 170.

[5] For critical logistics/free zones see Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade; Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics; Debruyne, “Spatial Rearticulations of Statehood;” Chua and Cox, “Battling the Behemoth;” Plonski, “Ma’an’s Material Debris—The Railroad Graveyard.”

[6] For platforms/logistics see Chua and Cox, “Battling the Behemoth;” Bier, “Displacement Without Redistribution.” Hanna and Park, “Against Scale: Provocations and Resistances to Scale Thinking.” Gebrial, “Racial Platform Capitalism.”

[7] For work linking financial machinery and platforms see Mitchell, “Uber Eats: How Capital Consumes the Future.” For work on the racial fabrics of platforms see Gebrial, “Racial Platform Capitalism;” Jones, Work Without the Worker.

[8] Chiapello and Boltanski, The New Spirit of Capitalism, XXXiV.

[9] For literature that deals with the historical production of frontiers see for example Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis; Appel, “Walls and White Elephants;” Hirsh, Airport Urbanism; Günel, Spaceship in the Desert; Meiton, Electrical Palestine; Chua and Cox, “Battling the Behemoth;” Plonski, “Ma’an’s Material Debris;” Rabie, Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited.

[10]As well as previous examples, also see Elyachar, Markets of Dispossession; Plonski, “Ma’an’s Material Debris—The Railroad Graveyard in Political Economy of Infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa;” El-Kazaz, “Building ‘Community’ and Markets in Contemporary Cairo.”

[11] Harvey, The New Imperialism; Debruyne, “Spatial Rearticulations of Statehood;” Alaime, “Le paradoxe extraterritorial au cœur des territoires mondialisés. Le cas de la zone économique spéciale d’Aqaba, Jordanie;” Hirsh, Airport Urbanism; Jenss and Schuetze, “Rethinking Authoritarian Power;” Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade. Some describe them as “infrastructural fixes” (Harvey), “modular technologies” (Khalili), or “extra-territorial fragments (Alaime), while others connect them to forms of urban governance enabling the “spatial rearticulation of the state” (Debruyne) or forms of urbanism centred around circulation and transit (Hirsh).

[12] For commentaries specifically on Aqaba see Debruyne, “Spatial Rearticulations of Statehood;” Alaime, “Le paradoxe extraterritorial au cœur des territoires mondialisés. Le cas de la zone économique spéciale d’Aqaba, Jordanie;” Martínez, Performing the State; Jenss and Schuetze, “Rethinking Authoritarian Power.”

[13] For comparisons between Ma’an and Aqaba see Martínez, Performing the State; Plonski, “Ma’an’s Material Debris.”

[14] Debruyne, “Spatial Rearticulations of Statehood.”

[15] Harvey, The New Imperialism, 98. See footnote 9.

[16] Bear, “3 For Labour.”

[17] This neglect may reflect a willingness to allow infrastructure to decay: Bear; Plonski, “Ma’an’s Material Debris;” Chua and Cox, “Battling the Behemoth.” Alternatively, neglect is palpable where they have never been built. Appel, “Walls and White Elephants;” Howe et al., “Paradoxical Infrastructures.”

[18] Howe et al., “Paradoxical Infrastructures.”

[19] Mackenzie, Wirelessness; Jones, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities and Amin, “Animated Space” all reflect how the digital suffuses into the urban environment.

[20] Neilson and Rossiter, “Theses on Automation and Labour,” 200.

[21] For recent arguments pointing to automation as the displacement of labor see Bier, “Displacement Without Redistribution.”

[22] Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. For more of an infrastructural/logistical reading of software/digital networks see Rossiter. Software, Infrastructure, Labor and Starosielski, The Undersea Network.

[23] For discussion of cloud geographies see Amoore, “Cloud Geographies.”

[24] “AD Ports Group and Aqaba Development Corporation Sign Multiple Agreements for Development of Tourism, Transport, Logistics and Digital Infrastructure.”

[25] Bear, “3 For Labour.”

[26] Davis, “‘A Disaster.'” Also see Schwedler’s accounts of Aqaba’s dockworker protests. Schwedler, Protesting Jordan.

[27] Neilson and Rossiter, “Theses on Automation and Labour,” 200.

[28] Roberts, “The Rising Digital Infrastructure in The Middle East and Africa.”

[29] ACT, “Sustainability – Aqaba Container Terminal;” Neom. “Oxagon: a reimagined industrial city.”

[30] Woodrow Wilson Centre, “Jordan’s Digital Future.”

[31] Günel, Spaceship in the Desert, 59-61.

[32] Elyachar, Markets of Dispossession; Saleh, “Scrap Metal and Syrian Labour in Beirut’s Informal Economy;” Grüneisl “Second-hand shoe circulations in Tunis.”

[33] MacKenzie, Trading at the speed of light.

[34] Günel, Spaceship in the Desert, 24, 40

[35] Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism, 151; Yazid Ziad Hijazeen, LinkedIn.

[36] Khalili, “In Clover.”

[37] Debruyne, “Spatial Rearticulations of Statehood,” 190. Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism.

[38] Thinking about “hybrid governance” in development circles in Egypt. Elyachar, Markets of Dispossession.

[39] Yazid Ziad Hijazeen, LinkedIn.

[40] Services, “Sofex 2022 Amman Jordan.”

[41] Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism, 206.

[42] For scholars making this argument see footnote 21 (as well as next footnote).

[43] Ziadah, “Circulating Power.”

[44] For more on this argument see Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism, 170–222.

[45] For more on securitization and logistics see Cowen, “A Geography of Logistics.”

[46] For smart cities see Breslow, “The Smart City and the Containment of Informality;” Hanieh, Money, Markets, and Monarchies, 170; Günel, Spaceship in the Desert. Particularly relevant is Hanieh’s observation of surveillance-heavy multisector plans that Gulf (and Gulf-financed) telecommunication companies have drawn up for the implementation of Smart City projects.

[47]For increasingly violent policing of protest in Ma’an, Aqaba, and elsewhere in Jordan see Schwedler, Protesting Jordan; Martínez, Performing the State.

[48] Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism, 213.

[49] Schuetze, 213. Also see Khalili, “Stupid Questions.”

[50] Chiapello and Boltanski, The New Spirit of Capitalism.

[51] For literature on urban circulation see Graham and Marvin, Splintering Urbanism; Howe et al., “Paradoxical Infrastructures;” Chua et al., “Introduction;” Hanieh, Money, Markets, and Monarchies; Chua and Cox, “Battling the Behemoth.” For literature with more of an emphasis on global circulation see Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics; Hirsh, Airport Urbanism; Ramos, Dubai Amplified; Ziadah, “Circulating Power;” Jenss and Schuetze, “Rethinking Authoritarian Power;” Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade.

[52] Günel, Spaceship in the Desert, 24, 40.

[53] Günel, 10–11.

[54] Günel, Spaceship in the Desert.