GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
Karayil Mohammad Ali
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Dubai, City of Guests
Paper Proposal Text :
Paper Proposal: “Dubai, City of Guests”
This paper will focus on the effects of local and global forces on the national and examine how the national as the locus of political membership and identity are challenged due to the transnational forces of globalization and migration. The state becomes ever more crucial despite the incredible mobility of our world, to give new scope to forms of belonging and identity-making. The condition of transnational flows makes us think critically about places of origin and settlement of so-called global citizens such that national identity and national legal citizenship don’t necessarily map on to each other. Notions of identity then gets unbundled from its usual allies of citizenship and nation but rather latch on to diverse strands that are the result of the interactions between state practices, global economic flows, local conditions and individual actors.
This paper examines Dubai’s numerous expatriate communities and the practices that ground their interaction with each other, the state and the native population. I also seek to examine the role of the state in the creative process of city making that has resulted in multiple socialities for the many foreign residents.
I explores the idea that the state is complicit in the segregation of foreigners through cultural, educational and religious. Based on my ethnographic research, I find that Dubai’s expatriate groups live in anthropological bubbles engaging in little interaction with each other, least of all the host native community. I propose that these foreign born communities present themselves as self-sustaining or self-managing, particularly in their conduct of cultural, religious and educational institutions. Whether this takes place voluntarily, by default or through covert state encouragement, is an issue this paper will address. My studies suggest that Dubai rules by encouraging the development of a kind of city of enclaves – the policy being to allow its many expatriate communities to have its own specific cultural associations and schools to serve their members, with seemingly little intervention from the state.
I further suggest that there are multiple gradations to be seen in Dubai, a layering of national groups. Dubai is more selective in the expatriate influx now, for example in the labouring class, the “safer” Filipinos given preference over the “dangerous” Indians. I argue that a similar kind of grading takes place among mid-level and upper managerial classes, as in the case of Singapore where different populations are ingested by the city state to create an optimal demographic make up to place the city strategically in the global network of flows.
Along with the notions of national ranking and community segregation, I suggest that the Dubai government distributes different urban experiences to its different communities. I will look into the kind of differentiated urban practices that operate to stage spectacular sporting events like the Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world and accessible to the elite few, and the more egalitarian and open Dubai Shopping Festival. I investigate the ways in which the state channels certain groups towards specific urban encounters on the cultural level as well as spatially in terms of modes of residential living.
It is my view that on the one hand, the state is ever present in the creative process of city making through its practices of:
(1) controlling expatriate populations by segregation,
(2) attracting the right kind of foreign labour and talent,
(3) distributing different urban experiences to the various segments,
(4) designing a fantastic architectural image and
(5) selling the city to the global world as the place to visit or do business.
On the other hand, the state and the native population seem to fade in to the background as far as the cultural and educational spheres of the particular expatriate groups are concerned.
With such a large and heterogeneous foreign community, the paradox is that Dubai’s treatment of them is based on exclusionary practices- citizenship is not an option, no matter how long one lived in the city. Foreigners could not own property until very recently and that too only in specific allotted areas. Even the few expatriates who can afford to, are still hesitant to invest while the uncertainty of changing rules loom large. When it comes to Dubai’s immigration policies, little has changed over the three or four decades since it opened its doors to foreigners. Yet until recently, people flocked here. Was the incentive to come here only economic? Among the Indians, my field work suggests that the unskilled labourers who form a large proportion of the foreigners are here for purely economic gains. For them, it is not a dream of a better life in Dubai but a better life for their families back home. However I think the story is different for middle class Indian families for whom Dubai is a city of opportunity and fulfilment. Ten years ago, parents were sending their children back to India once they graduated from school due to lack of university level education in Dubai. This return to one’s home country became a sort of natural stage of rehabilitation, which was inevitable anyway since staying in Dubai permanently was not possible. But this is not the case anymore with the educational bridge to India breaking down due to the influx of university level educational opportunities in Dubai.
What happens to these “permanent” guests, Dubai born foreigners for whom Dubai is home and yet can never be home in the true sense of the word? Earlier the case was that these foreigners were so ensconced within their particular group and its traditions that they didn’t feel like they were living in a foreign country. Dubai was home in a different way- expatriates appropriated city space and translated it in such a way that little pockets of wherever they were from were created, which in a sense effaced Dubai’s own reality. The case is different now with Dubai being something of a brand and a popular catch phrase through the massive PR machine behind the city’s image. Now I posit that Dubai as a city seeks to make a cultural impact on its guest residents through education, festivals, malls and even architecture, in a way it did not before. Thus the expatriates are powerfully invested in the city while at the same time equally powerless to secure a permanent future there. I contend that Dubai’s foreigners, born abroad or at home, now take pride in their city’s uniqueness, achievements and globality, partly due to a marketing campaign that keeps them attached to a certain idea of place, an “auto-identification” if you will, in important and new ways.
Over the past few years, Dubai has become something of a global phenomenon and has gained much media attention due to its fantastic architectural megaprojects. Accompanying this is a burst in literature about Dubai. However, apart from a much cited but poorly researched Mike Davis article written almost as a personal attack on the ruling Sheikh, and a much talked about Guardian piece reporting the abandonment of 600 cars at the airport in the wake of the economic downturn, little has been written about Dubai from an on-the-ground perspective – about what it means to its multinational residents for whom this is as real place as any, no matter how spectacular the developments may be. It is this relegation to mere surfaces that I hope to rescue the Gulf Emirate from. There is a need to zoom into the city, stay close to the ground and look at a combination of situated practices that have created a specific kind of global hub attracting such large-scale migration. These practices shape particular modes of urban lives and produces specific notions of identity among the majority expatriate population, that straddles the local, national and transnational.