GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Trucial States, Affective Borders: Gender, Ethnicity, and Territory in Abu Dhabi’s Corniche Beach Park
Paper Proposal Text :
Recent research about urbanization in the United Arab Emirates has focused on the commodification of space and the ways in which state interests have aligned themselves with privatized urban development. Dubai, along with its resort compounds and architectural icons, has exemplified the excesses of capitalism, both through a development model that privileges grand scale projects and internationally-known architects (Kanna, 2011) and by producing urban environments that are exclusive, fragmented, surveiled, and artificial (Davis, 2004). For the most part, the study of the human cost of these urban development strategies has centered on South Asian male “guest workers,” documenting working conditions as well as the systematic ways in which workers’ participation in society has been limited (Elsheshtawy, 2010; Haines, 2011). Although recent scholarship has highlighted the absence of guest workers from large parts of the urban landscape, this work, even in its consideration of “bachelor laws” and other explicitly gendered segregation practices, has largely ignored the complexities of the gender dynamics that inform the lived realities of urban space within the UAE. Characterizing “bachelor laws” merely as new configurations of ethnic and class-based discrimination not only ignores the contingent status these workers receive as men, but also obscures the complex role gendered rhetoric plays in building a UAE national identity. Through an examination of the material rhetorics surrounding the use and development of Abu Dhabi’s Corniche Beach Park, I argue that sex segregation and its attention to the gendered body enables three tenuous features of 21st century UAE identity: 1) an openness to western markets that retains Arab and Muslim identity 2) a preservation of Emirati identity in a migrant majority population 3) and the construction of a modern Muslim identity distinct from fundamentalist stereotypes of Islam.
This paper combines three months of site visits with discourse analysis of public documents to theorize the relationships between people and space present in the Corniche Beach Park. Using Delanda’s social assemblage theory (2006), Foucault’s biopolitics (1979), and Ahmed’s “affective economies” (2004, p. 117), I maintain that this park presences three imbricated narratives about national territories and boundaries, that these boundaries are negotiated by regulating the mobility of gendered and racialized bodies, and, that in reconciling these complex tensions, the status any particular body assumes is contradictory and provisional. The Western female body, for instance, simultaneously offers an advertisement for the city’s openness to Western markets and a warning against cultural contamination (Smith, 2010). The South Asian male migrant body serves as a threat to modernity and purity, a symbol of the “bad Muslim,” (Maira, 2009; Puar, 2007), and a sexual hazard which contains the female body to “family beaches.” In certain ways, the shared public spaces of the park—the jogging paths, volleyball courts, public beaches, and food courts—do promote the integrated community outlined in Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 and provide a leisure space which helps to alleviate the tensions associated with an economically and ethnically fragmented society. The visibility of posted behavior guidelines, security guards, and fences regulating these spaces, however, along with the park’s emphasis on consumerism, ensure that this leisure and togetherness is experienced in particular ways determined by class, ethnicity and gender. Leisure becomes not just a temporary balm for anxieties produced by the cultural compromises made in the name of economic development, but also a safe space to practice one’s appropriate role within this social system, a role which is largely outlined by ethnic and gendered terms.
If we understand GCC urbanization as an interface to the 21st century economy, our understanding must consider not just the urban landscape’s role in recreating the hierarchical, exclusionary social structure necessary to sustain continued economic development, but must also examine the particular, dynamic features by which this hierarchy is maintained. We must problematize the way we have theorized the role of gender and ethnicity within this landscape and question the tendency to view male guest workers and women only in terms of their absence of status. If we consider, instead, the relationships between women and male guest workers and the ways in which these relationships offer both parties conditional status based on ethnicity, class, and gender, we are better able to understand the national anxieties being processed through these dynamics and to see each group’s investment in an economic system, which, on the surface, may appear to offer them very little. Although my work and my research methods are based in feminist rhetoric and critical race theory, this work also intersects with key debates in Middle Eastern studies, cultural geography, and urban studies.