Dubai; Gilded Cage by Syed Ali (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2010), 240pages, index; Dubai; The City as Corporation by Ahmed Kanna (Minnealpolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2011) 262 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani

Written by admin on December 11th, 2012

In recent years there has been a spate of social science books published about various countries of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) but, understandably, Dubai takes pride of place and the majority of these studies focus on this glittering city-state that has energetically branded itself as the hyper modern and hyper globalized hub of the Persian Gulf. Both these books under review are welcomed and excellent attempts to debunk the celebratory tone of the earlier literature that portrayed Dubai’s transformation in glowing positive light. These books ask the uncomfortable but necessary questions about the social and human costs of the Dubai (and by extension of the GCC) project, by looking at the coercive and often horrifying underbelly of the city-state’s recent development history.  They also tell us much about how Dubai fits within the neoliberal global order: Far from being an exceptional case of Middle Eastern exotic experiment in conspicuous consumption, authoritarian politics, and racial discrimination, Dubai comes across as the epitome of a market driven global order. The experiment that is present day Dubai links tourism, hyper capitalism, unabashed consumerism, and spectacular architecture, that are built on the back of exploitative labor practices and a hollowing out of social and cultural norms that end up leaving everyone involved in the Dubai project with more money in their pocket (unless they are hit by the global economic downturn), but also significantly degraded and alienated, be they powerless construction workers, East European prostitutes, mercenary western professionals, predatory real estate developers, or indigenous citizens living off of unearned commissions from greedy international investors.

Both books are ethnographic in structure, and aim to give voice to the experiences and the existence of the multitudes of temporary expatriates who make up 90% of Dubai’s population. These expatriates range from casual workers to merchants, professionals, speculating investors, maids, prostitutes, camel jockeys, and university professors, whose experiences and contributions are differentiated and made part of the story of Dubai Inc. They come from all over the world, but their diversity does not make Dubai a cosmopolitan haven of collaborative modernity. In fact, both books demonstrate through carefully constructed and nuanced analysis how keeping the expatriate population segregated and ghettoized from each other and from the indigenous population is the prerequisite of making the Dubai project work. This systematic system of social, cultural, and geographic segregation takes place through administrative, economic, as well as coercive means. Work visas and residence permits are issued on strictly temporary basis (2-6 years), virtually no one can become an immigrant, even those born and raised in the Sheykhdom of expat parents, hence the state of “permanent impermanence” (Ali) experienced by all expatriates who service and maintain the 10% of the indigenous citizens and the corporate city state that is virtually the property of the al Makhtoum dynasty.

These books are very similar in some aspects, but also different. They complement each other very well. Syed Ali is a sociologist who was deported from Dubai when his research on South Asian workers got too uncomfortable for the authorities. His book is written in a very readable style, intended for a cross section of academic as well as interested general public (even the fonts are bigger and easier to read). He does not mince words when discussing Dubai’s ‘plastic culture’ and vapid consumerism. But this is not a polemical exercise since Ali shows how and why this cultural vapidity is structural and a byproduct of the deliberate impermanence that shapes everyone’s life in Dubai: If you are there only to make money, are afforded no serious legal protection, or the possibility of forging personal attachment to the place and people, you cannot weave a fabric of meanings and emotions that take the form of meaningful art or substantive cultural representations.  This is true of the citizens also, who come across as distant and often hidden behind the walls of their family compounds, an alien minority in their own country. Ali’s most provocative topic is how work and labor shape social life in Dubai. He studies the subaltern classes (workers, maids, prostitutes, camel jockeys) who service the Sheykhdom (Chapter 3, aptly titled “Iron Chains”) and what motivates those who come mostly from Asia (the Subcontinent, Iran, Phillipines) or Eastern Europe, to subject themselves to such degrading conditions. His answer is complex: not only the pull factors (money, jobs) but also the push factors (expectations at home, a culture of neoliberal entrepreneurship, regardless of the human consequences) keeps the wheels turning. Ali also discusses the institutional means by which the labor system is maintained: The kefala/sponsorship system keeps workers dependent on contractors at home, and employees and bureaucrats in Dubai. It also acts in similar way regarding corporate investors and expatriate professionals who are obligated by law to forge relations of dependency and partnerships with Dubai natives (Ali, pp. 26-31, Chapter 7). In short, while professional expatriates (mostly from the west) and Dubai citizens live in the privileged bubble of a  “gilded cage” (Chs 4, 5) where all they do is make easy money or shop and drink, those who work for them make do with a precarious existence in vast and filthy labor camps like Sonapur (91), or are at the mercy of precarious laws and volatile housing markets.

Ahmed Kanna is an anthropologist who is interested in analyzing the social and political life of Dubai through its built environment. In other words, he is more focused in investigating how the social and political processes that shape the city-state can be analyzed through its architecture and spatial forms. This is a more strictly academic book, but it is also well written, although it suffers a bit from the ‘dissertation syndrome’, where the book is not quite free from the often unnecessary entanglement with the outlining of various theoretical positions and academic jargon that are a requisite part of dissertations but do not necessarily contribute to a more insightful analysis of the topic at hand. Despite this shortcoming the book is an original and excellent analysis of how, as the book’s title puts it, the city was reshaped as a corporation. This process involved a number of historical shifts that the book’s initial historical chapters outline. Lacking substantial oil reserves, compared to its better-endowed sister confederate states of UAE, Dubai sought early on to diversify its economy and to carve out a more boldly visible role for itself on the international stage. The advent of oil, the end of cold war, and the changing geopolitics of the Persian Gulf witnessed the turning of Dubai into a conspicuous center of global shipping and transport, tourism and entertainment, conspicuous consumption, and speculative construction and real estate development. Kanna does an excellent job of outlining how this globalization of Dubai undid the ruling bargain between (mostly Iranian and south Asian) merchants and the al Makhtoum rulers, and left the ruling dynasty the virtual Sultanist/patrimonial (to use Weberian terminology) owner/rulers of the city sate. The ruling family and their parastatal corporations enjoy virtually total territorial monopoly, as well as a monopoly of defining the modernity that defines Dubai’s ongoing trajectory, and that has uprooted any meaningful connection to history and local social relations. This disembedded commercial modernity is not a standalone, it enjoys active international support and approval by what Kanna calls ‘orientalism in reverse’, or the celebratory glorification of the entrepreneurial genius of the al Makhtoum ruling dynasty by western (as well as Middle Eastern) journalists, policy makers, and global professionals. This support was considated when the search for reliable Arab allies amidst what was seen as a sea of hostile Muslims became part of the ongoing pathology of the mainstream Western public sphere, especially after 9/11 and the ongoing fiascos of Iraqi and Afghan invasions and the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The most exciting segments of Kanna’s book are his analysis of the role of ‘starchitects”, big name architects accompanied by speculative real estate developers, who undertake enormous (in terms of costs, commissions, and prices) prestige projects in Dubai. The real estate ponzi schemes that follow these projects are an important part of what has shaped the city scape of present day Dubai. Kanna then looks at the other spaces (the vanished villages, the work camps and workers’ quarters, the spaces of conspicuous consumption, etc.) that have grown in the shadow of these architectural wonders. Paraphrasing Kanna’s words, the social and cultural reality of Dubai Inc. is etched in its built environment.

Together these books offer an outstanding understanding of Dubai, not as an exception and exotic oddity, but as an integral component of the neo liberal global order which has nurtured and sustains the corporate city state. I highly recommend both these books. They are wonderful sources for undergraduate and graduate classrooms, as well as the interested critical reader.


 Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of International Studies Department at DePaul University, Chicago


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