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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

Tuesday, 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


Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East by Asef Bayat (Stanford University Press, 2010) 304 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

What a timely book! Or should we call it prophetic? Published a year before the uprisings that have begun reshaping the contours of the region’s authoritarian politics, this book offers great insights into, and a provocative comparative and analytical framework for comprehending the often overlooked social dynamics underlying the current upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. Bayat takes aim at debunking two prevalent tropes. The first is the idea of Middle Eastern exceptionalism, the widespread notion that the politics of this particular region is uniquely immune to democratization and popular sovereignty due to intrinsic political deficiencies and cultural inertia (read Islam, patriarchy, the corruption caused by petrolic wealth, etc.). The second is the notion that these societies are inherently weak and bereft of the autonomous social organizations and the culture of citizenship needed to challenge corrupt authoritarian states, the intolerant sectarian violence of radical Islamists, or the ravages of neo-liberal economics.

This book challenges the resulting conventional wisdom of many experts and pundits, both local and international, that in this region meaningful change can come only as a result of external pressure (military, economic, political) or internal violence. Instead, Life as Politics offers a brilliant alternative perspective on public life by taking seriously the daily lives and the social agency of ordinary people, hence its subtitle “How ordinary people change the Middle East.” Bayat’s central argument is that formal social movements, like trade unions, student organizations, political parties etc. have little chance of withstanding the repression of authoritarian states. When states are challenged openly, they respond with violence. This intolerance is not inherent to this region, but a byproduct of geopolitical calculations, especially of the self-interested western support of Israel as well as the dictatorial regimes that control the region’s oil resources. In spite of repression and chronic maldevelopment, the politics of the region are under constant challenge, not necessarily through the organized resistance of social movements, but through what Bayat calls the “non-movements” of ordinary people pursuing their self interests in the public domain.

By “non-movements” the author means “the collective actions of non-collective actors” (pp. 14-20) – the urban poor taking over public spaces for informal housing or street vending, the unemployed engaged in the informal economy, the housewives empowered through engagement in neighborhood and informal social services, young people aspiring to normal life chances by seeking fun in spite of the moral condemnation of Islamists or state authorities, etc. What distinguishes these non-movements from formal political challenges to the existing order is the fact that they are driven not by organized leadership, formal organization, or specific ideologies, but by the atomistic and self-interested practices of daily routines.  They involve vast numbers of ordinary urban subaltern subjects of all kind whose common practices of survival and their pursuit of individual life chances and material security undermine the rigid and undemocratic political architecture of police states. The recent events in Iran following the 2009 election, and then in Tunisia and Egypt, and the subsequent wildfires of public discontent across the region, seem to confirm Bayat’s arguments.

In spite of its theoretical contribution, especially the focus on the notion of “non-movements” of ordinary people as political agency, this is not a book of pure theory. Far from it! Bayat’s strength has always been a combination of accessible and lucidly argued theoretical sophistication, accompanied by rigorous comparative empirical research and analysis. Most of the chapters of this book have been previously published, but here they have been selected specifically to support and expand the book’s central theme. The introduction, titled “The art of presence”, is an original essay in which the author presents his main theoretical arguments. This important essay will become, rightly, the centerpiece of much debate about the nature of social agency in the region. Chapter 2 is a seminal critique and debunking of the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, an important document that supports the Middle East exceptionalism discourse. Part 1 of the book (chapters 3-7) titled “Social non-movements” analyzes the “quite encroachment of the ordinary” daily life by the young, the urban poor, social activists, and women. Part 2 (chapters 8-12) titled “Street politics and the political street” analyzes the spaces of urban life and how ordinary people’s activities reclaim the city and the streets from neo-liberal developers, intolerant Islamists, and authoritarian states. Part 3 looks at the prospects of political change, especially by focusing on the emergence and the discursive development of “post-Islamism”, the intellectual and social movement of the pious activists and thinkers who want a place for religion in political and public life, but not at the expense of human rights and democracy.

Life as Politics is written in a clear and accessible prose. It is a wonderful book to use in a multitude of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses on social movements, the Middle East, urban sociology, and political economy. Its insights into the micro dynamics of the Middle East were prescient and anyone interested in finding a provocative, insightful, and timely analysis of the ongoing transformations in this region will be rewarded by reading this book. I cannot but endorse it most enthusiastically.

Having said this, I also have some critical remarks to make. Bayat’s notion of “non-movements” as a sort of emancipatory politics is certainly thought provoking, but also problematic. Liberal and utilitarian political theories are imbued with the notion of atomistic self-interested individuals who, while selfishly pursuing their personal happiness, inadvertently benefit the common good not through design and benevolence, but through the unintended consequences of their fragmented actions. These are the arguments of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and James Madison in the Federalist Papers (Not to mention Hayek). Indeed, it is hard to argue with the separate elements of Bayat’s argument: Which progressive person of the left would not support destitute urban squatters from claiming land for housing when the state fails miserably to protect their rights and ensure their entitlements as citizens? And it would be difficult not to support the rights of the young and the unemployed to don fashionable outfits and turn officially solemn religious festivals into public parties and festive occasions. But “non-movements” do not necessarily lead to democratic empowerment or a more just society. Urban squatters do not resolve the pressing housing question. At best, they alleviate the plight of the individual squatters by turning what had been common property into the private property of the lucky few. This is dispossession of the commons by another means. Young Iranian supporters of the Green movement may have displayed great integrity by their adherence to non-violence, but the apparent absence/rejection of serious ‘ideological’ debates within this movement may reflect the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas about the economy and the market rather than a sign of non-sectarianism.

To claim and to show how ordinary people’s daily routines undermine the tyranny of the markets, authoritarian states, and moralist Islamists is vitally important. Life as Politics convincingly debunks the orientalist myth of Middle East exceptionalism by showing that there is indeed politics and agency among the subaltern. Whether this political agency of ordinary people’s daily struggles can develop an institutionalized form of democratic politics, however, will require good old fashioned political organizing and ideological battles. I don’t think Bayat is advocating a liberal-utilitarian model of politics here, but the notion of ‘non-movements’ needs a more rigorous and critical articulation.

Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University and an editor of Middle East Report

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