Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation'

Abstract

This essay addresses subjectivity in the context of the emergence of neoliberalism in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The appropriation of neoliberal values and policies in Dubai offers data on cultural processes that demonstrate the highly localized ways neoliberalism is inflected, challenging theories of neoliberal policies as monolithic instruments of global integration. Unlike other national contexts such as Singapore, local inflections of neoliberalism in Dubai are governed more by notions of ethically “valuable” citizenship and authentic identity than by economically “valuable” citizenship. The essay focuses on the young corporate employees of some of Dubai's leading corporations, who I call Dubai's “flexible citizens.” First situating the genealogy of neoliberalism and its flexible citizens in the colonial history of Dubai, the essay goes on to analyze the ways Dubai's flexible citizens appropriate neoliberal discourses to mediate local ambiguities and tensions of social and gender identity. The essay concludes with a discussion of how neoliberal Dubai is evolving in the wake of the 2008 world economic crisis.

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"Emerati Women Ad." February 2010 via Ahmed Kanna.

Editorial Overview

In his article in the February 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation,'" Ahmed Kanna demonstrates how principles of neoliberalism are translated from state and corporate visions into the everyday personal aspirations of young Dubayyans. Tracing the colonial and neocolonial historical contexts that have led to the twenty-first century formation of the "city-corporation" of Dubai, Kanna focuses ethnographic attention on the narratives of a cohort of young professionals who work and live in the ambiguous shadows of the "staged Arab authenticity" of Executive Council governance and the "ethnic pluralism" of Emirati corporate officialdom. As Kanna's interlocutors reflect on issues of higher education, marriage, pornography, and birth control, they draw "flexibly" on traditional patriarchal structural logics as well as a range of neoliberal ethical values. Mostly reinforcing the ideology of the ruling-family state for whom capital is dominant, they effect what Kanna, following Braudel, refers to as "colluding social hierarchies." In conversation with the work of Aihwa Ong and Ara Wilson, Kanna argues that neoliberalism is far from a monolithic process for these "flexible citizens," and is instead a multi-scalar mediation of particular discourses, histories and values where "citizens attempt to align non-neoliberal social expectations, such as those pertaining to gender, with neoliberal notions of selfhood," striving to "be modern in a respectful way" in contemporary Dubai.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on neoliberal orders in national contexts. See "Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia" by Daromir Rudnyckyj (2009) and "Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico" by Peter Cahn (2008). For additional essays on neoliberalism and subjectivity, see, for example, "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India" by Aradhana Sharma (2006); "Recovering True Selves in the Electro-Spiritual Field of Universal Love" by Nickola Pazderic (2004); and "Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks" by Yan Hairong (2003).

Cultural Anthropology has also published numerous essays on the dimensions of urbanism in the contemporary Middle East including: "Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul" by Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook
 (2006); "Rimbaud's House in Aden, Yemen: Giving Voice(s) to the Silent Poet" by Lucine Taminian (1998); "Building Power: Italy's Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940" by Mia Fuller (1988); and "Changing Israeli Landscapes: Buildings and the Uses of the Past" by Alex Weingrod (1993).

About the Author

Ahmed Kanna is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific. He has held the Paul E. Raether Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Center for Urban & Global Studies at Trinity College and the International Programs Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Iowa.

Ahmed Kanna's University of the Pacific faculty profile

Links from the Essay

Shehab (2009) Brand Dubai (Wolff Olins). MBAs, Media, and the Middle East.

Sky News (2008) Crisis, What Crisis?

Women in the UAE 

Media Links

Al-Khaleej

Al-Bayan

The Economist

Emirates Today

Gulf News

The National

Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi Journal

Organization Links

Dubai Holding Company

Dubai Internet City

Human Rights Watch: Building Towers, Cheating Workers

TECOM Investments

United Arab Emirates Embassy, Washington, DC

Multimedia

Key References

Abdulla, Abdul Khaleq. "Political Dependency: The Case of the United Arab Emirates." PhD Dissertation, Washington DC: Georgetown University Department of Government, 1984.

Braudel, Fernand. The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th—18th Century. Vol. 3. New York, NY: Perennial, 1986.

Ferguson, James. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Ong, Aihwa. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Ong, Aihwa. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations of Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Thompson, EP. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1963.

Wilson, Ara. The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in the Global City. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

References to Work in Anthropological Journals

Ferguson, James. "Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa." American Anthropologist 107.3(2005): 377-382.

Ferguson, James. "Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality." American Ethnologist 29.4(2002): 981-1002.

Freeman, Carla. "The 'Reputation' of Neoliberalism." American Ethnologist 34.2(2007): 252-267.

Guano, Emanuela. "The Denial of Citizenship: "barbaric" Buenos Aires and the middle-class imaginary." City & Society 16.1(2004): 69-97.

Hoffman, Lisa, Monica DeHart, and Stephen J. Collier. "Notes on the Anthropology of Neoliberalism." Anthropology News 47, no. 6 (2006): 9—10.

Khalaf, Sulayman. "Poetics and Politics of Newly Invented Traditions in the Gulf: Camel Racing in the United Arab Emirates." Ethnology 39.3(2000).

Urciuoli, Bonnie. "Skills and Selves in the New Workplace." American Ethnologist 35.2(2008): 211—228.

Select Additional Works by the Author

Kanna, Ahmed, ed. The Superlative City: Dubai and the Urban Condition in the Early Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

__________. "Making Cadres of the ‘City—Corporation': Cultural Identity and Politics in Neoliberal Dubai." Review of Middle East Studies, 2010.

Kanna, Ahmed, and Arang Keshavarzian. "The UAE’s Space Race: Sheikhs and Starchitects Envision the Future." Middle East Report 248(2008): 34-39.

Kanna, Ahmed. "Dubai in a Jagged World." Middle East Report 243(2007): 22—29.

__________. "The 'State Philosophical' in the 'Land Without Philosophy': Shopping Malls, Interior Cities, and the Image of Utopia in Dubai." Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 16.2(2005): 59—73.

Interview with Ahmed Kanna

Given the most recent credit crisis in Dubai, how does the singular vision of Shaikh Mohammad maintain its legitimacy in the everyday lives of Dubayyans?

In the everyday lives of Dubayyans, the vision will probably remain legitimate. Muhammad and especially his father Rashid are heroic figures to many if not most Dubayyans. The crisis has generated unease, but this has been directed at Sheikh Muhammad's underlings (e.g., Al Abbar, Al Gergawi, et al.) and, as tends to happen in moments of uncertainty in the UAE, at the so-called demographic problem with its attendant, perceived "threats to Emirati culture."

How might the threat of economic recession and the increasingly apparent risks of superlative consumerism ramify upon the horizon of hope, imagination, and invention in the neoliberal city-corporation?

I think that it will probably retrench the baseline dependency on the state, the so-called 'ruling bargain' by which the state provides public goods, jobs etc. in return for public political demobilization. Any sort of neoliberal, entrepreneurial discourse may be toned down, however.

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"Media City." February 2010 via Ahmed Kanna.

Can you reflect momentarily upon your fieldwork experience? How did your own positionality impinge upon its conduct? In what ways did your own work/person coincide with or conflict with the type of social ethos that you detail in your essay? Would you situate yourself in terms of the 'post-purist orientation'?

This is quite a complicated question. Politically, I tend to oppose neoliberalism of any variety, regardless of the 'cultural' face with which it presents itself. Another layer of complexity is related to the fact that the regimes of the Gulf quite deliberately present themselves as 'pro-Western.' This comes with a hostility to the legacy of social democracy, anti-colonialism, and nationalism in the Arab world, an (admittedly problematical) legacy with which I nevertheless tend to be in sympathy -- although not uncritically and, I hope, far from simplistically. These two projects, neoliberalism and anti-anti-colonialism/social democracy, are interconnected (as I try to show in the essay). Indeed, neoliberalism seems to have followed from anti-reformism, as I also try to show in the piece. So the ethos described in the essay is both something of which I am critical and a social fact, so to say, a reality of the experience, sentiment, and symbolic process in Dubai (at least in period preceding the crisis; probably still is). One of my goals in the essay was to draw upon the ethnographic detail to render a critical yet respectful picture of Dubai's corporate managers. As far as "post-purism" - I guess it's one of those aspects of neoliberalism in Dubai that further complicates my positionality: insofar as post-purism rejects some of the more rigid notions of "traditional" or "national" identity that tend to be a fact of life in the UAE, I find much that is attractive about it. But I try to problematize this,in the larger (book) project and go beyond a binary of "post-purism" vs. "orthodoxy" or "tradition." My argument in the book is that both the post-purists and their antagonists (who I call "neo-orthodox") appropriate aspects of state ideology in ways that both invest the shifting symbolic and urban landscapes of Dubai with meaning and, in often contradictory ways, end up reaffirming state claims on territory, identity, and historical memory in Dubai.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What does the author understand as 'the principles of neoliberalism'? How does his understanding of 'neoliberalism' in Dubai differ from experiences of neoliberalism in other locations?

2. Kanna's article explores Aihwa Ong's notion of 'flexible citizenship.' How does his argument complicate and expand upon the notion? In still what additional ways might the concept be complicated?

3. What does Kanna mean by the 'post-purist orientation'? What does his ethnographic evidence suggest about a 'post-purist society'? What are the implications of 'post-purism' for understandings of kinship and marriage?

4. The author poses the following questions about the 'city-corporation':"How is the city-corporation idea situated within Dubai contexts of social and gender identity and linguistic practice? How does it frame local discourses about modernization and progress? What are the ambivalences and tensions that arise when Dubayyans invoke the city-corporation as an aspiration?" What are the answers that his essay provides? In your view, does he answer these questions with adequate evidence?

5. What are some of the ways in which the 'neoliberal city-corporation' impinges upon understandings and practices of gender and sexuality in contemporary Dubai?

6. After viewing the video, "Dubai, Inc." (embedded above in the Multimedia Links), compare and contrast the views of Dubai offered there with those provided by Kanna. How does Kanna's argument affirm or challenge the views offered in the video?

7. Throughout the essay, Kanna makes suggestions about the political climate of Dubai. Based upon his argument, how would you characterize the 'objective structure of power in Dubai'?Writing Assignment: Reflect upon the author's argument that an anthropology of neoliberalism, in order to be productive, should focus on both local structures of meaning and symbolic contexts as well as the everyday ways people cultivate selves and subjectivities. With Kanna's outline of neoliberalism in mind, write a mini-ethnographic project of your community using Kanna's directives as guidelines.

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