EVERY YEAR IN DUBAI, the local French community holds a dîner en blanc, a “white dinner,” in a prestigious venue that is kept secret until the day before. The guests must come dressed in white and bring white food to share. Although the idea for this white dinner came from a similar event held in Paris, it takes on a special significance within the context of Dubai. Historically, the white clothing worn by settlers in certain colonies served as a status marker in that it distanced them from dirty work.1 In the Emirates today, as in other Gulf States, it is the male nationals who dress in white. At the Dubai white dinner, most guests, though not all, are fair-skinned, and all belong to a hand-picked elite. On this occasion, the sophistication so often ascribed to them is on full display.
At the heart of major financial, commercial, and migratory networks, the city-emirate of Dubai, 90 percent of whose inhabitants are not of Emirati nationality, is a strategic site of inquiry into reconfigurations of social hierarchy at a global scale. Its labor laws are tailored to neoliberal ideology: the state has deregulated trade and created free zones, while at the same time maintaining control over the country’s resources, population, and sovereignty.2 My book takes a close look at this hub city of postcolonial globalization, with a focus on the transformations of Western hegemony and whiteness through the experiences and trajectories of residents holding so-called Western passports, who typically occupy socially advantageous positions.
The expression Western passport might seem surprising. The West is not a country. And yet, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split at the global level. It can take a variety of forms, which is why a scaled study of an urban society like Dubai is of such interest. People there use the term “Western passport” as a matter of course, for it refers to a difference in status. A Western passport allows access to considerable advantages. It facilitates passage across national borders and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalized job market. Constructed by these advantages, the status of Westerner is also invested with meaning both by those who relate to it and by those who use the term to describe others. In Dubai, Westerners constitute a social group designated as such, whose members share the experience of being structurally privileged. Their advantageous position is often deemed legitimate not only by the group itself but also by some of those who are not included. The job market is heavily segmented among nationalities, often grouped into larger entities with fluid boundaries: people in Dubai routinely talk about “Westerners,” “Arabs,” and “Asians.” Western thus constitutes a local category constructed by structural advantages and representations, but it is also an unstable one, in part because a portion of Dubai’s upper-class inhabitants have two nationalities, one of which is Western.
In this book, I will be suggesting that we think about how Westerners are constructed as a dominant group in Dubai from a feminist postcolonial perspective that will attend to both professional practices and intimate settings. This approach allows me to highlight transformations and reproduction of hierarchies that interlock race, nationality, gender, and sexuality. Building on numerous works in the social sciences, I will be considering race as a social construct achieved through a process of categorization, ranking, and othering based on characteristics perceived as natural or inherited. This construct varies depending upon sociohistorical configurations, and it delineates categories and groups whose boundaries are unstable and blurred. The construct of Westerners in Dubai points to transformations of race, class, and nationality as social hierarchies that extend beyond the city. In the former British protectorate, now a “city-corporation,”3 Westernness and whiteness have become selling points for the brand of Dubai as a crossroads of globalization. This configuration produces particular forms of racialization, involving both advantages and stereotypes with regard to persons perceived as white and/or Western.
The term Western continues to be used in some social science circles as a self-evident category. Countless studies speak of “Western democracies” or “Western societies” without questioning this partitioning of the world. Others demarcate the West as a very special zone about which one might easily generalize. However, the use of the term Western is by no means innocuous. The creation of the West as a thought category is linked to colonial history and to the determination of an Other, the East, or, more recently, the Third World.4 The persistent, routine use of the West as a category indicates the power of a colonial worldview that occludes the analysis of social hierarchies on a transnational or global scale. As Stuart Hall has pointed out, the West is a fungible term: it designates a category of country, an imaginary, a standard, a criterion for evaluating other societies, and therefore, an ideology. For this author, “if we use the discourse of ‘the West and the Rest,’ we will necessarily find ourselves speaking from a position that holds that the West is a superior civilization.”5 In a historical essay published in 2003 dealing with the notion of the West, Sophie Bessis analyzes the way in which, over the past five centuries, the West has been fantasized as a distinct and superior civilization, whose lineage has been reconstructed as descending directly from Greek and Latin culture. This reading implies the foreclosure of non-Christian sources, eclipsing a whole history of circulation across the shores of the Mediterranean. This long history results in “a shared Western tradition of viewing the Other with a sense of superiority [that] seems to transcend the particular national heritages and specific colonial cultures,” according to the introduction to a journal issue devoted to postcolonial approaches to expatriation.6
Although the notion of the West has been questioned by authors interested in its historic construction and its discursive dimension,7 few sociological studies have contextualized its use.8 It was after sketching out my thoughts on this subject in Saudi Arabia9 that I traveled to Dubai for the first time in 2012. The word Western, in Riyadh as in Dubai, is used routinely and refers to a social group. Using the tools of sociology, my purpose here is to study the way this structurally privileged group has formed by analyzing which advantages and identifications have constructed the status of Westerner in a formerly colonized city and how this status intersects with positions of class, gender, race, and, in particular, whiteness.
I will approach the subject from a postcolonial perspective, in the sense of an epistemological break (not of periodization), as defined by Sara Ahmed10: it is about rethinking how colonialism, at various periods, permeated
all aspects of social life, in the colonized and colonizing nations. It is hence about the complexity of the relationship between the past and present, between the histories of European colonization and contemporary forms of globalization. That complexity cannot be reduced by either a notion that the present has broken from the past (a narrative that assumes that decolonization meant the end of colonialism) or that the present is simply continuous with the past (a narrative that assumes colonialism is a trans-historical phenomenon that is not affected by local contexts or other forms of social change).
The Gulf countries have only recently been addressed from that angle: in that regard, this book falls within the scope of what might be termed a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula. In the region, the issue of imperialism had for a long while been underestimated, even unaddressed.11 Yet, some of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries were first of all British protectorates. The territories that today make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the federal state to which Dubai belongs, became independent only in 1971, making their colonial past a relatively recent one. Independence failed to bring about a change in leadership: the same ruling families remained in power, at the head of more or less repressive regimes, all allied with the former colonial power and, more broadly, with Europe and North America. For several decades, the Gulf has been a hub where goods, people, and capital circulate, and it represents a key for understanding the modalities of current economic globalization.12 Rather than a phantasmagorical stage of hyper-capitalism, an embodiment of the worst possible future scenario,13 urban Dubai society, singular but in no way exceptional, is shaped by non-egalitarian flows very much in step with today’s globalized world. It represents a trade hub and production center where highly qualified personnel mingle with the far vaster numbers of those who serve them.14 Dubai is perpetually under construction, a boom city that the soaring oil revenues of the 1970s in the region dramatically transformed. Since then, the government has adopted a strategy of economic diversification. The city has been built and expanded by hundreds of thousands of workers, notably from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, a trend that continues to this day. The vast majority of the population is foreign, a result not only of migratory flows but also of the difficulty, or for some, the impossibility of obtaining Emirati nationality, including those who were born in Dubai and have lived there for their entire lives. In this context, the passport, beyond separating national from nonnational, plays a key role when it comes to social hierarchies and racialization. The social structure of Dubai cannot be understood unless one takes into account the hierarchy of passports and its link to coloniality, understood as the hierarchy among various zones in the world directly resulting from colonization.15 The construction of skills as something typically Western has everything to do with coloniality.
Interesting in and of itself, the case of Dubai also serves as an eye-opening microcosm of the staggering inequality of work conditions across the globe. As I was able to observe throughout my investigation, it is a prime location for people to take stock of their place in society and the world: since the vast majority have to leave their home countries to come work in Dubai, they are likely to denature the social order of this high-turnover city, while at the same time seeking to differentiate themselves from it—I shall come back to that point. I am interested here not only in the advantageous construction of Western status but also in the way those who benefit from it experience the change of social status subsequent to their move to Dubai as compared with their previous position. I see this status as multidimensional: the issue of class overlaps with nation and race in a world marked by coloniality, as well as with gender in a world where distinction and hierarchy among men and women are so pervasive. The adjective social refers here to the entanglement of all these dimensions and cannot be reduced to class alone.
1. Stoler (2002) 2013.
2. Ong 1999: 21.
3. Kanna 2011.
4. Said (1978) 2003; Said 2000; Mohanty 1984.
5. Hall 1996: 186.
6. Fechter and Walsh 2010: 1200.
7. See also Patterson 1997.
8. Fechter and Walsh 2010.
9. Le Renard 2014a; Le Renard 2019.
10. Ahmed 2000: 11.
11. Hanieh 2011; Kanna 2014.
12. Hanieh 2011.
13. Davis 2007.
14. Sassen 1998.
15. Mignolo 2001; Mignolo 2012.