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Unofficial Citizens: Indian Entrepreneurs and the State-Effect in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 May 2011

Neha Vora
Texas A&M University


Building upon theories of the state as an “effect” of multiple, sometimes contradictory practices and narratives, I argue that Indian business elites in Dubai play an important role in both bounding the state as distinct from the economy and legitimizing its power. I focus, therefore, on the forms of citizenship and subjectivity that are being produced in Dubai and how the legitimacy of the state relies not just on the recruitment of citizen subjects, but also on those who are excluded from belonging—like Indian elites in Dubai. Neoliberal narratives and practices of economic “freedom” by elite expatriates mask the ways in which foreign elites are complicit with the state in producing social and economic hierarchies that benefit both citizens and elite expatriates while maintaining a structure of labor migration that significantly disadvantages the majority of foreign residents living in the United Arab Emirates.

Migrant Workers in the Middle East
Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2011

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1. My position as an American researcher right after the Dubai Ports controversy in early 2006 might have contributed toward a feeling among businessmen that they needed to defend the emirate against charges of it being restrictive.

2. For more on nonelite experiences of Indians in Dubai, see Ali, Syed, Dubai: Gilded Cage (London and New Haven, 2010)Google Scholar; Leonard, Karen, “South Asian Workers in the Gulf: Jockeying for Places,” in Globalization Under Construction, ed. Perry, R. W. and Maurer, B. (Minneapolis and London, 2003)Google Scholar; Khalaf, Sulayman and Kobaisi, Saad Al, “Migrants' Strategies of Coping and Patterns of Accommodation in the Oil-Rich Gulf Societies: Evidence from the UAE,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26 (1999): 271–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vora, Neha, “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in Dubai,” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2008), 377406CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vora, Neha, “The Precarious Existence of Dubai's Indian Middle-Class,” Middle East Report 252 (2009): 1821Google Scholar.

3. This research is based on fourteen months of fieldwork in Dubai, conducted mostly in 2006. In addition to participant observation, I conducted semi-structured interviews with forty-nine informants in Dubai's business community. I also made a short field trip to Mumbai, India, to visit Indian branches of some of my informants' companies and to interview several key transnational Indian business people in that city about their relationship to Dubai.

4. However, economic liberalization projects are not uncommon to countries with repressive or authoritarian regimes. See for example Aihwa Ong's work on Singapore. Ong, Aihwa, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovreignty (Durham and London, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The conjunction of neoliberalism with non-democratic states does continue, despite scholarly work to the contrary, to be exceptionalized within media portrayals of places like Dubai.

5. Several theorists have noted difficulties in studying “the state” because, rather than being a material reality, it is an abstraction. Philip Abrams, for example, argues that the state is an ideological belief and that academics who study it both take it for granted and legitimize it. It remains, however, largely undiscovered in the literature and is instead an effect of the scholarship itself. Abrams, Philip, “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State,” Journal of Historical Sociology 1 (1988): 5889CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Similarly, David Nugent argues that the “state” cannot be extracted from its context by exploring how state formation in Peru relies upon particular conditions of possibility in which people need to be continuously convinced that the state is indeed unified and autonomous. Nugent, David, “Governing States,” in A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, ed. Nugent, D. and Vincent, J. (Oxford, 2004)Google Scholar. And, in the case of India, Akhil Gupta has argued that discourse—mostly rumors and gossip—is integral to the production of the Indian state. Gupta, Akhil, “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State,” American Ethnologist 22 (1995), 375402CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Here, I draw upon Abrams's as well as Mitchell's definitions of the “state-effect” in order to consider the state (as well as the economy) not as unified bounded entities but as effects produced through the convergence of various discourses, actors, and practices. Mitchell, Timothy, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” The American Political Science Review 85 (1991): 7796Google Scholar; Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, 2002)Google Scholar. I argue that it is not only the assumption of entities called “the state” and “the economy” in scholarship that produce the effects of these domains, but also the daily practices and speech of both those who are construed as insiders and outsiders to the nation.

6. Al-Rasheed, Madawi, ed., Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf (London, 2005)Google Scholar; Davis, Eric and Gavrielides, Nicolas, eds., Statecraft in the Middle East: Oil, Historical Memory, and Popular Culture (Miami, 1991)Google Scholar.

7. Al-Naqeeb, Khaldoun Hasan, Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula (London and New York, 1990)Google Scholar.

8. N. Janardhan, “Redefining the Rules of Engagement for Expatriates in the GCC Countries,” paper presented at The Global Gulf conference, University of Exeter, July 4–6, 2006. The UAE conducted its first organized general census in 2005, which determined UAE nationals to make up about twenty percent of the population. However, the state has avoided collecting census data in the past because of the large demographic imbalance between foreigners and nationals, and state accounts of the percentage of nationals in the UAE always run much higher than external estimates.

9. A copy of this speech, delivered on February 3, 2007, is available through the Dubai government website: <>.

10. See, for example, Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 13 (2000), 291343CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ong, Aihwa, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham and London, 1999)Google Scholar; Sassen, Saskia, “Beyond Sovereignty: De Facto Transnationalism in Immigration Policy,” in Worlds on the Move: Globalization, Migration, and Cultural Security, ed. Friedmann, J. and Randeria, S. (London, 2004)Google Scholar.

11. Comaroff and Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism,” 333.

12. Dresch, Paul, “Debates on Marriage and Nationality in the United Arab Emirates,” in Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf, ed. Dresch, P. and Piscatori, J. (London, 2005)Google Scholar.

13. For more on substantive citizenship, see Nina Glick-Schiller and Georges Fouron, Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long–Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home (Durham and London, 2001).

14. Aldrich, Howard and Waldinger, Roger, “Ethnicity and Entrepreneurship,” Annual Review of Sociology 16 (1990), 111–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Light, Ivan and Bhachu, Parminder, eds., Immigration and Entrepreneurship: Culture, Capital, and Ethnic Networks (New Brunswick and London, 1993)Google Scholar; Zhou, Min, “Revisiting Ethnic Entrepreneurship: Convergencies, Controversies, and Conceptual Advancements,” International Migration Review 38:3 (2004): 1040–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15. Bhattacharjee, Anannya, “The Habit of Ex-Nomination: Nation, Woman, and the Indian Immigrant Bourgeoisie,” in Emerging Voices: South Asian Women Redefine Self, Family, and Community, ed. Gupta, S. R. (Walnut Creek, CA, 1999)Google Scholar; Gopinath, Gayatri, “Bombay, UK, Yuba City: Bhangra Music and the Engendering of Diaspora,” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 4 (1995): 303–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Grewal, Inderpal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (Durham and London, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. Harriss-White, Barbara, India Working: Essays on Society and Economy (Cambridge, 2003), 78Google Scholar.

18. Basile, E. and Harriss-White, B., “The Politics of Accumulation in Small Town India,” Bulletin of the Institute of Development Studies 30 (1999): 31–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Howard, J.Jones, M., “Jain Shopkeepers and Moneylenders: Rural Informal Credit Networks in South Rajasthan,” in The Assembly of Listeners: Jains in Society, ed. Carrithers, Michael and Humphrey, Caroline (Cambridge, UK, 1991)Google Scholar; Smith, Sheila, “Fortune and Failure: The Survival of Family Firms in Eighteenth Century India,” in Jones, Geoffrey and Rose, Mary B., eds., Family Capitalism (London, 1993), 4465Google Scholar.

19. Willoughby estimates that based on 1.276 million Indian workers entering the Gulf in 1998, “the total amount of rent extracted that year from these workers would have been $1,741,740,000.” John Willoughby, “Ambivalent Anxieties of the South Asian-Gulf Labor Exchange,” American University Department of Economics Working Paper Series 24 (2005).

20. Almost none of my informants who owned factories or housed their own employees would provide me with access to these spaces. One businessman did invite me to visit his factory in Sharjah, a neighboring emirate. His workers were housed at the factory in small dormitory rooms with bunk beds. Four to six men shared one room. They were provided meals in a canteen, and they had to shower outdoors. This is an example of good housing conditions for laborers in the Gulf, for my informant was happy to show me how well he took care of his workers. Reports in local newspapers while I was in Dubai gave examples of many more men to a room, and in one case, a worker's camp where people had been living without running water and electricity for over a month.