Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora by Neha Vora

Caroline Osella considers a slice of the subcontinent at the heart of the Gulf

July 11, 2013

“Gulf studies” is still an emergent field, but its academic literature already mimics popular media in the recurrent frames it uses to depict Dubai: an empty, glittering non-place; a space of exception and utter singularity; an oil-boom state fabricated from nowhere; a nation of Middle Eastern citizens pacified by a rentier state and insulated from an army of temporary migrant workers; an economy in which singularly precarious incomers cluster around labour camps and domestic service. As such, Dubai comes already set up, with the terms for analysis being less than subtly forced upon us.

Neha Vora resists easy recourse to these clichés as she considers the Indian communities who - for more than a century - have done business, settled, worked, married and made friends, enemies and business associates around the region. More than a century: this is a point worth dwelling on for a moment, because it alerts us to Dubai’s embedded cosmopolitanism and to the backstory that has played out around the Indian Ocean region for as long as people have built boats and engaged in trade, long before the colonial “trucial states” period. And as Indian residents commonly claim, there is a sense in which Dubai belongs to them, as those who built it and live in it.

As Indian residents commonly claim, there is a sense in which Dubai belongs to them, as those who built it and live in it

Our most pervasive representations of Dubai are sustainable only by overlooking its long-standing Indian-run gold business, the vast number of middle-class Indians engaged in technical or professional jobs there, and the second- and third-generation Gulf youngsters of Indian origin who are now studying at global campuses in the region. For this study, Vora conducted intensive ethnographic fieldwork with long-settled groups and families, and complicates our Dubai story by bringing in theirs. Whole neighbourhoods have, from the outset, been Indian - ones in which Indian commodities, currencies and practices are all utterly familiar. The density of Indians’ presence in the state’s streets, public services and workforce is such that, as Vora observes, “Dubai is experienced as an extension of the subcontinent for all residents of the city”. South Asia and West Asia are mutually implicated to the extent that massive state effort is required to purge Indians’ presence in order to present an image of an “Emirati” nation and citizenry. That purging is only partially successful.

Vora’s book is not merely an interesting narrative; it is also theoretically sophisticated, working through the Dubai case to argue an urgent need for questioning several core analytic concepts. It is impossible here to engage with all the ways in which she challenges us: she confidently ranges around questions of citizenship, migrancy and governmentality - including taxation and welfare - and deftly demonstrates how academic and popular discourse alike fail to disengage from the “imperial genealogies” of their own epistemologies.

A key argument, developed throughout and with attention to detail across several empirical spheres, is that the United Arab Emirates is not at all exceptional, but exemplifies contemporary practices of “deploying multiple logics of governance…as a means to interpellate several groups of differently positioned subjects”. As might be expected in a book about migrants, Vora explores plural forms of belonging but also - radically and unexpectedly - argues for plural forms of citizenship, in a nuanced and well-built set of linked arguments that unravel sociology’s and political theory’s provincialism.

Accordingly, this book deserves a readership beyond its obvious regional constituencies. Anyone thinking about state, citizenship, migration, rights or contemporary economies, or about the intellectual and political work that we do when we delineate and separate analytic domains, prising them from the flow of daily relations and transactions that form social life, will find much here.

The only discordant notes are a degree of re-rehearsal of arguments and a few bibliographic holes: more Indian Ocean studies work would have strengthened Vora’s case and deepened the book’s historical texture.

Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora

By Neha Vora
Duke University Press, 264pp, £70.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780822353782 and 53935
Published 14 May 2013

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