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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula

[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]

(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally? 

I must say at the beginning that I will have to restrict my comments to the Gulf Arab countries, especially Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with which I have the most lived and research experience. I am pleased to note that my colleague and friend John Willis is also participating in the roundtable, and I will leave it to him, with his deep knowledge of Yemen, to comment on that country.  

With respect to the Gulf, the oil and security paradigm is perhaps the dominant narrative in research. This paradigm has tended to reinforce the naturalness of the domination of Western oil consumer nations and of local political dynasties, represented as “wise stewards” of the national wealth. This is underpinned by an imagined geography that regionalizes cultures in a particular way: the “Gulf” becomes, in effect, a bounded cultural zone in which questions of history—in the sense of contestation and struggle over how to delimit basic political rights and goods—and questions of cultural politics—those related to who can speak for whom in a national or cultural sense—evaporate. 

I think, by the way, that Toby Jones is correct in opening his comments by asking, provocatively, whether the “Arabian Peninsula” even exists. Work in human geography (e.g., the metageogapher J.B. Harly’s writing on deconstructing the map, as well as the work of Kären Wigen and Martin Lewis on the “myth of continents,” who based their insights on Edward Said’s notion of imaginative geography) is particularly germane here. We must, as J.B. Harly teaches, attend to the ways that concrete and even prosaic technologies and techniques of representation channel our spatial imaginations in common-sensical and clichéd directions, regionalizing and culturalizing diverse spatio-cultural realities in particular ways. Maps, for example, are technologies that not only imply the uses to which they are put (such as navigation or tracking resources). They often significantly distort, in ways beyond the distortion intrinsic to all cartography, territorial and cultural realities that might be entirely the opposite of what is being represented. Nation-state maps are a case in point: they carve up the world into seemingly sovereign and autonomous units that bound the cultures that inhabit those units. But what is sovereignty actually when you have the world’s superpower claiming exceptional rights to intervene willy-nilly wherever it wants to? John Willis raises this issue in relation to Yemen, and it also resonates with both Neha Vora’s and Madawi Al-Rasheed’s critiques of the rentier state as an analytic frame to which we too casually resort. What is the “nation” and what, therefore, are politics when the national cartography departs radically from the multinational population?  

Another common approach, it must be said, is the “foreign workers as slaves” narrative, which I find intellectually lazy and unwittingly depoliticizing both of laborers and labor employers. I hasten to add that I would obviously not replace this with another common narrative, which represents foreign workers as “rational actors.” I think both are extreme oversimplifications. In short, there needs to be more emphasis on history as process and contestation, and on politicizing historical, cultural, and what Henri Lefebvre would call spatial framings vis-à-vis the Gulf. 

As to the more specific question relating to difficulties in conducting research: in some ways, the Gulf—or maybe the United Arab Emirates in particular—is not a difficult place to do research in, relative to many other places that anthropologists go. I mean this in a prosaic sense. The infrastructures of the United Arab Emirates, for example, are good. It is a comfortable place (for a Westerner), and the Emiratis, South Asians, Westerners, and non-Emirati Arabs with whom I worked were generally very decent, generous people. One cannot, however, forget that for other, differently situated and bodied subjects—non-Western expatriates, especially non-Western women, working-class subjects, etc.—movement and access to these basic infrastructures is much more difficult, and surveillance is much more invasive. This can be seen from one’s initial arrival at Dubai airport, for example, when passport holders from the United States and Europe are separated from others, and the two groups sifted into differently privileged, variously invasive passport checks.     

More interestingly, and perhaps more importantly, there are other, more subtle, difficulties in the arena of knowledge production. For example, one reviewer of my book Dubai, The City as Corporation, correctly and insightfully noted that I tried to make a virtue of what Madawi Al- Rasheed in this roundtable refers to as the gate-keeping that goes on all over the place in Gulf Arab countries. Dubai, where I did most of my research (but I have also found Bahrain and Kuwait, with which I have some experience, similar) is an astonishingly managed and mediated society. There is—from my own subjective experience—a stifling atmosphere of capitalist/consumer law and order. A disproportionate number of my meetings occurred in corporate offices. Conversations often bled into corporate public relations or public relations for the Emirate of Dubai (by people who were not necessarily connected to the particular company in which I was interested). As Al-Rasheed says, “studying countries in the Arabian Peninsula remains mediated by gatekeepers whose interest lies in maintaining the image of stability, affluence, and security.” Another good example of how this affects knowledge production can be seen in my own sub-discipline of urban studies, where there has been, over the past decade or so, a consistent emphasis on a particular image of the “Gulf city.” This image, produced by a collaborative formation of Gulf and pan-Arab academic expertise, Western academic expertise, and Gulf oil money, is constructed around notions of Gulf urbanism as modern, culturally diverse and tolerant, and a “model” for global urbanism (in Dubai, it was called “mithal Dubai” or “the Dubai model”). In my current work, I am becoming increasingly interested in how this mediation operates. What is meant by “the city” in discourses on urbanism in Gulf Arab states, what work does this discourse do, how does it organize specific kinds of common sense about what the “city” is, and how does this common sense relate to power dynamics within and without the Gulf? 

(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches?  How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches? 

I like the recent emphasis on studying the Arabian Peninsula as a region—or better, a regionalized object of knowledge—and also as a place produced at the intersection of geopolitics and local politics, of local, national, and transnational processes. As exemplified by the work both of John Willis and Isa Blumi on Yemen, the more exciting recent scholarship proposes fresh questions of sovereignty and the related issues of space and its production, which I think can contribute to conversations in Middle East studies, politics and political theory, and anthropology in new ways. I think that sense of conceptual excitement comes through in my own book on Dubai, which is particularly indebted to Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the production of space, especially how space is a dynamic, contested palimpsest, as it were, produced in ongoing struggles over the meaning of modernity and political participation. There are other people who are similarly drawing on their detailed work in the Arabian Peninsula to ask more ambitious theoretical questions: Attiya Ahmad on cosmopolitanism and Islam; Toby Jones on the techno-politics of water and oil; Adam Hanieh on transregional and transnational networks of class and capital in which the Gulf plays a central role; James Onley on the mediating structures of empire; Fahad Bishara on trans-Indian Ocean processes of land tenure; and Neha Vora on citizenship and biopolitics.  

I think a lot of this work owes a great debt to two major scholars: Robert Vitalis and Timothy Mitchell. Reading Vitalis’s America’s Kingdom just after it came out in 2007 was a major breakthrough for me. In particular, Vitalis updates Fred Halliday’s equally path-breaking insights of a generation earlier in Arabia Without Sultans. Halliday’s text was particularly good at Marxian structural analysis, showing the formation and regionalization of the modern Gulf as a resource-supplying periphery of the dominant Western core. Vitalis takes this a step further, or deeper, by juxtaposing a Marxian inspired structural analysis to a discursive framing that accommodates negotiation and contestation of meaning, an approach in which Halliday was not that interested. Vitalis takes as his case study ARAMCO, its policies, and its involvement both in US imperial politics and in Saudi politics. But more than this, we see actual spaces—the ARAMCO extraction enclave—and class-formations taking shape in very material contestations over the contours and meanings of emergent arenas of Saudi life in the 1930s and 1940s, such as rewarding labor, political representation, elite accountability, and inclusivity. What is astonishing is that this polity and society, which appears to outsiders as monolithic and inflexibly, culturally fundamentalist, is far more complicated. The Arabia of Al Saud, the odious Wahhabis, and the morality police was made. It is a political project of imperial interests and local dynastic ones, which through force marginalized and liquidated its many opponents, including modernizing reformists and labor activists, among others. 

Vitalis’s work, moreover, profoundly challenges the “incarcerating,” monochromatic cultural and national geographies through which the region has tended to be interpreted. He both digs into the micropolitics of ARAMCO and situates it in a much larger, global setting. The latter is one in which US extraction firms are progressively finding new extraction frontiers, from the southern United States, to Mexico and Venezuela, to Saudi Arabia. The parallels—such as racist spatial and labor practices—between these extraction zones are astonishing. 

Mitchell’s work, especially his most recent book, Carbon Democracy, also suggests new approaches. The text critiques assumptions about the relationship between carbon extraction and democracy. Mitchell’s is a sophisticated approach, so I cannot do it justice here. Basically, though, he examines and shows the oversimplifying nature of two assumptions: (1) that oil causes a “democratic deficit” in oil-rich countries; and (2) the related assumption that democratic movements start in the heads of enlightened elites and trickle down to the masses. By focusing on what he calls the “socio-technical,” Mitchell shows how democratization—which he defines (and here, I paraphrase) as the inclusive participation of people in the governing of their lives—depends not only, or simply, on intellectual breakthroughs, but rather on technical, geographic, and geological conditions. He also shows that these conditions come together at particular historical moments to enable actors to press demands and projects for democracy. Borrowing from Veblen’s notion of “sabotage” as a central mechanism of corporate capitalism, Mitchell tells a tale of how the increasing dependency on carbon during and after industrialization created new conditions for worker democracy and contestations over how to delimit the scope of democracy, over the past century and a half as the global economy has become a carbon economy. Along with America’s Kingdom, Carbon Democracy is a must-read for anyone interested in the Gulf. 

(3) “Sectarianism” seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of “sectarianism” as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created?  

As Toby Jones notes, sectarianism matters and—while we should always approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism—we should not dismiss its impact on lived realities in the region. As several of the contributors to this roundtable correctly point out, we must historicize the issue of sectarianism, paying attention to the genealogy of sect from the colonial encounter with Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire, upon whose categorizations of sect British, French and, later, US imperial interventions developed similar, albeit more reductive and simplistic, categorizations. Among other things, as is evident from the discussion in this roundtable, we should always question, rather than assume, the category of sect. For example, how does sect become a means for asserting economic and political interests and rights, how does it shift along and in tune with evolving alignments of political economy? To take the example of Iraq—not in the Arabian Peninsula, technically, but highly relevant—we see over the last ten years the effects of US intervention in the arena of sect. The Americans did not fabricate the Shi‘i-Sunni division. It has been there for centuries, more or less relevant to and visible in people’s lives depending on the historical context. But the Americans applied a particularly obtuse conceptual and geographical mapping of sect onto a more fluid reality, and in doing so, triggered intense rivalries over political and economic resources increasingly understood by actors on the ground as primarily “sectarian” in nature. So we should avoid being obtuse American imperialists (always good advice in my opinion!) and subject sect to contextual, genealogical, and historical critique. 

(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?

As in other parts of the so-called Global South, there is an enormous power differential between the United States and Western Europe, on the one side, and the Gulf Arab states on the other. This is compounded by the fact that the Gulf has historically been a periphery within a periphery: the larger Middle East and Indian Ocean worlds. So even in the Middle East and South Asia contexts, work produced in the Gulf tends to be marginalized.

Moreover, the kind of social scientific research that gets produced in the region tends, unsurprisingly, to be apolitical or to deal with safe political issues. Because my research topic was on urbanism, my main access to locally produced social scientific knowledge was in the urban studies and planning academic context, such as conferences and lectures organized by local universities or research initiatives in Dubai, Sharjah, and to some extent Bahrain. Most of this scholarship was of an apolitical, technical nature, avoiding for understandable reasons issues such as contestation in/of the city, the process of who decides what to build or any critical analysis of this, and any serious, critical history of urbanism in the region.   

There are, however, a number of important and interesting scholars who are from the region but who have trained in Europe or North America, who produce work at the intersection of the two regions, talking to both Western and Arab audiences. The work, respectively, of Madawi Al-Rasheed and Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqib is essential reading. Abdul Khaleq Abdulla’s early work is also important. There is a rising generation of absolutely tremendous scholars who, assuming that stars of the academic labor market align in their favor, should become leading scholars on the region in the future. I am thinking of people like Noora Lori and Ahmed al-Dailami from Bahrain, Farah Al Naqib and Fahad Bishara from Kuwait, and others. There are also some excellent blogs from the region, for example, Religion and Politics in Bahrain

Because of the way that the Gulf has urbanized, with splashy architectural projects forming an important part of this phenomenon, I think it is interesting to regard local architects as intellectuals of a Gramscian “organic” kind. That is, as organic intellectuals in relation to one or another of the diverse formations within Gulf societies. In the field of architecture, different narratives and, if one can go so far as to say so, ideological positions, are fought out vis-à-vis questions of dynastic rule, “tradition,” “modernities” etc. One example is Dubai’s DXB lab, headed by an (aesthetically if not politically) quite radical architect named Khaled al-Najjar, who views his work as both a critique of, and a recreation of, authentic Emirati, specifically Dubai, identity. 

(5) Some argue that the Arab uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?

As a number of roundtable commentators note, maybe the most important change (from the perspective of scholarship) is that the Arabian Peninsula is no longer as marginal as it once was in Middle Eastern studies. Moreover, the uprisings, especially in Bahrain (but also the reactionary counterrevolutions under way from Oman to Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates and of course Bahrain as well) certainly draw our attention to the aforementioned gate-keeping mechanisms by which a certain image of stability and affluence is maintained. But, as Walter Benjamin said, every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism. The flipside of this gate-keeping is violence, often sectarian in nature, which can be seen in Bahrain’s militarized response to protests, imprisonment of doctors and dissident intellectuals, and destruction of Shi‘i shrines and mosques; in the United Arab Emirates’ harassment and arrest of even the most mild regime critics and its passing of a law criminalizing dissent; and in state violence directed at dissenters all over the Peninsula. Yemen is particularly instructive in the way that it has carefully aligned regime violence against perceived opponents with Washington’s terror war. Additionally, as Neha Vora discusses, the uprisings are an opportunity to expand our definition of what “protests” and “the political” are, thus incorporating non-state-recognitive kinds of politics (e.g., foreign worker strikes) into a more complex map of the political in the Arabian Peninsula. I see the skeptical, historicizing kinds of analysis we have been advocating in this roundtable, therefore, as a small part of a larger project to make connections, between knowledge production and power, cartographies of culture and identity, and imperial processes, such as the war on terror, which continue to impact the peninsula.


Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula
electronic roundtable contributions:

Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.

Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.

Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.

Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz. 

Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.

Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.

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