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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption

[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?

Some of the dominant approaches that I try to complicate in my work are of the rentier state as a form of governance and economy that is supposedly distinct from and incommensurable with liberal democracy, and the linking of Gulf migration with oil discovery. I think that both of these approaches produce certain ideas about belonging that elide longer histories of cosmopolitanism and migration in the region, and also produce Gulf city-states (and in particular I am thinking about Dubai and Qatar here) as exceptional. I remember when I was beginning my fieldwork in Dubai in 2004-2006, Dubai was becoming very prominent in the international media for both its grand development projects and for labor exploitation. I lived in Southern California at the time, a place that in many ways mirrors the “ethnocratic” society of the Gulf that Anh Nga Longva discusses so well in her work on Kuwait: scores of “rightless” Mexican migrant laborers, highly segregated urban and suburban geographies of shopping malls and gated communities, and a culture of excessive consumption by tourists and wealthy residents. But there was no room to make this comparison between Dubai and Southern California, and when I did, many colleagues quickly dismissed it. Somehow, Dubai was worse, different, and exceptional due to its authoritarian government, oil, and Human Rights Watch and other reports. In my work, I try to highlight that illiberal forms of governance also exist in Western democracies just as liberal and neoliberal logics circulate and regulate daily life in the Gulf context. This also allows us to see interconnectivity, the impacts of here on there (here, I am thinking of the great new book by Tim Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, as well as Vitalis’s work on American Jim Crow policies in Saudi Arabia).

In terms of difficulties in carrying out research, I see this not as a problem of academic freedom first and foremost, though that is of course a concern, but of this interconnectivity and how it drives knowledge production. As a supposed “backwater” of British Empire, and as a periphery in many ways to US Cold War politics and research funding, there just wasn’t an established canon of work on the Gulf region to engage, nor were there networks in place that facilitated the research encounter. In addition, as I think the responses to the roundtable questions by each of us highlight, we have very specific country- and discipline-based approaches to our topics that do not always speak to each other. This is partly because they have developed more through non-Arabian Peninsula specific interlocutors than through engagement with a “canon” of Arabian Peninsula Studies. Only recently have I seen more concerted efforts by scholars (myself included) to think beyond citizen/noncitizen dichotomies, for example, or to include questions of state/political economy alongside questions of urban belonging/production of space. These issues I think are also being circumvented to some degree by the influx of Western institutions into the Gulf and by Gulf countries’ investment in the “knowledge economy” as a form of development—there are initiatives in place to foster more robust research on the Gulf from many places. However, as we can see from the recent cancellation of a conference on the Arab uprisings in Dubai, and the detention of sociologist Syed Ali in 2006 (which happened during my own fieldwork time in the emirate), along with several other examples, academic freedom concerns are legitimate. However, I am wary of using them to further exceptionalize Gulf states, for I have to say, having taught in several US contexts and in Qatar, my fear of discussing certain topics—such as Islamophobia, white privilege, and Palestine—and my practices of self-censorship in Texas were much higher than they were at Texas A&M University at Qatar. This is something I hope readers will keep in mind and take seriously.

(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?

When I was on the job market for the first time, I got a lot of questions about why I was not: (1) Studying Gulf Arabs or (2), Studying labor camps. It really seemed that Dubai was only legible through these two groups, one considered to belong within increasing marginalization and the other considered to be a temporary exploited/subaltern class that was there solely for economic reasons. I found myself incredibly frustrated by these questions, because one would not ask similar questions about a project on studying middle-class Indians in New York, for example: why am I not studying white people, or why am I not studying undocumented migrants, the homeless, etc. There are so many assumptions people make about the Gulf, namely, that belonging is solely autochthonous, that an Arab context will be more repressive and exploitative than a Western one, and that migrants cannot belong outside the economy. I think these are easily dispelled by immersing oneself in the complexity of daily life there. Adam Hanieh brings up some of the problems with these assumptions in his comments, particularly with the lack of focus on migrant presence in much of the work on Gulf politics, I have always found this to be so unfathomable as an anthropologist, that one can write about the Gulf and leave out the vast majority of the population. Further compounding that, when researchers want to focus on migrants, both funding agencies and our own academic “home spaces” do not consider the research topic “authentic” enough. I think anthropology has a great role, as a discipline that relays everyday experience, in dissipating these assumptions. First, Sharon Nagy’s work on Qatar and Bahrain is seminal in this regard. She refers not to migrants but to “foreign residents,” allowing us to conceptualize residency, urban citizenship, and belonging, not just economics in our inquiry on Gulf migration. Anh Nga Longva’s work is also very useful here, and newer anthropological work on the Gulf that brings citizens and foreign residents into the same frame is very promising. I am thinking especially here of Attiya Ahmad’s brilliant piece, “Beyond Labor,” in a recent volume on Gulf migration that came out of Georgetown University in Qatar, and also Ahmed Kanna’s piece on migrant worker protests in relation to the Arab uprisings. Additionally, the field of Indian Ocean studies, and the move to think about oceans as areas of study in geography, history, and other disciplines, has been very useful in tracing these longer histories of migration and exchange around the Gulf, histories that do not hinge on oil as the primary catalyst for the South Asian presence in Dubai or elsewhere. However, that those of us who write about Gulf migration remain at the peripheries of Gulf “expertise” needs to become an object of study in and of itself.

(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?

While my work does not deal with issues of “sectarianism” as they are commonly understood within Muslim communities and Islamic countries (i.e., Sunni vs. Shi`a, etc.), I do think that it is interesting to note how many of the ways in which the Arab uprisings have been framed are in sectarian terms. In my work, which is interested in challenging the idea that the only political or politicized subjects in the Gulf are those who hold formal citizenship, I feel that this is a way in which foreign resident issues and concerns—as well as their role, both literally and metaphorically, in Gulf political dissidence—get elided. In the conclusion to my book, for example, I think about how Bahrain’s political upheavals during the Arab uprisings really were represented primarily in sectarian terms. However, there is another history in Bahrain of rising unemployment, withering oil wealth, and the sense that foreign residents and the ideas and customs they bring to the country are a threat. Put together, these two questions—of the role of the non-citizen, and of the “sectarian” division of power—give us a much more complex picture of the situation than one analytic alone. Towards the end of my book, I cite a great example from Andrew Gardner’s book on Bahrain about a protest where citizen and non-citizen interests and their overlaps came into relief in order to illustrate this point. This is also similar to an argument that Ahmed Kanna makes in his recent work about the need to consider migrant labor protests and citizen activism not as distinct but rather interrelated political acts.

(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 I mentioned above, the branch campus phenomenon in the Gulf is leading to some very interesting intellectual exchanges. I am not as pessimistic about the outcomes of this burgeoning knowledge economy as many of my fellow American academics seem to be. Yes, we can link it to a rise in profit-driven educational projects, to neoliberalism, and even to American imperial interests in the Gulf, but my interest in this is anthropological, meaning the top-down criticisms are not the whole story. I am much more interested in on-the-ground negotiations and entanglements. I taught at Texas A&M University at Qatar for three summers (2010-2012) and found the students to be very engaged with world issues and critical themselves of changes that were happening in Qatar. They were also willing to entertain a wide range of perspectives on topics seemingly difficult for the Gulf, including conditions in labor camps (where a number of students carried out ethnographic research), Israel/Palestine, feminism, and—in 2012 in particular—the Arab uprisings, Bahrain’s crackdown on activists, and Syria.

In the American context, I am a member of the Association for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies in the Middle East Studies Association. We have many members from Gulf countries who are established academics, rising graduate students, and members of our executive committee. I find that in the nine years I have been actively interested in the Gulf, this number has grown exponentially. I remember attending an amazing conference in Bellagio, Italy in 2005. There were not many Gulf-raised academics there at all. In contrast, my panels at recent conferences have had both Gulf-raised academics on them (citizen and expat), and academics who are currently based in Gulf universities (citizen and expat). The interchange between Western and Gulf universities is quite vibrant, although the dominance of the English language medium and Western branch campuses in the Gulf (vs. national universities) is undeniable.

In his piece, and in some of the others as well, Toby Jones discusses how there has been an increasingly troubling trend of what he calls in this roundtable “instant experts” on the Gulf region, especially since the Arab uprisings. This trend, however, is one that pre-dates the Arab uprisings as well, particularly in terms of critiques from within the Western academy of Gulf labor exploitation and the pace of development, how countries are spending their money, what institutions are traveling to the Gulf from around the world in order to profit from Gulf money, etc. Some quick examples that come to mind are the academics at New York University (NYU) who know nothing about Abu Dhabi and yet have launched scathing critiques of the NYU Abu Dhabi project. Here, I am thinking about Mike Davis’s troublingly thin work on Dubai and the numerous one-off architectural studies of sites around the Gulf as forms of spectacle that pop up in a range of scholarly journals. I wonder how we might be able to create a framework for thinking about the role of academics as part of Gulf economies—we are complicit in their proliferation in particular ways and like all academics, profit from the knowledge we produce about places. In the case of the Gulf, very few of us seem too concerned with the stakes of our scholarship. This roundtable’s panelists and the work that they cite constitute but a small proportion of the “expertise” out there on the Gulf. I have been very aware of this question of stakes through my work, and hopefully that shows through. I agree with Toby Jones that Jadaliyya, MERIP, and a few other venues are sadly the exception, not the norm, in terms of places to find engaged scholarship on the region.

Another trend that some find disturbing and that also came up in the roundtable is that of Gulf governments subsidizing research programs, buildings, and other arenas of knowledge production within the Western academy. The Sheikh of Sharjah, for example, flew in to inaugurate a new building for the Gulf Studies program at Exeter in 2006, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. I would like to investigate this entanglement between the Gulf and the Western academy in my next project, which right now is focused primarily on American universities in Education City, Doha, because I think it is part of a larger story about academic knowledge production within contemporary geopolitics.

(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?

I think what has been most interesting in terms of my particular interests is the way in which the Arabian Peninsula states are being increasingly incorporated into discussions about the Middle East writ large. This is especially the case in terms of the Arab uprisings being inclusive of the demonstrations and government backlash in places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates as well as through the presence of Al Jazeera. At the same time, the idea of Gulf exceptionalism is recuperated by focusing on the lack of civil society in these spaces and the authoritarian regimes that suppress speech and activism. In terms of scholarship on the “Arab Spring” in the Gulf, it is interesting to consider who counts as a political (or semi-political) subject—migrant labor protests, for example, do not count as political in the same ways as the activities of citizens, as Kanna has argued. But aren’t foreign residents also political by virtue of participating in forms of governance and unofficial citizenship? As I mentioned above, I delve into this a bit more in the conclusion of my book. I explore what it means to think of politics and civil society in the Gulf as inclusive of citizen and non-citizen activities; how that challenges some of our taken-for-granted understandings of Gulf societies; how it reveals the ways in which citizenship hinges upon the foreign presence in the Gulf; and how it unpacks easy generalizations and exceptionalizations of the Gulf context.

There are at the moment what I consider to be very vibrant spaces of conversation and debate (the Doha debates in Qatar, as well as the active conversations going on right now surrounding politics at Qatar University; blogs and online communities around the Gulf; Facebook groups around Saudi women’s rights movements; the daily classroom experiences in universities, etc.). These offer a stark juxtaposition to the severe but rather arbitrarily enforced crackdown on “dissidents” in the Gulf (and dissidents can mean anything really). This is creating a transnational academic conversation that has to be more nuanced than some of the simpler analytic frameworks I outlined earlier. The role of foreign residents in these changes however is still rather understudied, but the emerging political activism and scholarship on the Gulf region after the “Arab Spring” is very promising, in my opinion. Though of course there have been egregious acts by many Gulf governments, I do not think we can possibly look at what is happening in Syria, for example, and continue to exceptionalize the Gulf as especially “repressive,” a trend I find unfortunately still continues among many Gulf academics. However, we also have to avoid becoming complicit in Gulf state discourses, which consistently claim Gulf countries to be “freer” than other parts of the Middle East (like Syria). This requires from us less reliance on simplistic comparisons and a more complex engagement with how we are both enabled and restricted in particular, overlapping, contradictory, and ever-changing ways in our specific research contexts.

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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