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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula: Introduction to the Roundtable

This electronic roundtable marks the one-year anniversary of Jadaliyya's Arabian Peninsula Page, in which time we have hosted work by activists, journalists, artists, and scholars that has made a significant intellectual—and, we hope, political—contribution. Despite the sophisticated, critical, and oft-politically engaged literature emerging from and about the Arabian Peninsula, however, the region remains marginalized, in multiple ways, within academic and popular analyses. Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula thus addresses the ways in which frameworks of knowledge production have not only obscured social realities there, but also contributed to their construction.

While our roundtable contributors approach this project from a number of different disciplinary perspectives and theoretical standpoints, several key themes surface from their critical engagements. Rethinking the relationship between oil and politics emerges as perhaps the preeminent concern, with rentier state theory coming under sustained critique. Adam Hanieh points out that this paradigm's "methodoligical nationalism" obscures the fundamental ways in which national oil wealth depends upon a global capitalist labor market. Furthermore, Toby Jones argues that the political struggles over the past several years make it abundantly clear that its inherent assumptions about distributive wealth and political apathy are severely misplaced. Confronting these conventional approaches to studying the socioeconomic structures of the Arabian Peninsula makes room for more interesting analytical work. In one of our most provocative examples, Neha Vora turns our attention to the interconnected forms of governance, both liberal and illiberal, that operate in “ethnocratic” societies by comparing Southern California and the Gulf states. In so doing, she challenges popular and academic tendencies to exceptionalize authoritarianism in the Arabian Peninsula.

Decentering the “nation” as the privileged site of history, identity, and economy is also of fundamental importance for our contributors. The aspirational politics and social imaginaries of Yemeni Socotrans in Nathalie Peutz's piece, oriented as they are towards the cities of the Gulf rather than Aden or Sanaa, seem to insist upon a peninsular perspective, rather than one constrained by symbolic and material national boundaries. Neha Vora also challenges reductive descriptions of belonging which reproduce the strict binaries of citizen/non-citizen based on the autochthonous designations of state institutions. John Willis's focus on space as an analytic that problematizes both state and nation as the terminal loci of history helps us understand the ways in which conceptual objects such as “nation,” “tribe,” or “the Middle East” are generated at different historical junctures. His analysis of the shifts in sovereign order under the global “war on terror,” and the subsequent plurality of territorial claims in Yemen's recent uprisings, underlines the utility of this approach.

If thinking spatially promises to complicate entrenched modes of studying the Arabian Peninsula, then discerning the ideological and material structures that undergird the spatial imaginary becomes necessary. For Madawi Al-Rasheed, this entails disentangling the imperatives of petroleum development from historiography by attending not only to more complex local, regional, and transnational lived realities, but also to the ways in which oil wealth and authoritarian practices work to delimit those representations. Ahmed Kanna, employing a different but complimentary approach, addresses the banal technologies that mediate spatial imaginations, such as the map, as vectors through which to discern the material effects of such everyday practices.

In confronting the work that knowledge production does in the creation of structures of political domination and economic exploitation, we must remain attentive—as Toby Jones reminds us—to the historical processes by which the "Middle East" has been constructed as a conceptual object of European and US imperialism and Cold War politics. The challenge for us, here, is to reconceptualize our objects of analysis to illuminate these power relations and the multiple ways in which they have effected broad-ranging transformations of the political, cultural, and material infrastructures of everyday life in the Arabian Peninsula. Approaching knowledge, space, identity, economy, and the political as contested and historically constituted—as the contributors to this roundtable urge us to—thus serves to relocate the peninsula within broader circuits of power, capital, labor, migration, and religion, from which they have long been severed, theoretically. The following contributions cut to the heart of these and other challenges and propose innovative ways to further our thinking on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond:

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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