US Executive Order 13769, President Donald Trump’s initial travel ban, took effect on 27 January 2017, forcing millions of passport holders from the targeted countries to contend with the ban’s inherent racism and its devastating consequences. I was conducting fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the time, which allowed me to see the effects of the ban and its subsequent iterations on my interlocutors, many of whom were lifelong residents of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian passports. Middle-class Arab and Iranian expatriates were particularly impacted by the executive orders and their implications, because the tenuous and conditional nature of their residency made them likely to emigrate or seek professional opportunities elsewhere, especially the United States. Most of the critical commentary on the bans thus far misses populations like this: people who migrate and reside outside of their country of formal nationality, but who seek to come to the United States nonetheless. Focusing on those who are caught between US and Emirati citizenship regimes makes clear that the category of citizenship implied in the bans fails to represent the lived reality of contemporary transnationalism, and thus the bans affect even more people than typically acknowledged. Examining the bans’ impact on the Arab and Iranian expatriate communities in Dubai reveals the differential power of nationality documentation and the continuing power of citizenship regimes. Quite simply, two individuals who are ostensibly from the same place, can be banned or permitted into the United States solely on the basis of the country issuing their passport, regardless of whether they have even set foot in the “homeland” that passport claims for them.
The recent travel bans continue a long tradition of racist discrimination in US immigration law, under the guise of nationality quotas predicated on US diplomatic and imperial interests. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term “nation” referred to political entities that were presumed to be ethnically homogenous, thus equating nationality with race. Examples of such previous quotas include the 1750 Naturalization Act, which granted US citizenship to free white men only the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the 1917 Immigration Act against Asian and Middle Eastern nationals. The 1924 National Origins Quota Act established quotas for those coming from outside Northwest Europe, a policy which was formally rescinded with the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Act. Despite Hart-Celler, the US continues to restrict immigration to individuals holding certain nationalities, including the 1997 NACARA Act, aimed at Central American nationals and former Soviet bloc nationals. The 2017 orders, colloquially referred to as the “Muslim bans,” continue in this tradition.
Commentators have widely noted that holding a passport from a targeted country does not necessarily signal adherence to terrorist ideologies, a critical and valid intervention that reveals that the ban is primarily intended to bully and exclude Arab and Muslim communities. Additionally, nationality documentation does not necessarily mean that one has lived in that country. Many of my interlocutors in the UAE, for example, were born and raised there but carry other passports because the UAE does not grant birthright citizenship nor does it offer naturalization. Emirati citizenship is conferred only through having one’s Emirati citizen father claim one as a descendant on his family ID card or “family book” [khulasat al-qaid or marsoom]. There have been recent instances where children of foreign fathers and Emirati mothers have been granted citizenship, but for the moment, Emirati law does not guarantee citizenship to anyone except legally recognized children of citizen fathers. Nearly eighty-five percent of UAE residents carry non-UAE passports, and many of these come from countries targeted by the travel ban.
Events in the region have made the UAE home to many fleeing conflicts, such as the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the 1979 Iranian Revolution, ongoing fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, the Gulf Wars in Iraq (1990-1991, 2003-2011), and the ongoing civil war in Syria. It is important to note that the United States participated in, and exacerbated, many of these conflicts. Under the current Emirati regime, these communities are permanently impermanent. Several scholars have written about the kafala sponsorship system used by Gulf regimes, and it is key to note that kafala applies to foreign residents of all classes and backgrounds, from Bangladeshi construction workers to US lawyers and Lebanese art dealers. For most non-citizens, residing in the UAE is contingent upon working. Even lifelong residents, unless they have the wealth to purchase freehold property—which comes with a visa—cannot remain in the country once they retire and no longer have an employer to sponsor them. My research participants, although generally more privileged migrant laborers than those we typically think of in the Gulf, often sought to improve their career prospects and their stability by studying and working abroad. With the current travel bans, however, they are caught between two nationalist regimes.
The bans, along with preexisting as well as new conflicts in the region, further limit where they might seek opportunities and career advancement, punishing them for carrying passports from Arab or Muslim countries which the United States does not favor diplomatically. There are limited countries that allow for naturalization, and oftentimes, visa and immigration systems privilege applicants with particular skillsets, further encouraging would-be migrants to study in the country first to obtain relevant qualifications. For many UAE residents with Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian passports, study and work in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom used to open up job opportunities for them both in the UAE and elsewhere. Depending on their individual circumstances, many had nowhere to “go back to” should their UAE residency be revoked: having never lived in their countries of formal citizenship, they often lacked networks there and sometimes did not speak the language.
For example, one of my research participants was born and raised in Sharjah but carried an Iraqi passport; if she loses her UAE residency, she has nowhere to go. In more dire instances, “returning” to these countries would entail living in civil war, such as in the case of Syria. Alternatively, for political dissidents from Iran, for example, returning would be physically quite dangerous. Another interlocutor was born in the UAE but only held a Syrian passport. If her UAE residency were revoked and she was deported to Syria, she no longer has family there; most of them fled due to the civil war. For these people—whose position in the UAE is tenuous because they are not citizens and yet they are not connected to the place that issued their passport—the travel ban represents a second removal, a second exile, a shrinking of the possible places where these individuals can build a life. By shutting off the possibility of higher education, employment, or naturalization in the United States, the travel bans effectively render foreign resident status in the UAE more tenuous. Thus, as of 27 January 2016, the UAE residency privileges of many in the Arab and Iranian expatriate community became even more valuable and precious. In short, Executive Order 13769 and its subsequent iterations hit Arab and Iranian expatriates living in the Gulf particularly hard, precisely because they are caught between the impossibility of Emirati citizenship and reduced upward mobility in the UAE without access to US education and work opportunities.
The new ways in which the bans are being framed and carried out show that what non-Emirati Arab and Iranian residents in the UAE are facing is nothing less than a part of broader intensification of Shi‘a-Sunni politics and its link to US empire building in the region. It disproportionately targets those with passports from war-ravaged countries like Iraq (original ban), Syria (all iterations), and Yemen (third ban). The addition of Yemen to the third ban further shows how the ban should be read as part of US empire building, as it shows which side the US government is on in the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Shi`a Houthi rebels. Since 2015, UAE immigration officials have enforced the inclusion of sectarian data on residency visa applications, whereas previously listing “Muslim,” but not listing Sunni or Shi‘a, had been permissible. Several of my research participants reported that their UAE residency visas or even their Emirati passports had been denied or confiscated because the UAE government deemed them to be Shi`a or to maintain close ties to Iran. As the Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to engage in sectarian conflict, the changing nations listed on the travel bans reveal US diplomatic and imperial alignments, and send many Arab and Iranian migrant communities in the Gulf into further tenuousness and disarray. Indeed, the bans are part of a broader US strategy of global empire—one which, it is important to remember, in contexts like the UAE, relies upon the disjuncture between national belonging and state recognition.
 Ruth Gomberg-Munoz’s Becoming Legal (Oxford University Press, 2016) provides an excellent overview of this legal history of exclusion.
 See City of Strangers (2010) by Andrew Gardner; Dubai: City as Corporation (2011) by Ahmed Kanna; Walls Built on Sand (1997) by Anh Nga Longva; and Impossible Citizens by Neha Vora (2013). There is a hierarchy of passports in the UAE that is highly racialized and deeply contingent on language ability, particularly English. For example, a Bangladeshi construction worker would have significant difficulty remaining in the country and changing employers/visa sponsors, whereas a Lebanese gallery owner could more easily transition. While many Arab and Iranian expatriates based in the UAE do experience difficulties, they retain relative privilege compared to passport holders from South Asian countries.