Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora
Duke University Press, 2013
Southasians make up a large part of the population in the Gulf countries, particularly in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. On landing in Dubai or in Doha, one does not have the impression of being in a West Asian country, but in Southasia. This explains why, over recent years, more and more research has focused on Southasian populations in the Gulf, sometimes through radical perspectives engendered by the large-scale exploitation of low-paid workers. Non-governmental organisations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International have regularly reported on the conditions of exploited workers in the Gulf, most recently looking at Qatar in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The recent announcement that World Expo 2020 will be held in Dubai is likely push the issue of low-paid workers into the limelight once again.
However, this is not the focus for author Neha Vora, who instead has chosen a rarely studied group that is “transitory yet entrenched” in Dubai: the Southasian middle class and its Dubai-born offspring. In Impossible Citzens, the author, an Indian-American, raises questions about citizenship and belonging among these “most typical inhabitants of Dubai”. Drawing on Aihwa Ong’s concept of flexible citizenship and Giorgio Agamben’s ‘state of exception’, she discusses the possibilities of belonging in a country where the dichotomy between citizens and non-citizens is the cornerstone of the Emiratis’ identity. Vora offers the reader a chronicle of loss of identity and indebtedness, of missed opportunities and a feeling of disenfranchisement that is not counterbalanced by any prospective sense of belonging to the Indian diaspora.
However, their ‘economic citizenship’ does not correspond with a claim to political citizenship, with the figure of the Indian-turned-Emirati citizen proving to be a somewhat mythical or at least unattainable model.
Claim to legitimacy
Gold merchants are the oldest ‘legitimate’ Southasians in Dubai. Vora reminds us of the ancient trade links Dubai and India shared even before the existence of the British Empire. The smuggling of gold from the Emirates to Bombay made a fortune for Dubai and Indian gold traders, who pride themselves on having literally built the city. According to Vora, these gold merchants represent “unofficial citizens” who have real political weight in the sense that, over time, they have built strong networks with Emirati officials, especially via the sponsorship (kafala) system. The latter system influences the labour market to the extent that every foreigner must get the sponsorship, i.e. the paid permission of an Emirati to be allowed to work and settle in the UAE. Through their demand of workers for their own companies, Southasian entrepreneurs participate in both the “privatization of migration” and in the exploitation of working-class fellow citizens. Their sense of community is strong and has been built around discourses relating to past involvement in gold smuggling and masculinity. They like the city’s economic openness and numerous economic opportunities, as opposed to a perceived lack of liberal culture in India.
However, their ‘economic citizenship’ does not correspond with a claim to political citizenship, with the figure of the Indian-turned-Emirati citizen proving to be a somewhat mythical or at least unattainable model. In fact, what brings them closer to other middle-class Southasians is their uneasiness vis-à-vis new cosmopolitanism. The New Dubai is simply not their cup of tea. They do not identify with Dubai as a global city designed for multinational companies, which deprives them of their political and economic influence. Their nostalgia for old Dubai Creek goes hand in hand with a purely Southasian if not segregated social life.
Narratives about the Indian diaspora actually seldom mention Gulf Indians and instead pay tribute to those who have settled in the US. As a consequence, Dubai Indians are not nostalgic about India, and there is a lack of identification with the Indian diaspora.
But does a Southasian community really exist? The author does not dwell on the subject (except for a short section discussing religious differences), but her study that often oscillates between Southasian and Indian categories definitely shows divisions along national and class lines. The kafala system in particular – by which middle-class Southasians contribute to the exploitation of their fellow compatriots often acting as middlemen between the workers and companies – strongly underlines the non-existence of a Southasian or Indian community. The author fails to discuss caste though she could no doubt have justified her assertions about a divided community by studying other aspects of Indian social life in Dubai.
The story of middle-class Southasians in Dubai is one of people who no longer have their place there. The old cosmopolitanism they were part of when their families settled in Dubai decades ago has been replaced by a new global form where discrimination is keenly felt. The Southasian middle class, which feels responsible for making Dubai what it is now, resents the growing divisions in society. Stuck between “migrants”, who are low-wage labourers, and “expats”, made up of highly-professional Westerners, they are invisible and absent from urban politics.
Consequently, they tend to withdraw into their traditional areas of residence in the Old Dubai which has a strong “Indian atmosphere” and is often considered to be “an extension of India”. For those having spent most of their life here, Bur Dubai is India – it is similar since it has “India’s textures of daily life”. It is therefore a key place of identification, but whether this is enough to feel part of the city remains far from being a certainty. Is the Indian diaspora a sought after group in terms of belonging? The answers to these issues, as raised by Vora, are rather complex. A rising sentiment of frustration and insecurity regarding their position in Dubai, a permanent feeling of impermanence (as professor of sociology Syed Ali would say), render them uncomfortable about their future in the Gulf. Women, whose legal status depends on the authority their father and husband have over them, feel even more insecure. In this context, how are they to belong, and to what?
An interesting aspect for the Southasian readership is that these questions of belonging resonate with the construction of the diaspora, particularly the Indian one. Non-resident Indians (NRIs) in Dubai are not attracted to India. They do not really consider it their home. Narratives about the Indian diaspora actually seldom mention Gulf Indians and instead pay tribute to those who have settled in the US. As a consequence, Dubai Indians are not nostalgic about India, and there is a lack of identification with the Indian diaspora. What is even more stark is that second or third generations who are born and brought up in Dubai and who study at one of the American universities that recently opened in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are not at all drawn to the idea of working in India. Dubai is their home, but a home without any political entitlement.
Becoming a student would mean breaking from the often closed Indian community with its own schools, cultural life and so on, to undergo new experiences and encounters. Rather surprisingly, the opposite happens: Indian students become totally disillusioned.
Tensions between mobility and immobility and between belonging and not belonging are well illustrated in the study of second-generation Indians studying in Dubai. Are they also doomed to go astray? Taking a cue from the category informally referred to as ‘American-Born Confused Desis’, Vora comes up with one for her subject of study: ‘Dubai-born confused Desis’. Students born in Dubai to Southasian parents feel a strong attachment to Dubai. Dubai is home for those who know India only as a holiday destination where they feel a “sense of foreignness”. When they enroll in one of the Western universities in the UAE, their minds are filled with images of equality and openness, of a place that will guarantee them “liberal, neoliberal, and global forms of citizenship”.
Becoming a student would mean breaking from the often closed Indian community with its own schools, cultural life and so on, to undergo new experiences and encounters. Rather surprisingly, the opposite happens: Indian students become totally disillusioned. For practically the first time in their lives in the UAE, they have regular contact with Emiratis and other expatriates. And that is when they experience racism and discrimination and finally end up feeling like “second-class citizens”. They are “Indians by default” who also feel like foreigners in their ‘own’ country. Ideally, their future lies in the West, although it is perceived as a place where Indian culture is perverted. As Vora puts it, “the West is a site of desire but also of necessity.” Dubai therefore remains their only place of belonging through forms of urban citizenship, not “by nationalist sentiment toward UAE”.
Citizens of neoliberalism
Consumer citizenship is a mere substitute for political citizenship. Although Vora believes that neoliberal subjects can find satisfaction in “public and affective belonging to Dubai”, the subjects themselves suffer from not being able to obtain citizenship. As neoliberal citizens, consumerism, or at least surface-level consumerism, might satisfy their longing to lay down some sort of roots. However, these roots appear to be unstable and to prevent Indians in Dubai from feeling like full citizens of the Emirates. They nevertheless contribute to creating a sense of belonging, but not their own. Through their exclusion from any political involvement – which is minimal for the Emiratis themselves – Indians are instrumental in creating the Emirati subject. The brilliantly written pages in this book about the official making of “the Emirati”, in contrast to the dominant Southasian population, are well worth the read.
In the introduction, Vora declares that she intends to go against what she considers to be a hegemonic view of citizenship by Western scholars, for whom citizenship can only be envisaged by belonging to the state framework. She does this by setting out to show that liberal forms of citizenship can be a substitute for political belonging. Yet she also shows the extreme difficulties linked to non-citizen status in the UAE that Southasians have to face. Feelings of exclusion and uncertainty about the future go hand in hand with feelings towards Dubai as ‘home’. But this dichotomy between attachment and exclusion prevents any real political involvement by Southasians and restricts their everyday lives to this “in-between”, between Dubai and India.
Impossible Citizens is accessible and provides the reader with a privileged account about a lesser known group of Southasians while focusing on the changes they are undergoing in the wake of the transformation of Dubai. However, Vora’s book has a few shortcomings. One problem is that she never really defines what the middle class is except by default – they are situated somewhere between low-wage workers and the elite or Western expatriates. There are likely various categories of middle-class families, with diverse migration trajectories, and different incomes and degrees of integration in the host society. Do gold merchants belong to the same category as sales representatives? Questioning the heterogeneity of a single category such as the middle class would have been revealing. Additionally, the author should have clarified her distinctions between Indians and Southasians, two groups often taken for granted as interchangeable. For example, in her chapter ‘Becoming Indian in Dubai’, she studies the experience of “young South Asians” in Western-style universities. A deconstruction of the Southasian category according to nationality and other identities could have added another layer of complexity to the issues of belonging she discusses.
In terms of methodological aspects, there are some questions about the interviews that appear in the book, particularly concerning how many interviews were conducted, how this was done, and in what language and so forth. Unfortunately, the book does not contain enough excerpts from long interviews, which would have added to its substantive quality. Although the importance of theoretical developments comes across clearly, this is often presented in a repetitive manner and is not sufficiently illustrated by the migrants’ discourses. While Michel de Certeau is cited in the book’s introduction, in-depth descriptions of everyday life are provided only rarely. More of these descriptions would have helped to understand how belonging to Dubai manifests itself in everyday interactions. And finally, the inclusion of a basic map would have helped a reader unfamiliar with Dubai to get a better sense of Southasian spaces, both old and new ones. Despite these drawbacks, Impossible Citizens will no doubt appeal to anyone interested in the Southasian diaspora and in new forms of citizenship.