In Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, Neha Vora looks at the middle-class Indian communities of Dubai, who don’t neatly fit into the category of “expat” or “migrant” in the emirate, and are, in her opinion, the quintessential Dubai residents.Vora challenges the common media representation of Dubai as exceptional, a postmodern “nonplace”: “While the guests at the Burj al-Arab — Dubai’s ‘7-star’ hotel — and the guestworkers of Sonapur — Dubai’s largest labour camp — have captured our attention thus far, they are not indicative of an entire city, nor are they markers of a two-dimensional form of globalisation. Dubai is not a nonplace without culture or a city of smoke and mirrors. The anthropologist’s project, put as simply as possible, is one of narrating the ordinariness of a place. This project addresses the ephemerality of Dubai not as fantasy or obscenity, but rather as a quite mundane — and therefore anthropologically very important — aspect of life for Indian foreign residents, the exceptions to citizenship that are the most representative — yet impossible — citizens of this not-so-exceptional urban space.”

She also challenges the tendency to view migrant lives in purely economic terms: “Studying migration in the Gulf through the lens of labour — focusing on human rights, coping strategies, remittances, or ‘modern-day slavery,’ for example — effectively collapses migrant lives into economic terms and removes possibilities of community formation, political agency, cultural hybridity, emotional attachment, consumption, leisure activity, and other forms of belonging from South Asian experiences in the Gulf. Thus, migrants are often written out of the possibility of belonging to Gulf cities before we can even ethnographically explore their own understandings, claims, narratives, and affects of the places where they sometimes spend the majority of their lives.”

Indians form the largest national group in the UAE, and have a long history of trade and settlement predating both oil and the British presence in the Gulf. However, with the creation of an Emirati national identity in the 20th century, this history of Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism has been excluded to produce the image of a homogeneous — Arab, Muslim — citizenry, even while the globalised nature of today’s UAE is emphasised. As Vora says, “Emirati identity, therefore, is solidified through a double move — the production of cosmopolitan futures and the erasure of cosmopolitan pasts.”

Indian migration to the Emirates cannot result in naturalisation, but Vora’s older informants expressed no interest in acquiring Emirati citizenship, even as they insisted that they “built this country”. (Incidentally, why do we persist in talking about “merchants” in the Gulf when they are just businesspeople” elsewhere?) Vora found that unlike Indian communities in other parts of the world, Dubai’s middle-class Indians did not claim hyphenated identities, but defined themselves primarily through Indian nationalisms and their regional, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. She argues that by defining their own ethnic identities narrowly and being careful to maintain their “culture,” treating Indian and Emirati national identities as mutually exclusive, they have in fact helped cement the idea of the UAE as an Arab and Muslim state. As citizenship is defined through those who mark its limits, Indians — as the primary exceptions to citizenship in the UAE — are crucial to the maintenance of Emirati identity.

However, while producing themselves as outsiders to the nation, certain Indians also participate in governance over other migrants. As business owners, partners, or managers they are able to govern over — and exploit — their compatriots, which makes them substantive citizens and part of the production of the state’s authority. Vora points out that without the relegation of certain forms of governance to a large number of expatriate employers and managers, the kafala (sponsorship) system would not be able to function as it does. In effect, the legitimacy and sovereignty of the state is reliant on the practice of this “latitudinal citizenship” by migrants who simultaneously narrate themselves as outsiders to national identity. She also notes that these privileged Indians would be at risk of losing their special status if opportunities for immigrant naturalisation arose — that they are invested in the existence of a firm citizen-foreigner binary.

Vora argues that the longstanding Indian community of downtown Dubai challenges the idea of diaspora, being simultaneously settled and not settled. Thanks to the historical and contemporary connections between the Gulf and South Asia, these Indians experienced their surroundings as an extension of India and did not express nostalgia for homeland or a sense of cultural loss. Dubai is so Indian that it does not feel like a different country — and yet Indians cannot become citizens and so remain “temporary”.

The book’s most interesting assertion is that the latest generation of Indians in Dubai have been politicised regarding their noncitizenship, thanks to changes in higher education. Noncitizens do not have access to government schools in Dubai, and private schools (for those who cannot afford the fees at expensive international schools) are mostly organised along national lines. Therefore, at the primary and secondary level, private education in Dubai enforces a citizen-noncitizen divide, and foreign resident children have their parochial national identities emphasised.

However, with the arrival of foreign university campuses in the Emirates over the last 10 years or so, young middle-class noncitizens who previously would have needed to leave the UAE in order to obtain higher education have been staying on, and studying in a mixed — Emirati and non-Emirati — environment. Young Indians who grew up experiencing Dubai — friends, neighbourhoods, schools — as a South Asian space in which their lack of Emirati citizenship was not a pressing issue, are now confronted by it in the university setting. They encounter racism from Emiratis and other Gulf Arab nationals, and have a direct experience of the UAE’s citizen-noncitizen hierarchy, learning that they do not belong in the place where they feel most at home.

Vora found that with the younger Indians she spoke to who had stayed in the UAE for higher education, citizenship and criticism of the current system dominated the conversation — even if they felt nothing was likely to change. The older generation associated “freedom” with economic opportunities, but Dubai-raised youth connected it to Western systems of government. The question is whether that sense of injustice and entitlement could evolve into more active assertions of belonging in Dubai.

Impossible Citizens is weakest when it addresses history and politics, both of the UAE and the broader Gulf. Vora seeks complexity and nuance when talking of the experience of South Asian communities, but she doesn’t always acknowledge that the Gulf countries are not homogeneous, and have their own distinct histories and relationships with noncitizens. It’s also misleading to refer to resentment of migration as a cause of Bahrain’s civil unrest without mentioning the country’s history of importing labour for political reasons, its foreign security forces, and political naturalisation (to change the country’s demographic balance) as elements influencing citizen-noncitizen relations.

A few careless statements appear in the book. For example, “the majority of Emiratis also have Persian roots” (anecdotally, a majority of those in Dubai do), “in some Gulf countries, like Bahrain, foreign marriages must be approved by the state” (not the case in Bahrain, but true for Saudi Arabia), and “certain countries, such as Pakistan, do not allow single women to emigrate”. And disappointingly, the promise of the excellent introduction is not fulfilled in the body of the book; each of the five chapters is repetitive and could have been half the length.

Repetitiveness and minor mistakes aside, Vora’s book is an important exploration of transnationalism in the Gulf, and the complex experience of migration, belonging, and exclusion. By choosing to understand Dubai’s Indians as more than “migrants,” and the Gulf as more than “Middle Eastern,” Vora makes us think about state, citizenship and governance, and the lacunae in our current delineations.

The reviewer is a writer and translator, and was until recently a long-term resident of Bahrain

Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Anthropology) By Neha Vora Duke University Press, US ISBN 0822353938 264pp.

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