by Rana AlMutawa
With a typical Orientalist tone often used in articles discussing the Gulf states, Ziauddin Sardar writes:
The place looks and feels unreal. That’s the conclusion I reach every time I visit a Gulf state. It is not just the Disney World architecture, the obscene display of wealth, the ubiquitous presence of poor migrant labourers, the insidious racism of the natives, and the segregation and seclusion of the women. What really strikes you is the fact that the region is totally out of sync: the contradictions between imported hyper-modernity and the reactionary and anachronistic local traditions are just too stark. I always leave thinking, “This is not going to last long.”
Similar accounts depicting Gulf cities, particularly Dubai, as superficial, ostentatious, consumerist and ‘inauthentic’ places with no ‘soul’ are proffered in abundance, not only in casual conversations and in popular media, but also among scholars.
Scholars, however, often reiterate these ideas with what they deem to be more ‘objective’ labels: they depict such cities as ‘sanitised and privatised,’ lacking ‘public space and informality.’ Many of these depictions, however, are quite subjective. For example, examples of ‘public’ space – idealised by scholars such as Davis or Sorkin as being accessible and free to all – have in reality always excluded different people (women, children, ethnic minorities and so forth).
Even scholars who attempt to discredit the idea that Dubai lacks ‘soul’ or ‘authenticity’ often do so by highlighting one part of the city while dismissing the other, by showing the so-called ‘forgotten’ parts of old Dubai (such as diverse and mixed-use spaces inhabited by low-income populations in Satwa), while ignoring the social lives that exist within the newly developed (or so-called ‘glitzy’) parts of the city.
Such academic work is indeed significant as it shows a part of Dubai not widely known, perhaps a corrective to the ample coverage of the ‘spectacular’ architecture for which Dubai is recognised. However, it sometimes results in implicitly labelling certain spaces as more authentic than others, rather than challenging the (implicit or explicit) use of a term that has been socially constructed. For example, ElSheshtawy argues that Dubai should, ‘in its strive to become a global centre, uncover “the real Dubai” which does exist along the shores of the Creek and its marketplaces’.
Critics of Gulf cities such as Dubai perhaps depict it as ‘inauthentic’ because their idea of what constitutes ‘authenticity’ does not exist there in the manner they expect – few old historic buildings; huge malls and a ‘hyper-consumerist’ culture in place of the small coffeehouses and shops that they seek; and, to them, no evidence of a ‘local’ culture.
Similarly, an Arab colleague once commented that she was disappointed she did not get to speak to any Emiratis during her short trip to Dubai; that her taxi drivers were Pakistani and her waitress a Filipina. Yet, these comments are rarely made about immigrant taxi drivers and waiters in a place such as New York City – rather, this diversity is seen as a positive example of the globalised nature of the city. So why is Dubai not ‘allowed’ to be globalised in the way it is? Why is it expected to conform to a certain conception of what is ‘local’ and is ‘authentic?’
What is particularly ironic is that while critics of Gulf cities oppose the so-called mass consumerism of Dubai, they seek an ‘authenticity’ that they can easily consume (by consuming ‘local’ food bought in a small ‘authentic’ shop or ‘experiencing authenticity’ in an old market). They reject the globalised nature of a city like Dubai, wanting it to conform to their idea of what a Middle Eastern city should look like. They are disappointed to see that many Emiratis regularly eat and drink in cafes and restaurants like Starbucks or Texas Roadhouse, rather than opting for ‘traditional’ food, or that shopping malls are ubiquitous in place of small, local shops.
Thus, we must question to what extent ‘authenticity’ is another form of Orientalism, an expectation for people to live, eat, dress, and behave in a certain way and for urban spaces to look a certain way; to be ‘different’ from other globalised cities. In particular, we should be aware that what are termed ‘glitzy’ spaces hold social meaning to the people who live there; that people appropriate these spaces to fit their needs; and that these spaces become part of the social fabric of these cities, telling many rich stories about the city and its users.
Shopping malls are a good example of this, and here one can find that the dismissive attitude towards the ‘glitzy’ parts of the Gulf’s urban spaces is not lamented by outsiders alone, but often by Gulf intellectuals as well. Farah Al-Nakib argues that malls ‘lull people into a false sense of security,’ describing them as private, enclosed, guarded and, in the case of the Gulf, gilded spaces that are ‘anything but public … [which] do not foster any type of social public interaction or exchange other than economic exchange, their entire existence [being] governed by consumption.’ These depictions do not take into consideration the significance of these spaces in the social lives of various groups of people.
Many malls in Dubai (and other parts of the Gulf), for example, cater to different segments of the population, leading a diverse set of demographics to share the same space (cheap fast food joints and restaurants selling edible gold desserts can be found within the same vicinity). Malls are certainly more accessible to larger segments of the population than other spaces that are often not considered consumerist – such as free, grassroots art galleries and music events, which are mostly attended by elites; or public streets and neighbourhoods (such as Satwa, mentioned above) which are not accessible for some women because of cultural or social restrictions.
It should be noted that there are still malls all over the Gulf that do exclude certain groups of immigrant men. Although these exclusions should be acknowledged, does this make malls less ‘public’ than the coffeehouses and squares, romanticised as free and accessible to all and yet exclusionary of other segments of the population?
The diversity that exists within malls can result in ‘silent negotiations’ that are expected to happen in public spaces. Laure Assaf cites the examples of two twitter campaigns initiated by young Emirati women to implement modest dress codes (after they saw women in the mall dressed in hot pants) as an example of these negotiations that occur as different people rub shoulders together. They do not always have to involve conflict as above – they can also be found in the passive acknowledgement of the ‘other’ as different types of people chance on one another.
The shopping malls that Al-Nakib and others critique serve an array of social functions. Le Renard and Wynn say that encounters in the mall between Saudi men and women sometimes lead to engagements and marriages. Although some may dismiss the courtship in malls as those of vacant and privileged youth with too much time on their hands, for some of them (particularly those who go to gender-segregated schools), malls are some of the few spaces where men and women encounter one another.
At a workshop in NYU Abu Dhabi, Anke Reichenbach argued that the mall also serves an important social function for local women, allowing them the space to engage in female flânerie. The flâneur, seen as a nineteenth century phenomenon, is one who walks the urban spaces of the city – an explorer observing society – and is usually a male character. Reichenbach argues that malls, as ‘sanitised’ spaces, allow local women the opportunity to engage in this flânerie, a practice not available to some of them otherwise. But the mall is not only a space for women who have socially restricted access to the street to engage in these practices, and it becomes used in these ways by various men and women.
These examples should make us question why certain spaces, such as Satwa, are regarded (often by intellectuals) as one of the few places where vibrant life can be observed and experienced, while the experiences one has at the mall are dismissed as ‘superficial’ and ‘consumerist’.
Certainly, exclusion and consumerism do exist within these places (as elsewhere), and the quest for more accessible spaces for different groups is necessary, but understanding Gulf cities in a more nuanced manner can help us better understand the solutions we should seek.
As part of the Middle East Centre’s tenth anniversary celebrations in 2020, Rana revisited this piece – read her reflections here.