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Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora

Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013, 245 pages
Amin Moghadam
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Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora / Neha Vora .- Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013 .- 245 p.

Cet article est une traduction de :
Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora

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1There has long been a need for an anthropological approach to published research into the cities and states in the Gulf region, especially regarding migration. The issue has primarily been studied in terms of migrants’ economic contribution to Gulf urban development projects, the marginalization of unskilled workers, and the impact of migrants’ remittances on home-country economies in the transnational context.

2Neha Vora’s Impossible citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora is in five chapters, with an introduction setting the authors’ doctoral research within a clearly-defined theoretical framework, and adds to a body of new works giving voice to the concerns, experiences and sentiments of the inhabitants of Gulf cities, emphasising the role of the city as a meeting place for social groups and as the context in which the individual subjectivities of their members are shaped. Using Foucauldian terminology and the link between governmentality and the production of subjectivity, the author organises her chapters around the various Indian social classes present in Dubai and the individual practices and discourse which emerge from these. This enables her to go beyond the basic legal distinction between citizen and non-citizen to illustrate the various forms of citizenship and belonging which arise within a given class in a political and economic system she defines as neo-liberal.

3In the first chapters, she shows the extent to which the historical depth of links between the Indian subcontinent and Dubai, traces of which are still visible in the various Indian parts of the old city, underpins these first migrants’ diasporic subjectivity while contributing to how the Indian community as a whole is perceived. The author also demonstrates, through migrant narratives and behaviour, how their prolonged presence in Dubai, the networks they have developed within the city and their day-to-day experience contribute to their identity and sense of belonging, contrasting with the merely legal notion of “temporary worker”.

4While tracing the city’s expansion, the author argues that it is nowadays marked by a segregation between old neighbourhoods, in particular around the creek, home to the historical migrant communities, and those areas in the “new Dubai”, with its urban mega-projects, and its semiskilled and skilled inhabitants, most of them of western or Arab origin. Thus, in her view, there is on the one hand a new, global city, a consumer space producing a neoliberal, consumerist form of citizenship; and on the other hand a city centre segregated from the rest, the remnants to the city’s history of cosmopolitanism and mercantilism, where inhabitants mostly from the Indian Ocean experience an authentic “urban citizenship”. Thus, she believes, individuals from the various Indian social classes identify with the city according to distinct processes: the middle classes of Dubai’s old quarter do so through their historic presence, their experience, patterns of consumption and their nostalgia of the greater role they once played in the saga of the new Dubai; while the business class identifies through its economic role, in addition to the control it exercises over other Indians.

5The author uses the same migrant categories to also examine links between home and host countries. According to interviews carried out by the author, Indian businessmen make no claim to belonging to the Emirati national community — even if such were legally possible — and feel a strong attachment to their home country, whereas second generation children born of Indian migrants, especially those with a western education in institutions of higher education, feel at home in Dubai and aspire to Emirati citizenship.

6However, these distinctions between old and new parts of Dubai, or those between Indian social classes — themselves the product of what the author describes in his conclusion as “the epistemologies through which we assess the purportedly exceptional and which are quite often productive of their own truths and, thus, their exceptions” — should not be seen as clear-cut. While the two parts of the city are distinguished by their architecture and the kind of population living in them, it would be simplistic not to note the physical and social mobility taking place in and between them. Among the children from the historical migrant communities, Indians and Iranians in particular, numerous are those who, with the development of the city and its business activities, have also entered the so-called “global” dynamic — partly thanks to institutions of higher education, the importance of which is underlined in the final chapter— and have chosen to live in the new neighbourhoods. It would be misleading to claim that the activities in the old harbour and of those individuals working there are completely cut off from life in the skyscrapers of the new part of town. A merchant from the historic Dayra quarter may well maintain his social persona as a trader in the old neighbourhood while residing at Jumeira Beach Residence, a grand standing housing complex. In this respect, the emergence of these new “centralities” in the modern parts of the city, global in nature, ambiguous in terms of identity yet western in spirit, has altered the habits of some of the older residents. While the first migrants, who initially came to Dubai for economic reasons, continue to live in the old neighbourhoods where they can keep up habits often closely related to their community of origin, their children tend to divide up their urban practices between the old and the new city, or just move permanently to the “new Dubai”. These recent neighbourhoods sometimes correspond to the desire to live anonymously, out of sight from family and community and, as such, offer a certain degree of liberty.

7In the conclusion of her work, the author looks back over some of the ideas put forward in the earlier chapters while mentioning her surprise, upon returning to Dubai in 2009, at the degree of physical and social mobility experienced by people she had met at the time. She also calls into question the dichotomy between the old and new Dubai described in the first chapters. Therein probably lies the risk of examining migrants of a given national community in terms of social class, which are shifting social constructions, in particular as a result of the migratory experience. Social stratification in time and space (periodization) and understanding a given individual’s migratory project, taking into account the degree of autonomy (constraints v. freedoms) he enjoys, are probably key to understanding practices and discourse, with regard both to the host country and to how the country of origin is perceived. Similarly, if we take an interest in a national community of migrants and the relationships individuals have with each other, it would seem essential to study the sociology of social representations of the home country if we are to understand an approach emphasizing subjectivities produced in migratory space and time.

8The important message of Neha Vora’s work is that, contrary to the Emirati state’s practice of distinguishing between nationals and migrants and the occasional exploitation of this division by migrants themselves (hence the expression of “participatory exclusion”) and by some academics too, these migrants, in particular the middle classes, call into question, through their way of life and their impact and influence on the city (“lived citizenship”), such categorizations based solely on legal status (the nation state and its citizens versus the economy and migrants). This supposes rights as city-dwellers which, should these rights fail to be recognized, could lead to the politicisation of migrant communities, civil revolt and challenges to the existing political system — and thus maybe to a greater degree of democracy.

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Amin Moghadam, « Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2015, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Amin Moghadam

Sciences Po Paris

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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