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Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City as Corporation

Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 296 pages
Laura Lenell Garland
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Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City as Corporation, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 296 pages

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1Ahmed Kanna’s Dubai: The City as Corporation offers an analysis of what he calls the “family-state” from an angle diametrically opposed to that of journalism and popular scholarship alike. Taking Dubai as a near functional equivalent of the modern nation-state, Kanna goes into the city-state’s well-publicized founding myth, which has been typically characterized by a historical narrative carefully crafted and largely depoliticized by the ruling family. He accomplishes this partly by applying to his own fieldwork in Dubai such notions as: Christopher Davidson’s description of the “ruling bargain”, Henri Lefebvre and the urbanist’s imagination of built space, Ahn Nga Longva’s idea of the “flexible citizen,” and James Ferguson's and Akhil Gupta’s explorations on how nation-states imagine and represent themselves. The connective theme of the book is that, in the end, significant powers manage to obscure the extent of their influence. The anthropologist is, thus, uniquely suited to examine everyday understandings of national identity deployed by Dubai’s ordinary men and women. The result is a valuable re-contextualization of the well-trod Dubai romance (and recently, reported economic “tragedy”), and merits the attention of any Arabian Peninsula scholar, urban theorist, or anthropologist interested in questions of culture, space, and national belonging in a globalizing age.

2The first chapter’s combination of revisionist history and novel anthropological insights illustrates the “family-state’s” skill at dissembling its fundamentally political nature, offering ample evidence of Emirati leaders’ excision of explicitly historical and political tones from their public roles in the past decades. The outcome, argues Kanna, is a dualistic public image of the state’s purported function as protector: on one hand it protects its citizens from elements of the “other” perceived as undesirable, while in other cases, and somewhat paradoxically, it claims to be the benevolent protector of the same “other” groups. In the case of the state’s own discreet appendages, or corporations which Kanna classifies as parastatal, these two roles come into a fundamental tension when evidence of violations of resident workers’ basic rights and needs becomes widespread, public knowledge (p. 206). As becomes evident, the state’s ability to achieve this effect relies on particular constructions of the concept of citizen and of citizen hierarchies, of various types of residents, and of dominant, local interpretations of modernity.

3Kanna’s second chapter introduces another key contribution of the text. Connecting Dubai’s prestige-projects to broader trends in the “Global South,” he argues that the production of Dubai’s postmodern, abstract architecture means big-name architects “[collaborate] in the erasure of local histories and the reaffirmation of the claims local elites make on the politics, histories, and spaces they already dominate” (p. 80). Perhaps even more provocatively, he points out that the exclusivity which is embodied in this architecture and which further reinforces divisions between both cosmopolitan locals and global elites, and the excluded “others” building the towers and waterparks, is in fact the condition of existence for supposedly “authentic,” local artistic expressions. The irony, according to Kanna, is that the loose collective he calls “Starchitects” have built their identities on supposedly radical worldviews. While he repeatedly shows this group to be, as well as its reviewers, invoking the tabula rasa they see in Dubai, these people operate neither in an apolitical environment, nor in a “blank” one. The fact that these misunderstandings actually undergird their work, and in effect, Dubai’s branding, is a testament to the efficacy of the family-state’s complex yet comprehensive modes of depoliticization.

4The fourth chapter’s eponymous discussion of the city as a corporation highlights the increasingly pervasive influence of neoliberal principles on the citizenry and parastatal organizations. Kanna shows how neoliberal ideology defies political, social, or cultural bounds, and how capital and state “demobilize citizens” through the conflation of consumerism with progress and modernity (p. 161-162). A range of Dubai’s residents articulate neoliberal principles as primarily emancipatory, freeing business from political constraints and individuals from particularly rigid understandings of Islam. Kanna points out that, eventually, for most interviewees “politics somehow disappear” (p. 162). The paradox is that the ruler sets the conditions of possibility for “flexible citizens [to] balance the traditions with modernity,” and yet is still regularly invoked apolitically (p. 166).

  • 1 Kanna, 34. Kanna notes that this group, named after Anh Nga Longva and Ara Wilson’s term for their (...)

5The dominant definition of modernity is also integral to this de-politicization. Kanna argues that this particular conceptualization promoted by the state is exceptionally suited for Dubai’s “flexible citizens.”1 Such citizens reject the nostalgia and conservatism which Kanna argues characterize their “neo-orthodox” compatriots in favor of modernizing and entrepreneurial missions. Crucially, this enactment of Emirati identity allows “flexible citizens” to reconcile pressures perceived as traditional, with both their pluralist identities and neoliberal concerns. The result is a distinctive subjectivity, described as exceptional by even its own signifiers (p. 143). Kanna further argues that the government employs these citizens in efforts to achieve a “post-purist” discourse. This rhetorical move fashions a space for upper-middle class foreign residents while keeping them at a distance from the local citizenry. Promotion of a creative meritocratic class also serves the ruler’s corporate interests, and helps them to refer (seemingly without contradiction) to both an endangered, local culture and a pluralist and progressive society.

  • 2 Kanna, 112. He validates this move by citing the precedent of scholars such as Siegfried Kracauer a (...)

6Lastly, Kanna contributes to broader issues on doing fieldwork in the Emirates. It seems that some of Kanna’s most compelling arguments were triggered by the very challenges he met during this project. Because of the difficulty in penetrating Emirati social circles, Kanna partially resorts to methods beyond traditional participant observation, and examines “common sense” cultural utterings.2 In this light, he culls information from formal interviews, editorials, cartoons, and advertisements and analyzes each utterance or pop culture product for its unstated and secondary meanings. For the most part, Kanna resourcefully transforms a fieldwork compromise into an aperture into the power relations undergirding Emirati society.

7However, his portrait of “neo-orthodox” citizens in the third chapter, a foil against which he draws his construction of the flexible citizen, might veer too close to the cultural reductionism he is elsewhere careful to avoid. The lesser development of his argument pertaining to these subjects, who he himself notes cannot practically be separated from their neoliberal counterparts, might be attributed to some of the aforementioned fieldwork challenges (p. 172). Specifically, Kanna does not thoroughly explicate his positionality, such as the origins of his relationships with most of his interlocutors. Paired with his reliance on inherently conscribing formal interviews (as opposed to more socially immersive fieldwork) in the fifth chapter, some of his statements pertaining to the “neo-orthodox” and South Asian communities might therefore strike some readers as less convincing in comparison to the contribution that Kanna’s book can unequivocally claim — an elegant case for an alternative understanding of Dubai’s dominant notions of modernity as understood through the locally promoted concept of a “flexible” citizenry.

8Overall, Dubai: The City as Corporation makes several valuable interventions into the field of anthropology and research on the Arabian Peninsula, it delves into both the dominant historical, political, and social research on the region as well as prior understandings of neoliberalism’s myriad, contingent materializations. To the field of anthropology, Kanna adds a convincing case to what seems to be an expanding movement; one that relies less on particular types of access to subjects, or full, social immersion, and focuses more on the context, resources, and the “texts” available in each unique time and place.

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1 Kanna, 34. Kanna notes that this group, named after Anh Nga Longva and Ara Wilson’s term for their analogs in Vietnam and Thailand, respectively, is composed of citizens whom the state has encouraged to question traditional identities and values in an effort to increase their contributions to the state economy.

2 Kanna, 112. He validates this move by citing the precedent of scholars such as Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin.

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Laura Lenell Garland, « Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City as Corporation », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 04 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Lenell Garland

M.A. Candidate for 2013 in Near Eastern Studies, New York University

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