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Ahmed Kanna, Amélie Le Renard, and Neha Vora, Beyond Exception. New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020, 162 pages
Laurent Bonnefoy
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Beyond Exception. New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula / Ahmed Kanna; Amélie Le Renard; Neha Vora.- Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020.- 162 p. ISBN 9781501750304.

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  • 1 Namely Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City as Corporation, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 201 (...)

1Beyond Exception. New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula is a thought-provoking academic manifesto. It brings together three distinguished social scientists whose recent academic publications1 have raised the interest of their colleagues and of students who focus on the Gulf monarchies. The intent of this collective volume is to present and defend a self-reflexive and critical approach to scientific production on the Arabian Peninsula. Such a project is evidently of interest and remains fundamental as the region has historically been at the center of a variety of domination processes, and is still structured at the intersection of evolving forms of exclusion and power relations built in particular on race, class and gender.

2The line of argument of this short book states that the Arabian Peninsula has predominantly been approached (and constructed) by foreign Western scholars as an exception in which societies are faced with a set of binary alternatives (modernity vs. tradition for example), and remain constrained by tribal and religious identities. According to the three authors, it is now necessary to go beyond this approach and promote one that states fully the relevance of contemporary problematics that structure up-to-date social sciences, consequently parting from representations that seek to “exoticize” the Peninsula. In doing that, the book seeks to analyze the effects of the exception narrative on the societies studied as well as on the practices of researchers and on experts themselves.

3The purpose is relevant in any case. Such reflection, clarified in an introduction co-written by all three authors, is then put to test in one collective chapter of ‘reflexive ethnography’ which focuses on how researchers construct their object (or ‘field site’) as ‘outsiders’ in such an allegedly exceptional setting. The interpretation is further defended in three successive individual chapters that present recent work that each of the authors have published in other formats elsewhere. Amélie Le Renard delves into the exceptionalist narratives and counter-narratives of western expatriates in Riyadh and Dubai. Neha Vora focuses on debates on gender and imperialism emerging within Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha and on its internal evolutions during the mid-2010s. Ahmed Kanna analyses the figure of the foreign worker, using a Marxist lens to “de-exceptionalize the Gulf”, showing that contemporary modes of domination and exploitation in that region are similar to those in neoliberal societies of the North. The book thus serves as an interesting digest of these recent works emphasizing a number of counter-intuitive conclusions linked, for instance, to the self-perceived fragility of the status of many Western managers working in Dubai companies.

4Beyond Exception is nevertheless built on one clear premise. It intends to highlight how “white privileged Westerners […] are complicit in their silence in naturalizing contemporary power relations both between the West and the Gulf and within Gulf societies themselves”, a statement that the authors portray as controversial within the academic field itself. The ambition to deliver a (political) statement on the current state of research and its evolution is valuable: knowledge production rightly needs to distance itself from many representations that appear to have long remained unquestioned and are still being pushed forward by certain individuals and institutions. The book can be understood as an invitation to acknowledge that themes, objects and interpretations are value-laden and can be directly connected to processes of domination linked to neo/post/colonialism.

5Yet, the ambition of the authors to criticize past representations or supposedly dominant ones within academia may at times appear to miss the point, mocking, without the necessary nuance, past scholarship to build a bogeyman (or paper tiger) whose main purpose will be to value the alleged novelty of their reflections. Are these approaches really that ‘new’ when it comes to research on the field? Self-reflexive paradigms and research built around the idea that the societies of the Peninsula are diverse and engaged in multiple dynamics many of which are linked to race, gender, age and class have existed for decades. Given the number of publications mentioned in the book (the introduction serves as a near exhaustive panorama of academic work in English), one wonders who exactly is there really left to contradict, apart from experts in certain think-tanks and a few journalists who specialize in the region? If both of the latter continue to have serious leverage on foreign policies and in the mainstream media, it is doubtful that they are really the ones who structure academic debates and that “shape research agendas”, as is claimed in the introduction.

6As early as 1982, a collective volume such as La Péninsule arabique aujourd’hui edited by Paul Bonnenfant emphasized many of the dynamics (urbanization, cultural production, migration, etc.) that are now at the core of much contemporary research deemed innovative and progressive in the social sciences, and that is lauded in Beyond Exception. It is important to agree that critical approaches, or those coined by the three authors as “de-exceptionalizing interventions” (i.e. that do not fall within what they describe as “the imperialist logics”), go well beyond ethnographies written in European languages that have been produced over the last “ten to fifteen years”, as claimed. Post-Orientalist reflections, many of which are carried out by researchers affiliated with academic institutions in the Arabian Peninsula, exist and just need to be made more accessible or visible – an ambition that many tend to forget along the way (including myself!) as we try to implement critical approaches. The quasi-absence of publications in Arabic (an issue that the authors very briefly touch upon in the conclusion) in the bibliography presented at the end of the volume is thus illustrative of the limits of a book which, as thought-provoking as it may be, does not fully succeed in reaching its goals. Still, one can evidently give credit to the authors for opening up a much needed, and fascinating, scientific and methodological debate that should be pursued. Such a manifesto may thus have a specific impact on students in Europe and North America who are in the process of discovering the region.

7One could also add that, interestingly, the book is structured around ablind spot: that concerning the share that Yemen takes in the Arabian Peninsula and in scholarly work. Are the authors of Beyond Exception writing about the so-called Gulf (a label which is evidently politically loaded and which is, curiously, not discussed here) or about the Arabian Peninsula as the title suggests? Ambiguity remains persistent. Works focusing on Yemeni society, which represents the largest local population in the region and is the most evidently affected by processes of domination and imperialism, are not integrated in the self-reflexive demonstration of the book. Adding them would probably have brought nuance, including, for instance, following the positions taken by a vast array of foreign (Western/white) academics who, in the context of the war since 2015, are being regarded by many Yemenis as paying lip-service to the Huthi rebellion by primarily developing a critique of the Saudi led-coalition and of Western collaboration in the name of anti-imperialism.

8Such an example could for instance generate interesting reflections on how research agendas have gained a high level of independence. They are explicitly claiming to diverge from certain representations that, throughout the book, are described as exceptionalist discourses that allegedly have the upper hand in the production of knowledge. Our hypothesis here is that, when it comes to the disciplines (which can broadly be defined as political and social anthropology) practiced by the three authors of Beyond Exception, the opposite is likely to be true – for the better. One can thus accept that being mainstream in an academic field is not necessarily a hindrance. It can even, once such a reality is acknowledged, become intellectually satisfying and productive, allowing one to use its energy for other, tangible, intellectual battles.

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1 Namely Ahmed Kanna, Dubai: The City as Corporation, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 296 p.; Amélie Le Renard, Le privilège occidental : travail, intimité et hiérarchies postcoloniales à Dubaï, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2019, 272 p., and Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013, 245 p. All three monographs have been reviewed by Arabian Humanities in issues 1, 13 and 4 respectively.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « Ahmed Kanna, Amélie Le Renard, and Neha Vora, Beyond Exception. New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 16 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Bonnefoy

CERI/Sciences Po Paris

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