Ahmed Kanna, Amélie Le Renard, and Neha Vora, Beyond Exception: New Approaches to the Arabian Peninsula (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ahmed Kanna, Amelie Le Renard, and Neha Vora (AK, ALR & NV): The three of us have been conducting fieldwork in Arabian Peninsula cities (namely, Dubai, Riyadh, and Doha) over nearly two decades. Our experiences as ethnographers and academics inspired conversations about conducting fieldwork within a “field” that is marked by exceptionalist representations, not only from the outside but also by state discourses, by academic and other “expert” commentary, and by our interlocutors themselves. In many ways we think this book comes out of our frustrations at constantly encountering, among colleagues and journalists and friends and family, presumptions of a certain sensationalism or hyper-exploitation (or hyper-sexism, etc.) within our research sites and subjects. These presumptions have to an extent prevented the Arabian Peninsula from being taken seriously in anthropology and sociology, when we feel that some of the most prescient global concerns are playing out in the Gulf in interesting ways that highlight transnational connectivities and have a lot to offer our fields.

In this book, we analyze how exceptionalism shaped our own expectations when we first arrived to our “fields,” and how daily interactions with various interlocutors helped us develop the different understandings of citizenship, migration, gender, race, politics, and urbanism in the Arabian Peninsula we now have. We advocate for reflexive, situated, ethnographic, transnational, and postcolonial perspectives on the region, in order to avoid reproducing exceptionalism. As we show in the introduction, many academic works on the region have adopted such perspectives in the last ten to twenty years. Beyond deconstructing exceptionalism, we also analyze what exceptionalism does, how it is used by various people, especially white/Western residents, and how it helps shape power relations in the societies we study.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AK, ALR & NV: We were invested in this book in highlighting and moving beyond the now naturalized categories through which we “know” Gulf societies: monarchial rule, the kafala system, authoritarianism, petrowealth, hypermodernity, citizens versus expats, modern day slavery, tribes, gender oppression, sectarianism, and so on. To do so we first started by going back to our early fieldnotes from our first visits to the region. What we quickly realized is that none of these categories encapsulated our field experiences, both because of who our interlocutors were and because of who we were. It is puzzling that the categories we work with continue to get reproduced given how reductive they actually are, and even we are guilty of perpetuating some of these ideas. So the project of de-exceptionalizing as an endeavor that starts not in the writing process but in the research process itself—as a political commitment also—became our focus.

We take our inspiration, of course, from postcolonial theory and some of the interventions into the culture concept within anthropology, and we have also included feminist and class analysis, attention to race and racialization, and an attempt to denaturalize divisions based on citizenship status and national origin. We also wanted to showcase our individual and collective viewpoints, so the book is a bit unconventional in that the first two chapters and the conclusion are co-written by the three of us, and each of us has a stand-alone chapter based on our specific research experiences.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AK, ALR & NV: The three of us have worked on different objects: immigration and diasporic belonging, and more recently global higher education for Neha; gender and then Western privilege for Amelie; class struggles, exploitation, and social reproduction, and how these are expressed in urban practices and forms, in the case of Ahmed. The three of us have conducted fieldwork in Dubai, but also in Doha (Neha) and Riyadh (Amelie). We work in different academic contexts, the United States for Neha and Ahmed, France for Amelie. This book is based on our previous works, but it has also opened space for more general conversations about studies of the Arabian Peninsula and their reception in our academic circles.

Everyone had developed a reflection on race in the field before this book, but confronting our three experiences together, and also linking them with experiences in our academic milieus, took us further. For example, we drew on critical studies of imaginative geography, and methodological and theoretical critiques of the culture concept in ethnography to expose how untheorized and uncritical imaginaries of place and of spatio-cultural difference helped to produce “the field” even before we set foot in the Gulf. In many ways, the arguments we make in this book are not new to in our disciplines—colleagues from the Global South and from marginalized perspectives in the West have been producing knowledge for decades that utilize these frames. However, it was astonishing to us that they have been so rarely used to think about the Arabian Peninsula.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AK, ALR & NV: We hope that all people interested in the Arabian Peninsula will read this book, and that it will help consolidate a reflexive and postcolonial turn in studies of the region. The book also reaffirms the centrality of themes such as migration, gender, work, class, and sexuality to understand the region, while such themes tend to be peripheralized in the media, and in some academic circles, compared to geopolitical discourses centered on oil, state, and Islam, which often reproduce exceptionalism. We also hope to read other works on various, possibly emerging themes produced in the Arabian Peninsula, and we are excited about the campuses there as potential sites of knowledge production in this regard. Finally, this book speaks not only to area studies of the Arabian Peninsula, but also to anthropology and sociology, arguing that the cities of the Gulf can be rich sites for global and transnational theory, and envisioning disciplinary formations in which the region is centered rather than marginalized, exceptionalized, or dismissed as it is now.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ALR: I am working on three editorial projects. My monograph about “Western privilege” in Dubai has been translated to English and should be published hopefully in 2021 by Stanford University Press. Together with colleagues, I am also working on a special issue, in French, about whiteness in migration, and on a collective book about gender in revolution, in the Middle East and Maghreb. I would also like to start new fieldwork deepening my interest in postcolonial feminism, possibly in France, or between France and the Middle East, but the project is still at a very early stage.

AK: For me, Beyond Exception was my “swan song” in relation to the Gulf. Reviewing my writings over the fifteen years since I published my first article on the region, I came to the conclusion that it was time to bring my critiques of worker exploitation closer to home. A lot of my work on the Gulf engaged with the question of how workers’ movements might transform working conditions, and political power, for all the region’s working people, and how neocolonial forms of management stood as an obstacle to this. In recent years, I realized that transformation would not happen until it also happened in the imperial metropoles. Since 2014, I have been active in the organized US left, especially where I live in the Bay Area, California. I have focused on writing, teaching, and organization-building in support of worker struggles, in particular in the education sector.

NV: I have been working on a couple co-written pieces with Danya Al Saleh, who is a brilliant PhD candidate in Geography at Wisconsin and conducted her dissertation research in Education City, Qatar. She has helped me think in new ways about the topics I started to engage in Teach for Arabia (2018), and we have been focusing more specifically on student activism and anti-imperial critiques within American branch campuses. I have also recently become interested in animal studies and anthropology of human/non-human encounters, and have been planning a new project in the Middle East (including the Arabian Peninsula) that looks at the role of companion and stray animals in immigrant life, with a focus on feral cat care as a form of urban place-making for marginalized populations.

J: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Gulf Studies right now? What areas would you like to see emerging scholars explore?

AK, ALR & NV: In the introduction and the conclusion of our book, we list other scholars, artists, novelists, and activists who are challenging us to rethink the Arabian Peninsula. Even more have been published since we turned in the final version of the manuscript. Gulf Studies is very exciting right now, especially the work by graduate students, who have unique viewpoints and projects that push existing knowledge in more expansive directions. We encourage readers to engage with these works and to spend time exploring work by graduate students in their various fields: we have been excited by graduate student panels we have attended at MESA which focus on the Arabian Peninsula or weave the region into broader thematic conversations, and by dissertations we have had the opportunity to read. Some of the areas of scholarship we find most exciting are those that complexify the citizen/foreigner divide, make feminist interventions, offer new ways of thinking about immigrant life, and creatively engage political economy.

There is a lack of research on the legacy of slavery in contemporary societies of the Arabian Peninsula, on anti-blackness in the Gulf, and on Black khaleejis, and this is an area in which we would like to see more scholarship. Mahmud Traori’s novel Maymûna (2007) was a pioneering intervention in this regard. Anti-Black/Brown racism has become a subject on some social networks in the region, and there have been initiatives to discuss it in various institutions (Education City, Qatar; Oxford and Cambridge Emirati Society), so there is interest in this topic, which we hope to see turn into richer scholarship , ideally from the perspectives of Arabian societies and people.


Excerpt from the book

Centering the Arabian Peninsula (from the conclusion)

While this book has focused on the GCC states, but particularly the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia through case studies of Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh, we are interested not in reifying an imagined idea of a homogenous cultural and social landscape of the Arabian Peninsula but rather in challenging the way that “Gulf Studies” as a project has created a narrow focus on the region that privileges top-down state-centric approaches at the expense of interdisciplinary, ethnographic, locally grounded, historical, and transnational analyses. The categories that scholars, journalists, and pundits have naturalized to understand and explain the people, places, temporalities, and politics of the Arabian Peninsula are based in geopolitical and academic genealogies of empire: first British and now also American. As ethnographers, we have had to struggle against these naturalizations in formulating our research questions, in navigating our field sites, in representing our interlocutors, and in gaining legitimacy for our work among our peers within area studies and beyond. But denaturalizing both region and the categories that are ascribed to the region has allowed us to ask questions about what knowledge that starts in the field site might look like, with knowledge producers outside of the Global North, and ask about connections between what are considered emic or exceptional phenomena and other parts of the world.

One of the images particularly salient in our minds as we developed our thoughts along these lines was of the Gulf as supposedly exceptional owing to its oil resources. Oil is often cited as the source of the region’s so-called pathologies, as well as its wealth. The tafra naftiyya, or “oil leap,” was both an emic category deployed by our Gulf Arab interlocutors, especially among managerial professional strata, and the key to all the supposed riddles presented by Gulf societies, when seen from outside. Petrodollars piled up in Gulf state treasuries and were recycled as handouts to Gulf citizens, who became grateful, silent, and lazy. But, then, if Gulf societies are pathological oil societies, what does that make Western ones, the United States above all? For isn’t the infamous “American dream” itself an oil-based ideology? What other material condition made possible the single-family-occupancy houses, interstate highways, suburbs, and shopping malls through which the postwar American white heteronormative “good life” could be realized? Indeed, what other material condition makes possible the American and neoliberal concept of democracy as an elite, top-down planning practice managed and distributed by a few wealthy capitalists, to the exclusion of other, more expansive definitions of democracy?  And what part of the world, other than the Gulf itself, has been as indispensable in providing the petrodollars and military bases necessary to prop up the postwar American finance capital dominated order? Another parallel to draw is the use of so-called counterterrorist measures to repress any critique of the government, a widespread process we can observe in many contemporary states. In Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, many people suspected to be close to “jihadi Islamist” dissent were imprisoned without trial; in the 2010s, the ban on public protest was reasserted, and many political opponents with various orientations were accused of “terrorism,” dozens of them sentenced to death. Though the modalities and scale of violence depend on contexts, the use of counterterrorism to repress opponents is far from exceptional, which blurs, once again, the liberal/illiberal dichotomy. In France in the aftermath of the 2015 shootings, the state of emergency was adopted and many protest marches were banned; counterterrorist measures targeted people that were supposedly close to “radical Islam” but also leftists, through searches and house arrests. Since then, social movements have been increasingly criminalized, as many experienced through the violent repression of protest marches in 2018–2019 (more than 2,000 wounded). The governmental production of counterterrorist consent and how it has been used to repress criticism would be interesting to compare in different political contexts.

Another supposed exception characterizing the Gulf that we have challenged is the practice of kafala. The management of migrants often interpreted as exceptional under the term “kafala” can be put in perspective with what is happening in the United States and fortress Europe, for example. Migration under contemporary global capitalism to many European and North American countries is precarious and exploitative. The states of the wealthy North premise their migration regimes, to put it mildly, not on principles of the universal right to movement or human rights but on temporary labor needs and militarized borders. Anti-immigration policies, including the various measures meant to prevent migrants from asking for asylum, engender hundreds of deaths every year in the Mediterranean Sea and at various borders and roads to European countries; these policies also result in similar kinds of harm and human rights violations, from family separations to sexual assault to death, on the US-Mexico border. While kafala makes domestic workers extremely dependent from their employers, such dependence also exists, with different modalities, in many regimes of labor migration, without even mentioning marriage migration, an instituted and normalized dependence. Gendered exploitation of both male and female migrant workers in the Arabian Peninsula is also paradigmatic of global capitalism, as Ahmed explored in chapter 4. It is far from specific to the region, as seen, for instance, in the case of seasonal female Moroccan workers in Spain, employed on very short-term contracts in agriculture, in the framework of a binational program aimed to provide a workforce while preventing more permanent immigration to the EU: the employers choose poor divorced or widowed women with young kids in order to make sure they go back to Morocco at the end of the season, exploiting their precarity and family situations. On the other hand, we have unpacked how the charges of “modern day slavery” levied on Gulf labor regimes both elide the violence of chattel slavery and diminish the ways that poor workers are exploited in other parts of the world. The privileges of white/Western residents and the essentialization of whiteness/Westernness as expertise reveal the current global racialized hierarchies between universities, diplomas, and people. The ways in which nation, class, and race are articulated in global cities of the Arabian Peninsula may help us de-essentialize Westernness and look at how privileges of mobility and class are often tied to one’s passport nationality. Seen in this context, the hierarchies of “ethnocracy” that are often ascribed to the Gulf are not exceptional but rather part of regional and even international orderings of belonging and human value.

While gender and sexuality issues in the Peninsula are common objects of exceptionalization through the trope of the oppressed Muslim woman or rampant homophobia attributed to so-called Wahhabi Islam, some processes analyzed in the Peninsula may also help us understand global transformations. The policing of public spaces in contexts such as Dubai and Riyadh is part of a widening vision of gendered and racialized security and surveillance, as the penalization of street harassment seen increasingly in more states shows. It tends to construct public spaces as dangerous for women, seen as victims, and to racialize male foreign workers as threatening, while ignoring the many abuses against women in private houses—abuses that spouses, partners, relatives, or employers of domestic workers commit—as well as the precarity of subalternized men in public spaces. On the other hand, the ways that gender-segregated spaces may enable a wide range of femininities and masculinities, including queer and trans subjectivities, are most often rendered invisible, since homonationalism, as a hegemonic discursive formation, represents the West as a safe haven for LGBT people, despite hegemonic heteronormativity and various conservative attacks against their rights, especially by Christian fundamentalists. In this regard, it would be interesting to study the regional and transnational circulations of progressive as well as homophobic and transphobic discourses, with their diverse references to religion, psychology, and geopolitics. What would it mean to center the Arabian Peninsula in research questions about larger contemporary processes such as these?

As ethnographers of the Arabian Peninsula, we are relatively peripheralized in our academic fields. Gulf studies are far from central in US anthropology, for example. Ahmed, one of the US-based authors, remembers that even anthropologists who were pathbreakers in the critical turn of the 1980s and 1990s dismissed the Gulf as a field site when he first began his work there, unconsciously repeating the well-known stereotype we critique in this book: that the Gulf is not where “authentic” Arab culture exists. Similarly, Neha was told by Middle East studies faculty that Dubai was a place without “culture.” This marginalization of the Gulf was reflected more generally in the almost total lack of ethnographic and social scientific knowledge produced on the Arabian Peninsula, beyond the trope of “coffee pots and camels” that Paul Dresch has noted. Ironically, as we have discussed in this book, the region has mostly been reduced to nothing but culture. These stereotyped representations were also applied to Yemen, a country directly allied with the United States, which allowed access to researchers in the US academy, a situation that, as we show in this book, began to change over the past two decades. In France too, the Arabian Peninsula is peripheralized; scholarship on the region is considered as specific, while works on France are supposedly general. In the (transnational) field of Gulf studies, researchers focusing on subjects that governments construct as strategic, especially those related to Islamic militancy and oil, get specific resources, from think tank grants to book prizes. In relation to Saudi Arabia, such subjects were hegemonic when Amélie began her research in the 2000s. Only a final panel in conferences was usually devoted to “society,” and this is where she would present her paper in gender studies. While the researchers, who were predominantly white males, were curious to know about Saudi women they did not have access to, some asked what the “big” political issues at stake were with such a “small” subject.

Hierarchy among subjects of study, which often articulates with other social hierarchies, impacts publications, careers, and access to resources. The image of some subjects as “serious” facilitates publishing in major area studies journals and with career recruitment. How might centering not only the Arabian Peninsula but gender, sexuality, race, household, and other topics that have until now been seen as marginal provide us with better information about the societies we study as well as transnational processes, globalization, and the contemporary world?