Rana AlMutawa, ““Glitzy” Malls and Coffee Shops: Everyday Places of Belonging and Social Contestation in Dubai,” Arab Studies JournalVol. XXVIII, No. 2 (Fall 2020).

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

Rana AlMutawa (RA): It is not uncommon to find journalistic and academic accounts labelling Gulf cities, particularly their so-called glitzy spaces (such as shopping malls and new developments) as superficial and alienating. Some of these narratives implicitly or explicitly seek to uncover the “real” city that lies beneath the veneer of the spectacle. In doing so, they advance a problematic binary discourse about supposedly “authentic, local” spaces contrasted with alienating, “tourist” spaces. I address the question of who gets included and marginalized from these shopping malls and new developments, while also arguing that these places should not be dismissed as “non-places,” neatly separated from the everyday lives of inhabitants. In this article, I show how my Emirati interlocutors re-appropriate these places as significant cultural sites; create a sense of belonging within them; and negotiate, perform, and challenge social norms in these spaces—while also demonstrating that belonging is often built on exclusions based on race, class, and a variety of other factors.

It is not only Western academics who use these (implicit or explicit) labels of fake/authentic. Some of these perceptions of authenticity circulate among inhabitants as well, producing essentialized understandings of culture, in addition to delegitimizing other forms of knowledge. At the beginning of my article, I quote Reem al-Kamali, an Emirati journalist who wrote an ode to a neighborhood shopping center in Dubai, which she describes as a “community space” where some Emiratis congregate daily. A few months later, al-Kamali posted a tweet about an Arab researcher who came to the United Arab Emirates to research its society, and who used the mall as a field site. He did not find Emiratis there and decided to quit his research and leave. Al-Kamali criticized him for searching for a culture in a shopping mall, advising that to understand a society and culture, one needs to frequent museums or research centers instead.

There are many issues to unpack here, such as the implicit assumptions that only citizens can constitute part of the social fabric of a country. Through this lens, globalized places such as shopping malls (or citizens who may appear to be “Westernized”) are often not considered legitimate or “authentic” enough. Al-Kamali, despite writing about the shopping mall as an important social space, also depicted the mall as a culturally irrelevant place when compared to museums and cultural centers, the latter supposedly more legitimate sources of knowledge and culture. Such divisions of fake/authentic are not uncommon, and they may lead us to neglect how certain places are also important sites of belonging, socializing, social contestation, and attachment for many inhabitants. By exploring these realities, I hope to go beyond this overplayed binary. Recognizing these connections and similarities can allow us to move beyond exceptionalist narratives about these places.

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

RA: There is insightful academic literature on the Gulf that explores discourses of authenticity promoted by the state, and how these discourses circulate among Gulf citizens. Academics have shown how national narratives produce an imaginary of an “authentic” and “purely Arab” citizenry, which results in the dismissal of ethnic diversity among citizens, and in the homogenization of diverse citizen languages, dialects, and dress. However, some academics also engage in discourses of authenticity that create binaries of authentic/fake. In such depictions, the low-income and older spaces of the Gulf cities (and, by extension, the people in them) are implicitly or explicitly delineated as “authentic,” and contrasted with the “glitzy” city, the latter presented as alienating and devoid of cultural and social meanings. This is perhaps an effort to counter state narratives about these cities, with the implicit assumption that top-down developments are “inauthentic” compared to grassroots developments. While giving attention to places (and people) that have been under- (or mis-) represented is very important, these discourses of authenticity lead to the fetishization of some places and to moralizing narratives about others.

I hope that this type of work becomes part of a growing academic literature on the Gulf that seeks to contest approaches that exceptionalize the Gulf and produce it as completely different from other contexts. For instance, I discuss in my article how some of these malls and new developments are important places for some people to see and be seen by other segments of society. Seeing and being seen often entail some performances of distinction, such as through dress or behavior. These practices and performances are often associated with certain groups, such as wealthy khaleejis, yet they are common almost everywhere, even if they manifest in different ways. As I have argued elsewhere, “creative classes” enjoy going to art galleries and talks, but part of attending these events is the desire to network, to see and be seen by members of the creative community. Academics attend conferences for their content, but also to establish their presence among other academics and to be recognized as part of the academic community. This can also entail performances such as “showing off” one’s knowledge. These performances of distinction that take place in malls or other “glitzy” developments are not specific to the Gulf, nor to certain demographics. Recognizing these connections and similarities can allow us to move beyond exceptionalist narratives about these places.

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

RA: My recent work explores discourses of authenticity from various angles. In an earlier article, “The Mall isn’t Authentic!”: Dubai’s Creative Class And The Construction of Social Distinction“, I focused on the distinctions that middle-class seekers of “authenticity” construct between themselves and others through their attitudes towards Dubai’s “glitzy” urban spaces, such as the shopping malls and new developments. In that article, I attempted to answer the question of who feels included and who feels excluded by the city’s rapid changes, and who is concerned about the “authenticity” of Dubai’s glitzy spaces. I argued that, in some cases, the quest for authenticity also becomes a way to perform social distinction and to present oneself as more socially and culturally aware than mainstream society. This article connects to my previous work by exploring often dismissed social meanings that take place in these settings.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RA: I am currently writing my PhD dissertation, which follows similar themes as this paper, and working to produce a book manuscript based on it.

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

RA: I hope that both academics and non-academics in the Gulf read this article, and that it can lead to more discussions about how we can write about and understand complex places—questions I have been struggling with myself. For instance, some researchers have asked how we can speak about the social meanings and forms of belonging in places like shopping malls, knowing these are neoliberal spaces that foster various forms of inequality. I have asked myself the same question, and I hope this article offers a critical enquiry that investigates some of my middle-class interlocutors’ (and to an extent, my own) experiences of belonging and sense of familiarity with these places, while also demonstrating how these forms of belonging are often created through exclusions—not just in the Gulf and in “glitzy” developments, but elsewhere as well. I hope the article can generate more debate about how to go about understanding and writing about these places without reproducing the trope of inauthentic Gulf cities, reducing the experiences of the individuals who belong to them, or overlooking the exclusions that occur in these places—and in the hierarchies that enable their existence.

J: Which academic conversations and debates about the Gulf have impacted your work?

RA: Natalie Koch’s work on the geopolitics of spectacle has been extremely insightful for me, particularly her exploration of different inhabitants’ attitudes towards their spectacular cities and how they navigate them. Neha Vora’s research on belonging among middle-class Indians in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been similarly useful in allowing me to think about how people navigate inclusions and exclusions. Koch’s and Vora’s work has challenged many of the binaries that are used to understand the region, such as dichotomies of belonging/exclusion and liberal/illiberal.

Similarly, conversations with the following colleagues who have worked on the topic of belonging/exclusion in the Gulf have been essential to my own academic development: Shaundel Nicole Sanchez, whose work navigates national, gendered and religious identities, and confronts binaries of belonging/exclusion—by exploring the experiences of American converts to Islam who moved from the United States to the UAE, Sanchez challenges the idea that people only move from East to West in search of safety; Laure Assaf, who works on the everyday socializing of youth in the UAE, such as the socializing that takes place in shopping malls; Idil Akinci, who explores belonging among Arab non-citizens in Dubai and ethnic diversity among Emiratis; Nadeen Dakkak, who has researched migration literature on the Gulf; and May Al-Dabbagh, whose current research is on experiences of motherhood and the work of serial migrants in Dubai. Al Dabbagh also has focused on the geopolitics of knowledge production, wherein she developed a method called Self Tracing which uses dialogical exchange and critical pedagogy to theorize intersectionality in the Global South. All of these projects have been particularly inspiring to me.

Excerpt from the article (from pp. 66-69)

Glitzy places equally afford opportunities to negotiate gender relations. Wynn describes how shopping malls are one of the few places where men and women can meet in Jeddah. Matthews et al argue that “the shopping mall becomes both a site of defiance and of ‘openness and opportunity’, a radical location where young people can attempt to redefine their position in both cultural and geographical space.” I do not want to assign resistance to my interlocutors’ transgressive actions, nor to imply that only acts of resistance are meaningful and worthy of study. Rather, I acknowledge that some use the shopping mall as a venue for acts of defiance, but many others use the mall to act in other, no less meaningful ways.

Hanin, an Arab woman, recounted her memories in the mall as a teenager. In one memory, a security guard caught her smoking in the mall’s staircase, who chased after her and her friend. In another, she had romantic escapades with her first boyfriend in the cinema. Hanin also made use of other luxury places. She and her boyfriend went to walk on the private beaches at the Palm, the famous coastal development. Hanin was not allowed to date, and she knew they would not bump into anyone they knew there. But because they were not residents of the Palm, they had to sneak in, and security guards would occasionally catch and chase them. In a Twitter post, an Arab user recalled similar memories: “Secretly dating in the café that used to be in Debenhams . . . in Deira City Centre where I spent most of my teen age days! Memories.” Of course, many other members of society do not view such actions favorably. A young Emirati Twitter user said: “It’s the first time I like Mercato coz [sic] no locals sitting in a café flirting . . . the mall was almost empty! #thankyouRamadan.”

When families and friends discuss something out of the ordinary that they had observed, or “transgressive” behaviour they came across, they frequently observed the act in a mall, coffee shop, or other glitzy place. These places are venues for people to observe other members of society and engage in cultural negotiations. These discussions are particularly evident on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Assaf argues that these sort of conflicts, which arise out of encounters with the “other,” are precisely what makes malls public spaces. She gives the example of two Twitter campaigns that Emirati women initiated to advocate that malls enforce more modest dress codes, after seeing Westerner mallgoers dressed in revealing outfits.

Rather than “non-places” that lack “culture and identity,” malls and other glitzy places are venues in which people create, recreate, and negotiate culture and identity. Glitzy places do not necessarily embody the idealized public square. Nevertheless, they play a role in beginning discussions about culture and identity. Behavior that critics might consider daring or immoral can become commonplace as more individuals practice it in such public places over time. For instance, in previous decades, some would find it controversial if they saw a young woman sitting in a coffee shop either alone or with friends, without her family. Suaad, an Emirati woman in her forties, recalls from her teenage and early adulthood years in Dubai that

if I was standing alone in front of Wafi [mall], not at a very late hour [laughing]. But if I was like, let’s say six o’clock in the evening, and you’re not with somebody . . . If people saw you like that, they’ll be like, “Aah, someone saw you in Wafi, you were alone, weren’t you? What were you doing?” So again the culture was . . . like . . . “you’re not to be seen.” And that went on for a good [while], like even in the nineties also, you know?

My Emirati female interlocutors, as well as some of my female Arab and South Asian interlocutors, described not being allowed to go out as teenagers or young women without older family members accompanying them. Although the same rules may still apply for some conservative families today, for the majority it has undoubtedly changed. Suaad was one of several interviewees who perceived these transformed family dynamics through her observations of people’s behavior in malls:

Like for example now, when you go to Dubai Mall, and it’s nice I’ve seen it in my daughter’s generation, they’re all with their husbands and kids, whereas in the past, the woman used to go off on her own and the man was sitting in the coffee shop somewhere else. And [the man] was like, “No, don’t come say hello to me, my friends will see you,” or whatever. That’s all changed now. It’s like, my son-in-law’s friend will say hello to him and say hello to my daughter too.

Malls and coffee shops are sites for these cultural negotiations. Women’s presence in these places today is different than it was in previous decades. Similarly, Emirati women went to these glitzy places wearing formerly controversial colored abayas, rather than black abayas, and thereby intentionally or inadvertently challenged dominant dress codes. By wearing colored abayas in public, did these women intend to challenge the status quo? Perhaps some did, but not others. Despite their intentions, some segments of society did view these behaviours as transgressive and debated what they saw.

Similar changes took place elsewhere in the Gulf. For example, a Saudi Twitter user noted: “Go to any mall here [in Saudi] and see the colors of the abayas, five years ago they did not wear colored abayas.” Their phrase “go to any mall here and see” encapsulates how malls are ideal places to observe social norms in a society. These sites become stages for certain encounters to take place, and friends, family, and strangers debate those encounters in everyday conversations and on social media.

Some individuals use social media simply to express themselves and share their thoughts with a limited audience, and post without an expectation of receiving attention or many “likes.” But for others, such as the Emirati modesty campaigners Assaf discusses, social media is a means to reach large segments of society and effect change. It is not always easy to distinguish when people post on social media simply to express themselves, when they hope to provoke change, or both. But social media is a rich source for examining the observation and negotiation of cultural norms in glitzy places.

In a Twitter post, an influential Emirati woman bemoaned the behavior of Emirati youth who, she says, were sipping their coffees at Mercato Mall’s Starbucks during prayer times. Another Mercato Mall Starbucks customer complained on Twitter of another incident she deemed inappropriate: “You [a woman] sit in Starbucks in Mercato between all these men? Excuse me but you have no shame.” The two Twitter users I quoted here explicitly mention the (same) place where they observed behavior they considered indecent. At Starbucks, they encountered behavior that differed from their usually accepted norms, prompting conversations about social mores. The tweets provide various examples of how glitzy places allow different segments of society to cross each other. Another Twitter user criticized an Emirati model she saw at Mercato for dressing “like she’s English.” Yet another user described what they perceived as indecent behavior in a coffee shop in a shopping area in Jumeirah: “An old woman from a Gulf country, [wearing] abaya and niqab [and smoking] shisha!!!” While the comments appear to be from and about other Emiratis (or khalijis), there are clear differences in the way these individuals negotiate modesty, religion, and gender norms. These privatized spaces allow individuals with different ideals and subjectivities to come across each other. These places reflect evolving socio-spatial dynamics within groups of similar class and ethnic backgrounds and, as Assaf describes, among different groups.