Neha Vora, Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar (Stanford University Press, 2018).

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

Neha Vora (NV): I was conducting research for my first book, Impossible Citizens, in Dubai in 2006. Many of the young South Asians I interviewed were graduates of private universities—many partnered with US institutions—that had been growing in the United Arab Emirates under the rubric of “knowledge economy development.” I found the experiences of these college graduates to be different from those of my other interlocutors; specifically, going to college in the United Arab Emirates allowed them to stay uninterrupted in the Gulf, whereas previously they would have had to leave the country for higher education. This allowed for a greater sense of belonging to place. Their college lives also included direct interaction with Emirati peers, which was uncommon in their generation due to segregated neighborhoods and schooling environments. This direct interaction included several instances where South Asian students felt discriminated against by Emirati students, even as they recounted friendships they had built across ethno-national and religious lines. I found that many of these young people described their identity differently from other South Asians I had spoken to, particularly in making claims to “second-class citizenship,” which both sounded like a way of asserting belonging to the UAE (something their parents might disavow), and as a form of liberal politicization that may have come out of the discourses that circulated within their American/Western institutions. These findings made me interested in exploring further how the influx of foreign private higher education was impacting citizenship, identity, and belonging among diasporic youth in the Gulf, as well as among nationals, who were also encountering different people and ideas in these spaces.

Around the same time, I noticed that academics in the United States were becoming highly critical of the proliferation of international partnerships, especially in so-called “illiberal” contexts like the Gulf states. While many of these critiques linked globalized American higher education to larger neoliberal trends in the university, they also reproduced exceptionalizing and Orientalist ideas about the region and its residents. I was frustrated with the top-down geopolitical dichotomies that US-based academics mobilized, which did not reflect my field experiences—I was steeped in the ordinary and varied lives of my interlocutors, lives that did not seem much different from what they might have experienced in the United States or other “Western” contexts. I wanted to know about the everyday encounters that took place within American-style university settings and how they produced meanings about the liberal, the illiberal, the United States, and the Gulf. Education City in Doha, with its concentration of elite US branch campuses, seemed like a great location to focus my research. My first job after graduate school was at Texas A&M University, which has a campus in Education City. This allowed me to teach for three consecutive summers at Texas A&M Qatar and enabled my research to get off the ground. I finished research in Fall 2014, after I had left Texas A&M. Because the research was spread out over four years, I was able to see how student and faculty demographics changed, and the way that various institutions responded to pushback the Education City project was receiving from some segments of Qatari society.

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

NV: While my work is grounded in ethnographic research, I am an interdisciplinary scholar who draws from a wide range of scholarship to understand what I am observing in my fieldwork encounters. The book engages literatures from critical university studies, postcolonial anthropology, gender studies, American studies, and Gulf studies, among others. I was interested when writing this book in having it intervene in the crisis narratives coming out of US academia that I mentioned above, while simultaneously providing information about how everyday life in Education City both reflected and reassembled the social dynamics of Doha. I do this by considering the branch campuses both as extensions of US university structures and hierarchies, and as localized effects of urbanization and nation-building in Qatar. The book’s chapters explore how ideas of liberalism and liberal education circulate within Education City, and how these ideas also create narrow understandings of “Qatariness” that are taken up as well as contested by Qatari and non-Qatari students. In addition to students, I also focus on the role of administrators and faculty, of Qatar Foundation, and the Qatari state.

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

NV: Scholarship on the Gulf, including my previous work, has tended to be either citizen or migrant focused, thus reifying a dichotomy between the two. One of my intentions with this book was to move away from this paradigm, highlighting non-citizens as everyday immigrants to Qatar alongside the heterogeneity of the citizenry, and considering how different people interact with each other on a daily basis in Doha even as there are forms of hierarchy and segregation. I hope this book highlights how difference is not static and bounded but rather produced through ever-changing encounters between individuals, communities, government actors, political groups, and corporate interests, many of which extend beyond the boundaries of the territorial nation-state. I was particularly invested in highlighting the active role that Western and elite “expatriates” play in the production of systems of inequality in the Gulf, and in the production of the categories through which residents, journalists, and academics “know” the region. Implicating this form of expertise and its entanglements with state and corporate actors helps to unpack terms like liberal, illiberal, authoritarian, kafala, rentier state, and knowledge economy.

Teach for Arabia continues interventions into accepted knowledge about the Gulf that I have explored in my other work, namely de-exceptionalizing the region, considering its connections to other parts of the world historically and in the present-day (and to British and US empire), and exploring citizenship beyond the limits of legality and the nation beyond the limits of state rhetoric and policies.

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

NV: This book is for those interested in Qatar and the Arabian Peninsula, for my interlocutors, and for US-based academics who are thinking about what this seemingly recent turn to the global means for higher education. More broadly, it is a project that asks readers to question the kinds of value systems that fall under the rubric of liberalism and the often violent and exclusionary histories and presents that they unwittingly reproduce. Because Qatar and the Gulf are so overdetermined by the presumptions that circulate about them, I hope all of my audiences are to some degree disappointed and challenged by this project. At the same time, no project is closed or without its own blind spots, so I am nervous as well as eager to receive feedback that can push my scholarship further.

Also, since starting this project I have switched jobs to a liberal arts college, which has inspired me to think a lot more about pedagogy, how to decenter elite white students, and what a decolonized university might look like. Therefore, I hope that this book will find purchase well beyond area studies—in anthropology, American studies, and among those interested in ideas about liberalism and liberal education more generally.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NV: I have just completed a co-written book with Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna that interrogates Gulf exceptionalism and the ways that reflexive ethnography can move beyond certain recurring tropes within representations of the people, places, governments, cities, and forms of capital in the Arabian Peninsula. This project condenses, as well as moves beyond, the interventions all three of us have been trying to make throughout our careers in area studies as well as our disciplines (Amelie is a French sociologist and Ahmed and I are US anthropologists).

I am also continuing the trajectory of moving into American studies that I started with Teach for Arabia. My next research project places contemporary labor and immigration regimes within broader frameworks of migration, diaspora, recruitment, and employment. Although seemingly quite different, the technologies and actors that create and maintain kafala in the Arabian Peninsula are almost identical to those that proliferate and profit from temporary visa regimes in the United States, especially as they relate to Indian migration. For example, H1-B skilled workers are often employed and exploited by Indian and Indian-American firms, which utilize similar tactics to Indian middlemen in the Gulf.

J: But what about labor exploitation in the Gulf? What about academic freedom? Are you ignoring these topics?

NV: By bringing attention to how structures and processes of labor and knowledge are transnational and include multiple actors, both as migrant workers and as those who benefit from the work that migrants do, I am discussing exploitation in ways that do not resort to culturalist explanations of Gulf Arab authoritarianism or modern-day slavery. These latter frameworks close off rather than enable inquiry into how inequality and power play out on the ground and have differential and changing effects. They also keep us from seeing the heterogeneity of resident lives in the Gulf and the ways that disenfranchised groups assert agency. The book is very much about labor and forms of laboring, as well as how institutions profit from maintaining labor hierarchies in the Gulf. It is also deeply invested in questions of which people and which areas of research find purchase within the academy, but in ways that challenge the locations from which we think freedom emanates, and the erasures of colonial pasts and unequal presents that supposedly universal liberal ideas like academic freedom are built upon and perpetuate.


Excerpt from the Book

In Summer 2010, I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Texas A&M Qatar, a course that met daily for five weeks. I had never taught outside of the United States before, and anthropology had never been offered at the branch campus, where liberal arts classes were limited to topics that fulfilled common core requirements for the students’ engineering degrees. Although I was uncertain how certain topics I taught at the main campus in College Station, Texas, such as patriarchy and intersexuality, would go over in a classroom I presumed would be more conservative, I decided to keep my syllabus basically the same, adding some content about the Arabian Peninsula and wider Gulf region to make the class more relatable. I also assigned a popular introductory textbook, hoping that the book’s accessibility would mitigate second-language learner difficulties that the denser articles might pose.

Like many anthropology textbooks, ours utilized cross-cultural examples in order to denaturalize assumptions about how societies are organized. Deploying comparative examples to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” is a common way to explain cultural relativism to undergraduates. But to make its points, our textbook unquestioningly centered a US reader familiar with American racial categories, American gender norms, and American politics. My students were confused by some of the book’s examples, which I clarified in class. This did not pose a great challenge until about midway through the term, when we read the kinship chapter. To highlight how marriage and family were cultural and not universal, the book asked readers to abandon their preconceived notions that cousin marriage is incest, since in some parts of the world, people practice it. As it turned out, we were in one of the parts of the world the textbook used as a primary example. Several of my Qatari students were either already engaged to their cousins or expected to be.

The class—who were about half Qatari citizens and half foreign residents who had grown up in Doha—arrived the morning after reading the chapter uniformly offended; they had clearly had a group conversation prior to our meeting. They told me the reading did not speak to them and also presented them or their classmates as exotic. Overall, they were fed up with the textbook. It seemed that they were also upset at me for assigning it. Just when I felt that I had made an irredeemable error, the class discussion shifted into a sophisticated unpacking of the parochialism of anthropology as a form of knowledge and how it continued to perpetuate American exceptionalism. The students then moved on to tell me how their other classes—STEM classes—contained similar moments of tension, sometimes in the curriculum and sometimes due to their professors’ presumptions about what Qataris, Arabs, and/or Muslims were like.

Instead of turning into a failure, our class dynamic grew stronger because of the frank conversation we had that day and in the days following. We continued to discuss not only anthropology but also the American university, the Education City campus where Texas A&M Qatar and other American branch campuses were located, and their role as students within the country’s growing knowledge economy. The students amazed me with their willingness to cross rigid social boundaries in order to learn about Doha residents they normally did not have the chance to engage. For their final group ethnographic projects, they researched topics including unauthorized migrant labor camps, shifting gender roles within Qatari marriages, Palestinian diasporic identities, and the experiences of bidoon (stateless) people. I heard after I left that some of them went to the dean to request that anthropology be offered again at Texas A&M Qatar; I believe this enabled me to return to teach for the following two summers. Anthropology was eventually added as a full-time line.

Whenever I design a course now, I am reminded of that class in Doha and how much it pushed me outside my comfort zone. It challenged me to question who I center and who I marginalize through my choice of readings and assignments, the language I use in delivering my lectures, how I assign group work, and my overall interactions with students. Today, I am a tenured faculty member at an elite liberal arts institution in the United States that markets itself as invested in critical thinking, undergraduate research experiences, diversity, and global citizenship training. The students at this institution will rarely get to experience these learning outcomes to the extent that I have witnessed students experience them at the American branch campuses in Doha, due to the diversity of students, quality of resources, and number of hands-on learning opportunities available there.

Since I began research for this book project, conversations have been swirling within US academic communities about what the transplant of liberal education into so-called illiberal countries such as Qatar and other Gulf States means for the future of the American academy. Very rarely, however, do we hear about the experiences on the ground of what happens within these transplant institutions, and how different actors engage with liberalism as both a universal and parochial project. My students understood the parochialism of liberal ideologies much better than their professors and the critics of branch campuses. They were quite aware of the branch campus as a space of encounter that rested on longer histories of entanglement that produced East and West, liberal and illiberal, universal and parochial, global and local, anthropologist and native. Their engagement with our anthropology textbook showcased this understanding of how ongoing knowledge transfer co-constituted Arabia and America as mutually exclusive.

There are many unique and spectacular things to write about the multibillion-dollar buildings of Education City, the variety of learners and laborers that inhabited its confines, the uneven transfer of institutional norms, and the local contestations and changes that took place over the seven-plus years that I worked on this project. Pushing beyond these easy targets and thin descriptions, I decided instead to introduce the experience that best animates the stakes of this book. Schools are critical sites for social reproduction, for citizenship training, and for identity formation. They are also spaces where the technologies of governance, surveillance, belonging, and exclusion that exist in the broader social context are rehearsed, negotiated, and contested by various actors. Enabled by an American university in a state where higher education was increasingly seen as a public good, my students embraced certain aspects of liberal education while also challenging the geopolitical and historical inequalities that liberalism relies on.

Offering an ethnographically grounded account that centers the unique experiences of different actors as they navigated branch campuses in Education City and their relationships to identity formation, citizenship, nation building, and imaginings of the future, this book discusses the role of liberal higher education in the making of transnational Qatar. At the same time, examining the inherent contradictions of American academia from the vantage point of Qatar highlights how ideas about the liberal and the illiberal were constantly emergent, contained within them their own undoing, and revealed investments from both sides of the globe by particular actors in maintaining mythologies of liberalism and its others.