Amélie Le Renard, Western Privilege. Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2021).

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

Amélie Le Renard (ALR): When I was doing my PhD fieldwork about the transforming femininities of young Saudi women fifteen years ago, I was shocked by the stereotypical discourses many French residents I met there held on Saudi people. After finishing my PhD, I started working on the statuses, self-identifications, and practices of Western passport holders, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Dubai. During the courses I had followed in Middle East studies, the statuses of Western passport holders had never been a topic, despite many of this group occupying dominant positions in firms and various administrations of the region. My research started with a willingness to question this status, to make “Westerner” the object rather than the implicit subject of knowledge.

In Dubai, as in many places of the world, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split. Having one facilitates passage across national borders, and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalized job market, though how and how much one benefits from it differ, notably, depending on one’s position in gender, class, and race hierarchies. The book explores how men and women, white and non-white Western passport holders inhabit the privileged status of “Westerner.” It shows how they perceive Dubai’s social order differently depending on their trajectories, and how they nevertheless participate in reproducing it, for instance by implementing salary differentiation when recruiting, or by routinely racializing other inhabitants, described as “locals,” “Arabs,” Filipinos,” or “Indian.”

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

ALR: First, the book contributes to what could be called a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula, breaking with the longstanding tendency to ignore the imperial history of the region. In this book, I study Westerners not only as privileged migrants but also as local elites, playing a role in the perpetuation of nationality, race, class, and gender hierarchies. I deconstruct the discourse presenting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as outsiders, having no role in the perpetuation of inequality; this belief is central, I argue, to the construction of their privileged subjectivities. For instance, some parents I interviewed told me that Dubai was great with young kids as it is very practical to have a live-in nanny, but that they planned to leave when their kids would become teenagers, because they did not want the latter to “see” such blatant social injustice. I analyzed this need to distance themselves from Dubai’s social order while benefitting from it as a salient element of distinctive Western subjectivities.

Second, the book aims to contribute to race and migration studies. In the last decade, several authors have criticized the lack of attention for privileged migrants in migration studies. Postcolonial approaches of expatriation, which have shown how whiteness is transformed through migrations, have been very useful to understanding the distinctive subjectivities of Western residents in Dubai. The originality of my approach lies in my choice to compare the trajectories, practices, and discourses of white and non-white Western passport holders. It enabled me to identify the specificity of whiteness as a privileged status among Western passport holders (because whiteness, in practice, does remain a privileged position among them), and to make visible the trajectories of non-white Western passport holders that benefit, to a lesser extent, from Western privilege, while also facing forms of stigmatization and marginalization. Beyond this, the similarities and contrasts between the two groups reveal how Dubai’s neoliberal discourse on multiculturalism, combined with the use of whiteness in the city’s branding, impact racial categories and produce conditional and limited inclusions. Such reflection echoes works on neoliberalism, multiculturalism, and selective inclusions in other contexts, especially the United States and some European countries.

Third, the book is grounded on gender and sexuality studies; it documents how the formation of Westerners as a social group interlocks race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Postcolonial feminism as well as intersectionality are important inspirations for such approach. I argue that beside professional aspects, Western distinction lies on specific forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, Western, white, upper-class couples, in spite of a clear labor division among spouses, identify with gender equality and women’s emancipation in contrast with “others” represented as oppressed, sexist, or as frustrated sexual predators. On the other hand, single Westerners often long for serious, authentic relations, which they present as impossible in Dubai. Many associate authentic love with the West and Westerners, in contrast to Dubai’s so-called materialism and superficiality. By analyzing specific models of heteronormativity among Western residents and how they participate in making boundaries between them and “others,” I hope this book brings a contribution to Middle East feminist studies, which have been developing postcolonial and queer approaches in the last decades.

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

ALR: When I began working on this project, it was also a way to question my own position as a white, Western researcher. My PhD was an ethnography of the transforming lifestyles of young urban Saudi women in Riyadh. When talking about this in Europe, I realized that stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula are very rich to analyze, but also extremely hard to deconstruct. I observed how some people would only retain from my talk the one element that confirmed their stereotypes. I needed to address these stereotypes much more directly, and to deepen my thinking of positionality in the field and in the academia. In the last years, the exchanges with Ahmed Kanna and Neha Vora around what became Beyond Exception (Cornell University Press, 2020) were extremely helpful for me in this regard.

At the same time, postcolonial feminism is a central perspective in both my first monography and this one. It has nourished my thinking of social hierarchies, reflexivity, and methodology, and has encouraged me to look at work and intimacy, and their overlapping in the lifestyles of privileged residents. Like many other authors, I argue such perspective is useful for research objects that include gender, but also go beyond it.

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

ALR: I hope people interested in the Middle East, in race and migration studies, and in gender and feminist studies will read the book. I think it could help question how Western researchers position themselves while in the field, and also nourish the wider discussion that is currently developing about racialization in the region.

Since the book is also inspired by race and migration studies and gender and sexuality studies focused on other contexts, I hope it will interest people working in these fields beyond the Middle East. While Dubai has an awful reputation among many intellectual bourgeoisies, some Western passport holders experience it as less racist than their home societies (for instance, France or the United States) and many women consider its streets as more secure than their home cities. As these two elements suggest, Dubai is an interesting society to better understand transnational racial formations, structural racism, gender regimes, and the policing of public spaces—impacting gender, race, class, sexuality, and nationality hierarchies.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ALR: I am working on two collective editorial projects in French. First, I am co-editing a special issue on whiteness and migration to “overseas” territories (societies that did not become independent but were integrated to France as “departments”). Second, I am co-editing a book about gender and revolution in the Middle East and Maghreb, mixing scholarly chapters and interviews with activists. I am also exploring literature on sexual violence for my next fieldwork project.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-2; 8-12)

Every year in Dubai, the local French community holds a dîner en blanc, a “white dinner,” in a prestigious venue that is kept secret until the day before. The guests must come dressed in white and bring white food to share. Although the idea for this white dinner came from a similar event held in Paris, it takes on a special significance within the context of Dubai. Historically, the white clothing worn by settlers in certain colonies served as a status marker in that it distanced them from dirty work. In the Emirates today, as in other Gulf States, it is the male nationals who dress in white. At the Dubai white dinner, most guests, though not all, are fair-skinned, and all belong to a hand-picked elite. On this occasion, the sophistication so often ascribed to them is on full display.

At the heart of major financial, commercial, and migratory networks, the city-emirate of Dubai, 90 percent of whose inhabitants are not of Emirati nationality, is a strategic site of inquiry into reconfigurations of social hierarchy at a global scale. Its labor laws are tailored to neoliberal ideology: the state has deregulated trade and created free zones, while at the same time maintaining control over the country’s resources, population, and sovereignty. My book takes a close look at this hub city of postcolonial globalization, with a focus on the transformations of Western hegemony and whiteness through the experiences and trajectories of residents holding so-called Western passports. […]

Both their positions within the job market and their personal lifestyle patterns have tended to construct Westerners as a distinct group. The advantages they enjoy in the job market constitute a central component in the construction of their social position. But the legal dependence of some persons with regard to others, as wives most notably, has proven to be an equally structuring aspect; it shapes a vision of intimacy vested as a source of distinction. In this book, I analyze how the group gets constructed in professional spaces as well as in domestic and leisure settings and through a particular overlapping of gender, class, race, nationality, and sexuality. Job market and private life are merged by an empirical approach that links the material and subjective dimensions to better highlight the overlapping social hierarchies.

This approach draws inspiration from various feminist works. The choice to link labor and intimacy has long been at the core of intersectional approaches that have sought to interconnect gender, class, and race, as well as transnational feminism, which prompts us to think of social hierarchies outside the confines of national borders. Work, whether paid or unpaid, has historically been a locus for constructing social hierarchies of gender, class, and race for workers at the lowest rung of the social ladder as well as for those at the top. Whiteness in particular has been constructed through division of labor, shaped by slavery and various phases of colonization, and gets recast today via the hierarchies that structure the way work is organized. […]

Work organizations construct the status of Westerner through such components as salaries, contracts, careers, management styles, and job segmentation. […] What are the structural advantages afforded to Western passport holders and how are these advantages modulated according to their position in gender, class, and racial hierarchies? What does this status involve in terms of embodiment and self-presentation? How does this distinctive construct of Westernness shape hierarchies beyond the professional sphere? […]

By approaching the professional world of Dubai from this perspective, I was faced with dividing lines of inclusion and exclusion that did not always match up, or at least not automatically, with the border between whiteness and nonwhiteness. In this regard, my thought process was sparked by analyses of the ways in which race and class hierarchies have been rearranged by neoliberalism. According to Aihwa Ong, based on various cases in East Asia, neoliberalism favors graduates of American universities, “educated, multilingual and self-reflexive,” or what she terms “flexible citizens.” Jodi Melamed claims that neoliberal multiculturalism in the United States transformed the process of racialization throughout the 2000s: neoliberalism, she believes, has given rise to a distinction among worthy multicultural citizens and the unworthy, excludable on the basis of their monoculturalism, inflexibility, deviance, or criminality. In other words, a boundary separates those who claim a hybrid binational, bicultural identity and who, under certain conditions, could be included in the middle and upper classes from those cast into a single subaltern status and whose exclusion from advantageous positions will persist.

These analyses, carried out in a variety of contexts, resonate with my own investigation in Dubai, a country often seen as one of the world capitals of neoliberalism and marked by a recent colonial past. While whiteness is a distinctive status there, Westernness as a privileged status tends to match, without totally overlapping. In Dubai, nonwhite Western passport holders do benefit from structural advantages and can be included in a hegemonic group. Still, in certain circumstances, they are relegated to their nonwhiteness and hence excluded from certain places, milieus, or professional positions. Their membership in an advantaged group, therefore, is never absolute and can be considered as much a promise as a reality. Admittedly, forms of hybridity and diversity are celebrated in Dubai, as proclaimed on the city’s official website: “Dubai is a melting pot of East and West. The city boasts influences from all corners of the globe, thereby offering its residents a glimpse of nearly all cultures via its restaurants and shops, and through its daily living.” This celebration of a peaceful melting pot, happy and consumer-oriented, coexists nevertheless with a valuing of whiteness and the corresponding devaluing of other racial positions. The aim therefore is to scrutinize the unstable boundaries of racial categorizations prevalent in Dubai and how they overlap with class, while casting a critical eye on the “promises of inclusion,” their counterparts and their corollaries in terms of exclusion. This approach makes it possible to analyze the reconfigurations at work without idealizing the forms of inclusion that remain circumscribed, selective, and precarious.

Race historically has been constructed as much by work as by forms of hierarchy in the intimate sphere, in matters of family and reproduction, which are in fact inseparable dimensions. The notion of intimacy refers to physical proximity, domestic arrangements, and affective economies that go beyond the notion of sexuality. It allows for an approach to various aspects of affective and/or domestic life: the kinds of relationships that one enters into—notably, matrimonial, sexual, or friendship-based; the people one lives with; the way one raises children.  Whether or not one identifies with a model of heterosexuality or lives in a couple or alone; in a rent-sharing arrangement, a dormitory, or a workers’ camp; with a live-in maid or at the home of one’s employer; with or without children—whether or not one is recognized as their parent—these are all structuring dimensions of intimacy that social norms valorize or devalue. The term intimacy also refers to a range of affects. The way people cultivate forms of affective proximity or distance with others is of particular interest in my inquiry, inspired by certain queer postcolonial approaches, and has informed this book.

The questions I ask are therefore the following: Who lives with whom? Who interacts with whom? Who arouses mistrust or aversion? How does affective distance get created despite spatial proximity? And conversely, which affective proximities are considered desirable, respectable? These questions are essential when it comes to establishing social boundaries, questions that combine class, race, and gender dimensions. Such understandings of sexuality and intimacy highlight Westerners’ distinctive heteronormativity, which is involved in how they form as a group and distance themselves from those they consider radically other and categorize as deviant. Paradoxically, although heteronormativity is based on the centrality of the heterosexual couple with its strict differentiation and division of men’s and women’s roles and, more generally, its binary, hierarchical vision of the male/female divide, we shall see that this view goes hand in hand with discourses associating the West with egalitarian relations.

Even though professional work and intimacy are generally treated separately in the interest of clarity, these two dimensions are always linked. For instance, the life of Western residents outside the professional world is a core concern for the work of non-Western residents, such as nannies and maids, who live in their employers’ homes. Work status impacts the forms of intimacy to be adopted, since only a salary beyond a certain threshold gives the right to sponsor “dependents” (possibly spouse, children). Beyond the issue of sponsorship, the close control of low-paid workers, their housing conditions, and the absence of public goods for foreign children (especially schools and healthcare) make it almost impossible for them to bring up children in Dubai. On the other hand, certain forms of intimate life affect the professional position: a married woman raising children frequently meets discrimination in the job market.

The link between professional, national, and racial hierarchies and the differentiation of intimacies does structure the current neoliberal biopolitics. […] With regard to foreign residents, this biopolitics does not aim to encourage reproduction and demographic growth but to maximize profit to be made from these lives. To achieve this, a hierarchy of intimacies is established. This would explain why the city is perceived as particularly family-friendly by many Westerners, while everything is done to dissuade people with low-paid jobs and no Western passport from having children in Dubai.