UNITED ARAB EMIRATES-Dubai: The City as Corporation

By Vora, Neha | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES-Dubai: The City as Corporation


Vora, Neha, The Middle East Journal


UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Dubai: The City as Corporation, by Ahmed Kanna. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 262 pages. $25 paper.

In recent years, media and academic attention to Dubai has been booming as the city-state has undergone a profound urban transformation. While most representations of Dubai's rapid growth are either celebratory stories of Arab modernity or denigrations of the capitalist migrant labor exploitation upon which this modernity is built, Kanna's book provides an intricate exploration of the complex scales, processes, and actors involved in the rise of Dubai as a "city-corporation." The title of the book, taken from an Emirati political scientist's Arabic term al-madina al-sharika,1 both grounds this project in local understandings and rhetoric of progress and connects Dubai's shifting geographies of belonging and exclusion to broader scholarly conversations about neoliberalism, transnational migration, urbanism, and state-making. As such, Dubai: The City as Corporation is a welcome and refreshing study of the nuanced and overlapping ideologies that made Dubai the global city that it is today, and how Dubai's diverse residents engage with the city and its transformations.

The book's introduction and first two chapters explore how Dubai's leaders, Western urbanists, and journalists have been engaged in an "Orientalism in reverse" in discussions about Dubai. Kanna writes: "No longer is the non-Western other traditional, timeless, and mysterious. But culture talk still persists, if in a different form" (p. 6). This different form is one in which Dubai becomes tabula rasa for a new Arab modernity, one that is evacuated of historical situatedness, political struggles, and ethnonational diversity. The author explains how the Al-Maktoum "family-state," "parastatal" construction firms (those that are partly private but owned in large part by ruling family interests), "starchitects" (world-famous designers like Rem Koolhaas), and other urban planners converged in the building of New Dubai in the first decade of the millennium. The emergent city that Kanna traces is one in which Dubai's history of ethnic, national, and economic plurality was replaced by a purified version of "modern" Emirati identity. Through labor camps on the periphery of the city that erase the presence of the majority of migrants, and through neoliberal spectacles of ahistorical Emiratiness in the city's booming construction and tourism projects, the literal and figurative landscape of Dubai was shifting in the early 2000s, producing what Kanna calls an "outside-inside spatialization" (p. 72). It is this combination of local specificity and its constant erasure in the building of contemporary Dubai that Kanna argues can inform us more broadly about urban theory, Middle Eastern Studies, and the anthropology of globalization.

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