Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

"The Sheikh of Araby Rides a Cadillac": Popular Geoeconomic Imaginations, Positional Anxiety and Nouveau Riche Territories

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

"The Sheikh of Araby Rides a Cadillac": Popular Geoeconomic Imaginations, Positional Anxiety and Nouveau Riche Territories

Article excerpt


In 20th century media coverage of the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, reporters devoted an inordinately large amount of space to describing (often disapprovingly) how the people of that region utilized Cadillacs. Having been confronted with this puzzle in the archive (i.e. what work was being done by so frequently associating these territories with Cadillacs?), this paper argues that in popular imaginations, change in the world economy--especially the rise of "nouveau riche territories"--is often understood in terms of personified and objectified dramas of right/wrong, which perform the work of distinction. By drawing on an analysis of newspaper and magazine articles and bringing together consumption, psychoanalytic, and post-colonial literatures, this article makes two contributions to understanding how positional anxieties function transnationally: (I) by arguing that places like the Gulf States can have impacts on geoeconomic imaginations that far outpace their size, because these states and their people are seen to break the constellation of practices associated with having obtained the "good life", thus creating a boundary between them and "normalcy"; and, (2) by demonstrating that stories of nouveau riche consumption gain force through interaction with psychically charged objects like Cadillacs, through a process called "extimacy".


Persian Gulf, nouveau riche, distinction, consumption, cars


The spectacle is, though, less laughable than pitiable. Despite superficial appearance, the cards are stacked against the oil Arab. He has, through no particular effort of his own, suddenly skipped a couple of centuries. He has jumped direct from the camel to the Cadillac ... In the last thirty or forty years he has been violently projected, heavy with wealth and dubious prestige, into a Western world whose true sophistications he does not begin to master, and whose laborious development means nothing to him ... "The Sheikh of Araby Rides a Cadillac" The New York Times, Sunday Times Magazine (Morris, 1959b)

To one degree or another, all the Gulf states suffer similar problems. Oddly enough, the need for reform is most urgent in sleek, smug Kuwait ... Despite the country's financial clout, there is virtually nowhere to invest the money at home. About 90% of the government's revenue comes from oil, and 80% of the economy is run by the state. Yet an informal poll on privatisation found a majority against it, for fear it would cause the government's generous payroll to be trimmed. So coddled are Kuwaitis that few bother even to pay their electricity bills. "Beyond Oil" in Survey: The Gulf (Economist, 2002)

In his book Cultural Geography (2000), Don Mitchell made the argument that "the unsettling of the world through political-economic change is often experienced as an unsettling of cultural verities" (p. 40). In other words, despite the existence of strong disciplinary discourses developed in economics and cognate fields, and the nearly 150 years spent reworking a critical Marxist lens that often emphasizes the regularity of economic misbehavior, widely circulating imaginations tend to view economic change as something other than the purified field some envision it to be. Instead, economic change is quite often domesticated and challenged through the more accessible practices, ideas, stories, and objects that are used to help make sense of most of life's interactions.

Indeed, critical scholars have long attempted to analyze the co-mingled experience of economic change and cultural change within the Global North (e.g. Amin and Thrift, 2004; Horkheimer and Adorno, 1986; Weber, 1930)--most particularly with the Cultural Studies movement that emerged in the 1970s. Furthermore, much work in the discipline of anthropology, as well as work in the fields of critical development studies and political ecology, is highly focused on the documentation and analysis of when "Northern" systems of economic arrangement come to be (often forcibly) applied to, as well as challenged by, those in the Global South. …

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