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Flexible Citizenship in Dubai, Neoliberal Subjetivity

Flexible Citizenship in Dubai, Neoliberal Subjetivity

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Published by: Mujerwoman on Jun 15, 2014
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FLEXIBLE CITIZENSHIP IN DUBAI: NeoliberalSubjectivity in the Emerging “City-Corporation”
University of the Pacific
On a pleasant December afternoon in 2004, I strolled the grounds of DubaiInternet City (DIC), part of Dubai’s media and information technology free zone(Tecom), after a lunch meeting with one of my interlocutors, Tecom employeeRana al-Mudarris.
The Internet City building—also known as “the MasterCard building,” for the corporate logo festooned to it—was superficially a typical Dubaiconcoction: a modern steel-and-glass box clad in a “traditional Arabian” facadeof false
 wind towers) and “oriental” arches. In other ways,however, the building’s designers had striven for the exceptional: lush manicuredlawns marked by palm trees military in the rectilinear order of their landscaping,an artificial lake overlooked by expensive restaurants and the stern mirrored-glass,corporate logo–imprinted frontages of the DIC complex. All of this gave theimpression that one was no longer in Dubai but in some deracinated neoliberalutopia. As I walked from the meeting through the lobby toward the exit, I passedthree whiteboards on which dozens of people had scrawled messages. I took acloser look and noted the red checkmark logo of Tecom’s parent company, DubaiHolding Corporation, on each board. On each board was a question in bold font:“What does ‘Realization’ mean?”; “Why is Determination important?”; “Why isImagination important?”Although a few responses did not exactly conform with the rules of thelanguage game—one person wrote that “realization” meant “to be a Muslim;”another confided that “determination helps me wake up everyday”; a third noted
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 25, Issue 1, pp. 100–129. ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360.
2010 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.01053.x
dryly that the latter is simply “a buzz word at times”—most of the several dozenresponses were along the following lines:“First step in creation”“Journey toward enlightenment”“I realized after coming to Dubai”“Discover your potential”“Brings out the best in me!!!”“Makes you get ‘there’”“It separates doers from dreamers”“Imagination is what gives humans the ability to change their lives”“Imagination is to free your mind of the impossible”I do not know how spontaneous these minitestimonies to the merits of imagi-nation,determination,andsoonwere.ThattheysocloselyparalleledofficialDubaidiscourses about the role of corporations and capital not only in providing basicwelfare but also in putting in place the conditions for human self-actualization, andgiven that Tecom is a subdivision of the Dubai ruler Muhammad Al Maktoum’ssprawling holding corporation, they arguably were not. Yet the connection thatthis piece of corporate debris highlights between Tecom as a zone of “neoliberalexception” (Ong 2007) and the intimate realms of personal identity is not entirelya top-down fabrication of corporate and state officialdom.Inthisessay,Idiscusstheemergenceoverthelasttento15yearsofneoliberal-isminDubaianditsconnectiontothesubjectivityoftheyoungprofessionalcitizensofthecity-statewhoreachedadulthoodinthe1990sandwhoformthesocialbasisof theemerging,corporate-dominatedorderoftheearly21stcentury.Idescribehowthe principles of neoliberalism—for example, the emancipation of capital from theoversight of the state, the commodification or marketization of realms of life thatwerepreviouslytheprerogativeofthestate,theapotheosisoftheentrepreneurasacreative genius, the analogization of society as a corporation—are translated in theideologies of powerful local institutions such as corporations and privileged sectorsof the state. Finally, I look at the fine-grained articulations of these appropriationswith locally situated social and gender identities and the ironies and slippages thatoccur in the sociocultural process of neoliberalism’s translations. Following Ong(1999) and Wilson (2004), I call the young Dubai professionals engaged in fash-ioning a locally inflected neoliberalism “flexible citizens” to describe their shifting between different scales and cultural worlds in constructing their identities. Theways that Dubai’s flexible citizens appropriate neoliberal discourses shows both
how neoliberalism, rather than being monolithic, is inflected by local meanings,discourses, and histories, and how appropriations of neoliberalism mediate localambiguities pertaining to social and gender identity.
Recent years have witnessed increased interest in the connections betweenneoliberalism and cultural process (Cahn 2008; Ferguson 2006; Freeman 2007;Guano 2004; van Heusden 2006; Ong 2007; Potuo˘glu-Cook 2006; Sharma 2006;Urciuoli 2008). This work, which shows how neoliberalism is made in everydaydynamics of discourse, practice, and imagination, is a much-needed corrective tomonolithic representations of neoliberalism as a “package of policies, ideologies,andpoliticalinterests”(Hoffmanetal.2006:9).IfollowHoffmanetal.’ssuggestionto trace the localized discursive and ideological configurations shaping neoliberalpolicies (Hoffman et al. 2006:10). The young Dubai professionals on whom I focusshow how local structures of meaning and histories inflect neoliberalism in theArab Gulf context.Among the insights of recent work has been a picture of the implementationof neoliberalism as a phenomenon much more complex than implied by top-down,teleological representations of globalization (Harvey 2005). For example, recentstudies emphasize the flexibility, diversity, and responsiveness of state projects tomarket and other transnational pressures (Ferguson and Gupta 2002; Li 2005).Aihwa Ong’s work is particularly suggestive in this context, representing neolib-eral governance as a sophisticated, population-focused, and responsive instrumentof state adaptation to market pressures (Ong 2000, 2007). Crucial to the imple-mentation of neoliberal governance, according to Ong and others (Cahn 2008;Freeman 2007; Wilson 2004), are its productive interconnections with everydaylived experiences in local contexts. The ways neoliberal ideologies resonate withand are made persuasive within local formations of identity, conceptions of self-hood, and idioms of citizenship are essential to their appropriation by the subjectstargeted by neoliberal modes of governance.ForOng,Singaporeisanexemplarofthewaysstatesmobilizetheirpopulationsto adapt to increasing global market pressures. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98,shewrites,theSingaporestatesoughttorepositionthecityasaknowledgeeconomy hub, a nodefor reterritorializing Asian multinationals, and a research anddevelopmentcenterformedicaltreatmentsaimedatAsianconsumers.Thisentaileda reformulation of state sovereignty in the form of selected zones within the state’s

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