Western expatriate participation in shaping hierarchies of gender, class and nationality in Saudi Arabia

By Amelie Le Renard
Submitted to Session P4067 (Trans/nationalism in the Arabian Peninsula: Continuities and Disjunctures, 2015 Annual Meeting
Socio
Saudi Arabia;
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While many anthropologists have focused on the experiences of Global South migrants to the Arabian peninsula, in this paper I focus on my fieldwork among Western “expatriates,” and their interactions with other residents of Saudi Arabia, both citizen and non-citizen. This approach sheds light on trans/nationalism and social hierarchies in the contemporary Gulf states, and reveals renewed forms of imperialism. In the framework of workforce nationalization policies, it is often male Western “expatriates” who, as top managers in private organizations play an important role in choosing which nationals have “potential” and “deserve” to be employed. They participate in shaping the norms of behavior that are considered appropriate, and select those who are able to conform to these norms. For instance, in the joint-venture bank where I conducted field research in Riyadh, Western managers praised, among their Saudi subordinates, the women they described as "westernized" and "free" while they discriminated against the women covering their faces (the majority of Saudi female inhabitants of Riyadh). These norms, also shared by some Saudi top managers, have an impact on who, among Saudis, can have access to professional opportunities and make a career, in terms of class and gender.

“Western” expatriates also participate in shaping hierarchies between nationalities. While the difference between nationals and non-nationals is partially inscribed on spaces and bodies through official dress codes and segregation rules, many (female and male) Western “expatriates” I met contributed to realizing this dichotomy through their lifestyles in gated communities and self-identifications: they identified as Westerners and designated the Saudis as others, often through gender stereotypes. They also participated in strengthening the hierarchy between different categories of non-national residents through their interactions with, and visions of, non-Western residents. This civilizational imaginary revealing forms of neo-imperialism contributes to shaping transnational societies of the Arabian Peninsula.