Dubai as Heterotopia: Liminal Notes on the ‘Status Migration’ of European Maghrebi-Muslim Minority Publics to a ‘Cosmopolitan’ City

By Jaafar Alloul
Submitted to Session P4984 (Workers across Borders: Labor, Migration, and Class, 2017 Annual Meeting
Europe; Maghreb; UAE;
Comparative; Cultural Studies; Ethnic Groups; Ethnography; Gulf Studies; Identity/Representation; Maghreb Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Minorities; Theory; Transnationalism; Urban Studies;
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This paper ‘decenters’ Europe within scholarly debates on the migration-home nexus by focusing on people that leave Europe rather than ‘flood its gates’. It conceptualizes the term ‘status migration’ by focusing on European nationals with a Maghrebi minority or ‘second generation’ background from France, Belgium and The Netherlands, who are today moving to the United Arab Emirates. While Dubai features often through reference to the controversial labor conditions of the Subcontinental and South-East Asian manual labor masses, or by description of the contemporary cultural affectivities of the ‘white’ Anglo-Saxon elite on site, this paper is concerned with a distinct European ‘Muslim’ minority experience that comes about during physical mobility across space. With their ‘integration’ and ‘national loyalty’ amounting to public security concerns in Europe, nowadays, skilled members of this stigmatized social group navigate further afield in search of adequate (employment) opportunities, be it temporary or permanent. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork throughout 2016, this paper first discloses daily accounts of social mobility and class acculturation in the super-diverse city of Dubai, where less than 10 percent of the total population holds Emirati citizenship, thus catering for a very particular order of stratification. Through a concise portrayal of several life-narratives of Maghrebi-Muslims from different EU member states, it then assembles an analytical gaze on the advent of racial transformation dynamics in continental Europe, transcending ‘methodological nationalism’. A discussion of the Foucauldian notion of ‘heterotopia’ will further provide comparative meaning to the liminal experience of the sudden acquisition of considerable privileges and anonymity as individuals in Dubai that stand in stark contrast to a prior group condition at ‘home’. By looking at Europe from a distance and through the eyes of minorities-turned-expats, the act of emigration, along with notions of belonging and performative claims to ‘Europeaness’ and ‘Arabness’, become intrinsically political. While ‘leaving’ appears to function as a coping technique to circumvent restrictive technologies of ‘access’ to ethnos in Europe, based on color-coded and ethno-religious permutations of race, citizenship and the mobilization of ethnicity feature as social capital in the Arab Gulf. This complicates the sociological understanding of both geographies, often imagined as antithetical regarding participatory potential in abstract debates that overlook hierarchy. Indeed, encountered celebrations of Dubai as a heaven for ‘Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism’ or as a ‘home in diversity’ need to be read foremost as reconfigured positionalities that are situational (class) and relational (Europe), and which embody ultimately the culture capitalism.