Doing the State’s Work: Self-Governing Practices by US Citizens Living in the United Arab Emirates

By Shaundel Sanchez
Submitted to Session P4824 (Politics, Space, and Subjectivity in the Arabian Peninsula, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
To understand the spatiality of all forms of government in an era of neoliberal globalization is a significant challenge facing ethnographers today. Anthropologists have largely addressed the issue by examining the bureaucratic practices or territorial jurisdiction of states. Others, such as Gupta and Ferguson, focus on how supranational or nongovernmental organizations, as transnational forms of governmentality, reshape “states’ abilities to spatialize their authority and to stake their claims to superior generality and universality” (Ferguson and Gupta 2002: 996). In this paper, I argue that incorporating Mahdavi’s (2016) notions of “(im)mobility” at the individual level provides further insight to states’ territorial authority.

I use ethnographic data about US-born Muslims who have migrated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collected since 2015, to illustrate how government power is expressed through restrictions placed by the UAE, US, and other states. This argument is exemplified through one particularly messy example of a proposed marriage between a Muslim American living in the UAE, Leyla, and a Syrian living in China, Ahmed, an example which highlights the encompassing power of state policies as well as the self-governing practices of Leyla’s Muslim American community. Leyla’s fellow community members of US-born Muslims living in the UAE strongly opposed the vertically imbalanced marriage, often citing notions of “protecting Leyla’s passport,” a curious conception of assisting the state in limiting inclusion.

Through this case study, I argue that the community’s reactions are an example of what Ferguson and Gupta (2002) call “de-statized” governmentality, which is to say that subjects are empowered to discipline themselves by attempting to limit who has access to citizenship. Ultimately, Leyla and Ahmed did marry, and their marriage, now impacted by Trump administration policies both domestic and foreign, demonstrates the changing nature of governmentality. Exploring the tension between the lack of mobility enacted by states’ policies of exclusion and reinforced by Leyla’s Muslim American community, on one hand, and the desire to move stirred by the nature of Leyla’s and Ahmed’s intimate relationship, on the other, allows us to both illustrate and extend Mahdavi’s notion of (im)mobility.