On Dubai and racisms

I’ve been alerted to a situation in Dubai where someone was, apparently, detained arbitrarily. The person hasn’t been charged and seems to have to jump through a lot of hoops. This is not correct, and it’s certainly deplorable in any case to hold someone without even laying charges. I am not going to defend the autocratic regimes in Dubai and the rest of the UAE, and I can certainly feel for someone who has — apparently — been detained arbitrarily. Yet the racism and stark ignorance that pervades the discussion about Dubai is indicative of more than just bitterness toward the regime. It’s Orientalism 101.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the UAE or anything, but what I am talking about in the following isn’t rocket science.

First, Dubai is a major transportation and commercial hub. This is true because of its coastal location in the Persian Gulf. This is also true of its airport, which is perhaps one of the busiest airports in the world — but certainly the busiest in the region of Middle East and South Asia. On any given day, up to 100,000 people pass through this airport, which translates into nearly 35 million every year. People in all shapes, shades, sizes, from all class backgrounds, dressed in all manner of clothing: “ultra-conservative” as well as “ultra-liberal” pass through this airport. And, in fact, this is also generally true of Dubai itself. In the streets, you can see people wearing skirts and tank tops, as well as people wearing burqas. What does this mean? Just that if you’re traveling through Dubai airport, don’t presume that you have to dress conservatively. In fact, you don’t.

Yes there is plenty of racism in Dubai. If we accept that racism is a structural mechanism of discrimination (rather than just the surface expression of racial slurs and profiling), then we see that the racism in Dubai is the massive, racialized super-exploitation of migrant labour from Asia. When we say Asia, we are not talking about East Asia, but rather, South Asia and the Philippines.

The vast majority of the population of Dubai is composed of such migrant labourers, who are not given the same rights and freedoms (particularly the ability to attain naturalized citizenship) as natives. Nevertheless, there is a significant layer of middle- and upper class migrant labour which, because of its superior educational and technical skills, has managed to do quite well for itself, thank you. There is thus, definitely a class component to how the racism in Dubai affects migrant communities: the vast working class migrants who do the menial labour in production, construction, and service industries; and the middle- and upper class migrants who inhabit managerial positions. There are also Western capitalists and businessmen, as well as some from Asia, and of course, native capitalists and businessmen. They all do very, very well off of the super-exploitation of the workers and their managers (who are, still, workers).

The racism expresses itself through marginalization mostly of the working classes of migrants, not really the middle- and upper classes. That people are arbitrarily detained is of no surprise to me. What would surprise me is if the person arbitrarily detained is from the West, or has a Western passport. I have been through Dubai airport dozens of times, I have been to Dubai and Sharjah several times, I have traveled through the UAE and even into Oman. I have not once felt discriminated against nor have I felt myself to be in any danger. Of course, this has a lot to do with my class position — but it shouldn’t escape anyone that I feel more secure traveling through Dubai (as a visibly “South Asian” male) than I do crossing into the United States by air or by car.

The UAE, in any case, is a complex society like just about any other society. It has bureaucracies that operate according to their own logics, sometimes contradicting and other times complementing each other.

But what, I have to ask, does any of Dubai’s autocracy or putrid arbitrariness have to do with its “sharia-lite” laws? And, in another post, “We strongly believe that there is an effective way to change policy without compromising Islamic values, and educate potential visitors without scaring them away.” What on earth does the poster know about so-called “Islamic values” and what, pray tell, makes one think that anything the government of Dubai does is based on “Islamic values”? Alcohol, nightclubs, all kinds of less-than-fully-covering clothing: all of that is available openly in Dubai. Does one imagine that any of this is “Islamic” in any sense of the word? When one says, “We kind of knew he would be profiled because he has long hair and looks oriental (they are very racist against Asians in Dubai, and ultra-conservative),” one must also explain who “they” is, and why this assumption was made. (My point is that the cultural and racial discrimination that does exist — and yes, it does exist — is largely based on the racialization of class-based discrimination; not some primordial Arab chauvinism that can be traced to the Arab minds of the Arab Arabs.)

And Warren Ellis: “Everyone’s hoping that they’ll be forced to release him in another seven days but the Dubai authorities, as you might expect, are behaving like monsters.” Why would I expect that? Is it because they are Arabs? Is it because they are Muslims? Is it because you assume they are operating according to some kind of matrix of “Arab” and “Islamic” values that is based entirely on arbitrary and inexplicable (not to mention irrational) principles? That this means they will now act like “monsters”?

This is, of course, precisely what is being posited. One of the commenters explicitly poses this, and it is taken seriously be the original poster: “The best thing you can do right now is see if you can bring him a Koran. They eat that shit up. If they see you giving him something to read and he eschews secular books for scripture, it may be your ace in the hole.”

What the fuck? This is nothing but stark, vituperative, racist ignorance. You have people from all over the world in Dubai, and there they deal with everyone, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, whatever. Most of the detainees, I would bet, are not Christian but are Hindus and, yes — wait for it — Muslims, too: working class South Asians. The point here is that the authorities in Dubai detained this guy, Diz, for some reason, I don’t know what, but I can guarantee you it has nothing to do with him not being a Muslim. You would have to be a moron and a complete and total ignoramus to think so. It also probably has little to do with his race, especially if he has a Western or Japanese passport — it likely has more to do with nationality (but, of course, citizenship, national origin and race intersect in very complex ways).

Finally, much of the discourse (e.g., Ellis’s) makes it seem like this kind of arbitrary irrationality is something you can “expect” to come from the authorities in Dubai. Let me repeat a point I made earlier: I feel more secure traveling in Dubai than I do in the United States and, yes, also in England and Germany. If you think, for a moment, that this allegedly arbitrary detention has something to do with “Islamic” or “Arab” values, then you’re going to have to explain to me the matrix of cultural values that permits your racist governments to arbitrarily detain and torture thousands of racialized people around the world — not least of whom is the Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

Let’s not forget the many, many people who are being held without charges and who are not allowed to see the evidence arraigned against them in “secret trials” that are not open to the public all over the United States, Canada, UK, etc. etc. etc. If someone thinks that this is something you can come to “expect” from Dubai and Arab states, then don’t, for a moment, forget that this kind of bullshit is common practice for virtually all governments — most especially those who claim enlightenment but practice (indeed, originated) massive exploitation and oppression.

I am sorry that your loved one got detained, but I don’t know anything of the facts around the case except what I’m getting from you. I don’t doubt that there is arbitrariness in the actions of authorities in Dubai much of the time, but I won’t generalize from this to broader, primordial, ooga-booga cultural values, or assume that this arbitrariness is a result of those supposed and mythical “cultural values” that somehow motivate the behaviour of these bureaucracies.

What happened and happens in Dubai is wrong, no doubt. But it’s not exceptional.

Note: The original poster also points out that the detainee is actually being treated well, in nevertheless “squalid, third world” facilities. What strikes me about this is the unstated assumption that “first world” facilities are somehow shining lights of humane and squeaky clean treatment. This racism is predicated on a comfortable, utter ignorance of the prison system in the Western world.

It also amazes me how, when something strikes someone more-or-less personally, the political awareness that is raised brings to light the person’s prejudices, presumptions, and very importantly, the person’s privileges. (This reminds me of what Phil Ochs says about liberals: “Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally.”) Do these people know how tight the regimes in the UAE are to the regimes in Washington and the rest of the West? Do they know about the history of British colonialism in Dubai and the rest of the UAE? Do they know any of the class, racial and cultural dynamics of the society? No? Then what use their political awareness? I suggest they read a book, and then embark on grander (more-or-less important and legitimate) campaigns, starting with their own geographical locations.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    fathima said,

    February 3, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

    i’m still confused, though, about what Mildred, the original poster, means by “Oriental.” does she mean South Asian or East Asian? or just all around not-white and not-black?

    and i think that vagueness about terms is just one indicator of the racism that suffuses that entire post. so many things are taken for granted. so much of the langauge is based on these implicit assumptions about Dubai that have no factual basis. as far as Westernisation goes, Dubai boasts a lavishness few Western cities can mimic. the place is a tourist haven precisely for that reason. to say, as Mildred does that, “Dubai is not a safe tourist destination for Westerners” is more than a little ludicrous, given how closely allied the emirate is with the US.

    what i resent most is that it’s difficult to challenge the underlying Orientalism and Islamophobia of posts like these without immediately also having to defend myself against accusations of supporting autocracies like Dubai. it’s an irritating binary to be stuck in: either support Diz and hate Arabs; or point out that claims about needing to dress conservatively are shit and consign all Westerners to unfair prison sentences in some remote desert prison.
    what bullshit. i shouldn’t feel compelled to protest that i don’t think the the guy shouldn’t be held without reason, but neither should these idiots be spouting ignorance.
    oh and yeah, the the thread on the Quran debate is priceless. translations and teddy bears, oh my.

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