MESA Banner
Art, Media, and Cultural Imaginations of Dubai

Session IV-19, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Following Kanna, LeRenard, and Vora’s call to study Gulf societies “beyond exception,” this panel brings together ethnographic research on everyday culture in Dubai, the Gulf’s most mythologized city. Our studies of urban life, art networks, and social media performance conceptualize creative and everyday practices that make up the cultural fabric of Dubai. While this immigrant-majority city is known for cultural flux, given that non-citizen populations turn over regularly, it has turned its reputation as a transit zone into an identity. Dubaians of different backgrounds participate in networks in which the city features as a particular kind of node. We investigate how Dubai comes to figure in intersecting national and transnational imaginaries, as a site of wealth and economic vitality and of cosmopolitan connection. The city has long been a destination for Arab and South Asian immigrants and tourists, and its cityscape thus appears in a range of regional cinemas. At the same time that Dubai’s residents perform belonging in the city, then, the city performs belonging within their networked cultural imaginaries. Our papers show how media representations and networked communication build Dubai’s cultural image as a site of woman-friendly lifestyles, Emirati modernism, South Asian cosmopolitanism, or pan-Arab consumer culture. The interplay between network and place grounds our panel methodologically. As we explore cultural circuits and media networks in which information about the city flows, we identify different concentrations of cultural value in Dubai. How does this well-connected and resourced hub enable cultural producers to imagine a place where they can elide binaries between money and taste, economic and cultural capital? Attending to cultural circuits as relational networks as well as capitalist infrastructure, we conceptualize Dubai as a place of cultural investment for Arabs and South Asians.
  • It is a common scholarly and popular pursuit to seek, implicitly or explicitly, to uncover the “real” city that lies beneath the veneer of the spectacles of Dubai, which advances a problematic binary that contrasts supposedly “authentic,” “local” spaces with “alienating,” “tourist” ones. The notion that Dubai’s spectacular developments are objectively foreign, alienating, and oppressive is part of what I call the discourse of authenticity that pervades public and scholarly discussions of the city. This discourse voices sincere concerns about neoliberalism, exclusionary urbanism and rapid changes. Yet, it also elides many residents’ complex feelings of not only loss but also gain in relation to the new developments, fetishizes “authentic” low-income spaces, and creates a false binary of fake/authentic. This paper shows that, in contrast to this discourse’s assumptions, many of Dubai’s inhabitants form meaningful relationships with these “inauthentic” spaces, which they use to meet needs of socializing, expression, and navigating social mores. In doing so, middle-class Dubaians construct layered and intersectional practices of ambivalent belonging through which they position themselves and others.
  • There are two central tropes that often define the UAE in popular media and scholarship. The first is that the UAE (like its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula) is depicted as a cultural and historical tabula rasa. Building on this trope of the lack of history is the misconception that Emirati citizens and two sets of relatively short-term foreign workers - white professional expatriates and South Asian manual laborers - constitute the UAE’s population. Attending to the UAE’s artistic community, however, troubles these easy tropes. First, many members of the UAE’s art world do not carry Emirati citizenship, but are long-term residents who contribute to the scene both as professionals and as artists. This community is often of South Asian, Iranian or Arab descent - groups outside the standard triptych. Recent exhibitions created and run by this community, which focus on the work of Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Nujoom al Ghanem, Vivek Vilasini and others, also track the history of art-making in the UAE dating back to the 1970s. Secondly, with the growth of the UAE’s art scene, particularly since the inauguration of the commercial art fair Art Dubai in 2007 and the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the UAE’s “arts boom” has reinvigorated cultural circuits across South Asia. These connections include patronage support for the Kochi and Lahore Biennials, an exhibition celebrating UAE-India connections at the 2016 Kochi Biennial, and a series of 2019 exhibitions in the UAE as well as the establishment of the Ishara Foundation. Following these linkages reveals both the longstanding contributions of Dubai- and Sharjah-based artists to the country’s record of cultural production, as well as the diverse nature of the UAE’s population. Such connections and contributions highlight the longstanding connections between South Asia and the UAE, including the region’s colonization by the British and the Islamic trade networks that preceded it. Indeed, these connections reveal how those based in the UAE semi-permanently have substantially contributed to its art, culture, and these deeply embedded histories of connection, albeit in ways the government often does not acknowledge. These re-emergent networks with South Asia and contributions of residents offer another view of the UAE, one that does not align with the ethnocentric narrative propagated by the state.
  • Nearly two decades after Angela McRobbie conceptualized postfeminism by critiquing lifestyle-oriented women’s media in the UK, social media performances by young women continue to invite critiques of self-objectification. Yet these media have also been used to build networks toward and beyond feminist alliance: TikToks that offer language to talk about domestic abuse, for instance. My paper analyzes the politics of young Arab women’s social media performances in Dubai, a major hub of content creation in the Middle East. I focus on two pairs of young woman influencers who use Instagram and a podcast to perform Arab womanhood across regional dialects and national backgrounds, asking how their prolific performances index belonging in Dubai and generate a language for young women’s lives here that extends beyond the iconic and into the everyday. Egyptian Hadeel Marei and Sudanese-Iraqi Maha Jaafar perform as best friends on their respective Instagram accounts ( Hadeel does so on TikTok as well). Meanwhile, Palestinian-Algerian Maram El Hendy and Lebanese-American Lana Makhzoumi use their English-language podcast DXBabies to discuss emotional dilemmas and exchange advice. The paired format that they use creates a shared space for staging young womanhood in a local context. As long term residents of the UAE with no path to citizenship, these women perform belonging instead through language, discourse, fashion, and bodily presentation. Their lifestyle-oriented media content centers the lives of upper middle class young women as an everyday part of the national media landscape. While television and billboard advertisements in the UAE often feature white Euro-American or light-skinned Arab women next to husbands and children, social media content stages Dubai as a home for Arab women regardless of their marital status or purchasing power. The influencers I analyze here specifically make space for humorous, intimate conversation directed at imagined publics of Dubai youth who identify as Arab across nationalities. As they mediate local publics networked with the broader Arab world, they help to fashion the image of Dubai as an Arab city despite its South Asian-majority population.