Kanna, Ahmed. 2011. Dubai: The City as Corporation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
“What has fascinated me in Dubai is how dominant our [Western] reading is…Dubai happened; we participated in its construction. We were complicit in its extravagance. But we were also the first to denounce its absurdity.” –Rem Koolhass, in a 2011 lecture on architectural engagement in Dubai after its crash in 2008 (Kanna, p. 205)
Dubai: The City as Corporation is a significant contribution within the field of urban studies in the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai is often represented in both popular and academic writings as the proto-type of a global city, a desert landscape decorated by non-contextual extravagances—architectural structures varying in the form of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and museums. Dubai: The City as Corporation argues that the complexities of the city’s built environment exceed the explanatory purchase of widely circulating critiques that read Dubai’s built environment as a non-place, or a foreshadowing of a super capitalism to come. Grappling with these representations of Dubai, Kanna’s analysis elucidates how the built environment and cultural representation are constituted through “struggles around competing claims of different groups over the memories, identities, and landscapes of the city” (20). Therefore, he urges scholars interested in cities in the Arabian Peninsula to pay attention to tensions such as political struggles involving local structures of power and urbanist ideologies and practices.
There have been substantial reviews of the book, approaching it from the angle of citizenship and transnational migration and global capital and the spatialization of culture. This review will take Kanna’s engagement with the built environment as a central frame, particularly in relation to questions involving history and methodology. The book is made up of two main sections. The first section, composed of two chapters, is devoted to contextualizing Dubai’s urbanization. Kanna argues that the built environment reflects certain modes of inclusion and exclusion, specifically in the realm of citizenship. This history of conflict is integral to understanding the current political stakes for the “Maktoum family-state” (the Maktoum family, consolidating authority over Dubai since 1833, is one of the seven ruling families of the United Arab Emirates) in the design of the built environment. These political stakes have a particularly fraught history. The Maktoum’s ruling bargain has been formed in conflict with various foreign groups, such as Persian, South Asian, and Arab merchant classes, who were involved in reformist movements, inspired by anticolonial movements, and more specifically Nasserism. Reformists specifically opposed the Maktoum leadership’s tax policies and fealty to the British between the 1930s and 1950s. It is through this history of conflict that Kanna frames the 20th century emergence of the “Maktoum family-state,” which has enacted relations of citizen-foreigner within an ethnocratic state formation. It is this history of contention that Kanna forefronts in discussion of the regime’s exercise of authority through the building of the city.
The second chapter argues that these local hierarchical structures are legitimized by the work of a group of globally renowned architects, whom Kanna terms “starchitects”—“a species of architect whose name is so enveloped in the mystique of genius” (82). The starchitect (such as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, or Rem Koolhass) is a celebrity figure in urban expertise, mostly Western-trained, with a “self-styled radical or reformist aesthetic” (80). Attending to starchitecture rhetoric, which emphasizes sensitivity to “local cultural and ecological worlds,” Kanna asks how “culture” is evoked and deployed in architectural plans. Despite the fact that this “species of architects” conceive themselves to be transcending Dubai’s history and politics through their creative work, these “handmaidens to local hierarchies of power,” (84) ultimately serve the Maktoum-state’s exclusionary ethnic citizenship, reinforced and represented through their architectural designs. Architectural forms designed to invoke the local culture, whether by articulating inspiration from the souk (bazaar), dhow (traditional sailing vessel), or sustainable architecture rooted in localized spiritual beliefs (98), are in fact, expressions of place-making propounded by the Maktoum family state. According to Kanna, such alignments between the ruling elite and urban experts produces an “apolitical representation of local culture,” reproducing the family-state’s narrative of the built environment, and its vision of Dubai’s future (104).
The last three chapters, forming the second section of the book, aim to give everyday expression to Dubai’s urbanization. Chapter 3 explores the “neo-orthodox” cross-section of the local Dubayyan population and their reaction to Dubai’s rapid transformations. Despite the fact that Kanna was unable to interact with many Dubayyans throughout his fieldwork, by analyzing interviews and newspaper comics and opinion articles, he emphasizes the nostalgic expressions guiding these neo-orthodox Dubayyans as they maneuver through New Dubai, commenting on their concerns about loss, fidelity, motherhood, and family structures. Chapter 5, moving from the Emirati to the South Asian expatriate, ambitiously asks how South Asians of different classes experience Dubai as non-citizens. The South Asian expatriate’s relationship to Dubai and its built environment vary according to their class and attachment to the city, with some affirming Dubai’s promise of neoliberal economic inclusion. However, various middle class professionals who have lived in Dubai for most of their life desire both economic and political inclusion, blaming working-class South Asians for perpetuating their discrimination (190-192).
Asserting that the term conflict lends itself to more adept analysis of the built environment, Kanna privileges the term ‘social conflict’ over ‘social consent’ in describing Dubai’s history. This conflict is mostly expressed through Dubayyan nostalgia about the past, South Asian middle-class anxieties about economic exclusion, and workers’ protests about labor abuses; however, there is very little “everyday” expression, particularly on the side of the Dubayyan, involving such contestation. The attempt to give expression to this conflict is confounded by Kanna’s consistent acknowledgement that he, as a foreign social scientist, was unable to gain access into the everyday life of the Emirati locals. Kanna is honest about these limitations, explaining, “because of the reticence of my Emirati interlocutors, I have tried to draw upon nonverbal and what Emiratis often considered trivial sources of data, such as…op-ed pieces and comics…and insignificant elements of discourse, such as jokes” (13). The analysis of newspapers, comics, and jokes certainly offer compelling insight into Emirati identity and cultural politics. But, maybe in this limitation there is insight about the politics of Dubai’s built environment? The difficulty in accessing the “everyday” voice of the citizen reflects frustrations with a place that has opened itself to global capital, but at the same time maintains and regulates “private” knowledge, social lives, spaces, and histories. What are the characterizing qualities of this absence, or gap in knowledge? What does it reveal about the production of ethnographic knowledge, particularly about the built environment at the contemporary juncture? In a sense, this limitation is both an end-point and a point of departure. While it denies, closes off research, it is also a possible site of furthering future work.
Dubai is a vital ethnographic contribution to urban studies in the Arabian Peninsula, raising significant questions about methodology. Where, and how, does one locate conflicts and contestation over the built environment in Dubai? Attending to how such an approach cannot be neatly applied to non-Western contexts, Kanna considers the ways in which the built environment is appropriated and contested in Dubai. Although access to the voice of both Emirati citizen and migrant worker is mostly limited, Kanna does not entirely evade the significance of this. The unsettled pace of the text and Kanna’s unwillingness (or inability?) to resort to a conclusive narrative is suggested in his concluding remarks, which rapidly proceeds from a discussion of a workers’ protest, to a commentary on the “starchitect” Rem Koolhass, and finally, an Emirati’s rumination on the uncertainty of Dubai’s stability (217-218). The obstacles that Kanna faces, while particular to Dubai, and perhaps the wider region, could invoke a broader conversation about the way in which history and “non-verbal” representations figure in analysis of contestations over the built environment.