Researching Western privilege in Dubai: a conversation with Saba A. Le Renard

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

This is an edited version of an interview with Saba A. Le Renard in Jadaliyya* about their recent book Western Privilege. Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write the book?

Saba A. Le Renard (SLR): When I was doing my PhD fieldwork about the transforming femininities of young Saudi women fifteen years ago, I was shocked by the stereotypical discourses many French residents I met there held on Saudi people. After finishing my PhD, I started working on the statuses, self-identifications, and practices of Western passport holders, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Dubai. During the courses I had followed in Middle East studies, the statuses of Western passport holders had never been a topic, despite many of this group occupying dominant positions in firms and various administrations of the region. My research started with a willingness to question this status, to make ‘Westerner’ the object rather than the implicit subject of knowledge.

In Dubai, as in many places of the world, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split. Having one facilitates passage across national borders and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalised job market, though how and how much one benefits from it differ, notably, depending on one’s position in gender, class and race hierarchies. The book explores how men and women, white and non-white Western passport holders inhabit the privileged status of ‘Westerner.’ It shows how they perceive Dubai’s social order differently depending on their trajectories, and how they nevertheless participate in reproducing it, for instance by implementing salary differentiation when recruiting, or by routinely racialising other inhabitants, described as ‘locals,’ ‘Arabs,’ Filipinos’ or ‘Indian.’ 

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does the book address? 

SLR: First, the book contributes to what could be called a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula, breaking with the longstanding tendency to ignore the imperial history of the region. In this book, I study Westerners not only as privileged migrants but also as local elites, playing a role in the perpetuation of nationality, race, class and gender hierarchies. I deconstruct the discourse presenting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as outsiders, having no role in the perpetuation of inequality; this belief is central, I argue, to the construction of their privileged subjectivities. For instance, some parents I interviewed told me that Dubai was great with young kids as it is very practical to have a live-in nanny, but that they planned to leave when their kids would become teenagers, because they did not want the latter to ‘see’ such blatant social injustice. I analysed this need to distance themselves from Dubai’s social order while benefitting from it as a salient element of distinctive Western subjectivities. 

Second, the book aims to contribute to race and migration studies. In the last decade, several authors have criticised the lack of attention for privileged migrants in migration studies. Postcolonial approaches of expatriation, which have shown how whiteness is transformed through migrations, have been very useful to understanding the distinctive subjectivities of Western residents in Dubai. The originality of my approach lies in my choice to compare the trajectories, practices and discourses of white and non-white Western passport holders. It enabled me to identify the specificity of whiteness as a privileged status among Western passport holders (because whiteness, in practice, does remain a privileged position among them), and to make visible the trajectories of non-white Western passport holders that benefit, to a lesser extent, from Western privilege, while also facing forms of stigmatisation and marginalisation. Beyond this, the similarities and contrasts between the two groups reveal how Dubai’s neoliberal discourse on multiculturalism, combined with the use of whiteness in the city’s branding, impact racial categories and produce conditional and limited inclusions. Such reflection echoes works on neoliberalism, multiculturalism and selective inclusions in other contexts, especially the United States and some European countries.

Third, the book is grounded on gender and sexuality studies; it documents how the formation of Westerners as a social group interlocks race, class, gender, sexuality and nationality. Postcolonial feminism as well as intersectionality are important inspirations for such approach. I argue that beside professional aspects, Western distinction lies on specific forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, Western, white, upper-class couples, in spite of a clear labour division among spouses, identify with gender equality and women’s emancipation in contrast with ‘others’ represented as oppressed or sexist, or as frustrated sexual predators. On the other hand, single Westerners often long for serious, authentic relations, which they present as impossible in Dubai. Many associate authentic love with the West and Westerners, in contrast to Dubai’s so-called materialism and superficiality. By analysing specific models of heteronormativity among Western residents and how they participate in making boundaries between them and ‘others,’ I hope this book brings a contribution to Middle East feminist studies, which have been developing postcolonial and queer approaches in the last decades. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SLR: I hope people interested in the Middle East, in race and migration studies, and in gender and feminist studies will read the book. I think it could help question how Western researchers position themselves while in the field, and also nourish the wider discussion that is currently developing about racialisation in the region.

Since the book is also inspired by race and migration studies and gender and sexuality studies focused on other contexts, I hope it will interest people working in these fields beyond the Middle East. While Dubai has an awful reputation among many intellectual bourgeoisies, some Western passport holders experience it as less racist than their home societies (for instance, France or the United States) and many women consider its streets as more secure than their home cities. As these two elements suggest, Dubai is an interesting society to better understand transnational racial formations, structural racism, gender regimes and the policing of public spaces—impacting gender, race, class, sexuality and nationality hierarchies.

Saba A. Le Renard is a Researcher in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. They are currently researching the place of ‘Westerners’ in the multinational professional worlds of Riyadh and Dubai. You can see them interviewed about their book Western Privilege in the MMB Insights and Sounds 2022 series.

* This interview has been edited and republished here with kind permission of Jadaliyya, the independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. The original, longer version, published in November 2021 and including an excerpt from Western Privilege, can be found here. Please note that Saba’s book was published under a first name that they no longer use.

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