Interrogating Race in Gulf Studies

Interrogating Race in Gulf Studies

Amélie Le Renard, Centre Maurice Halbwachs, Paris & Neha Vora, Lafayette College


This paper aims, first, to explore the shortcomings that have derived from ignoring race in Gulf studies, and second, to suggest that centering the region in race and ethnic studies, which tend to favor American exceptionalist and Atlantic Ocean framings, has the potential to deepen our understanding of global race hierarchies, the transnational historical intimacies through which they emerge, and their contemporary localizations. Before making our argument, we would like to present the perspective from which we speak. We have both been conducting ethnographic research in the Arabian Peninsula for over a decade, Amelie in Riyadh and Dubai, Neha in Dubai and Doha. In our projects we have worked with a range of residents with various nationalities, income levels, and histories in the region.

The GCC states are heavily reliant on immigrant labor at all levels and in many cases, citizens constitute a small proportion of the total population; in the UAE and Qatar this is less than 15%. For immigrants there is no real pathway to citizenship; they are tied to employer-sponsored short-term renewable visas and can only sponsor immediate family members if they earn a certain level of income. Nevertheless, there are vibrant diasporic communities across the Gulf. Gulf citizenship laws, state rhetoric, and early social science scholarship have resulted in naturalized ideas of Gulf populations as comprised of two distinct groups: Arab citizens and immigrant workers. Citizens are often portrayed as a homogenous indigenous group, while “migrants” are perpetual outsiders: fleeting and foreign. Ethnographers and immigration scholars in the generation before us were critical of this framing and interested in how power produces categories of identity and belonging; they began using the term “ethnocracy” to describe the ways that state, employment, and social structures create hierarchies of privilege based on ideas of essentialized national groups.[1] Ethnocracy as an analytic has allowed scholars to move past normative analyses of residents as “nationals” or “migrants” and instead consider how these statuses are co-produced within relationships of power. Indeed, we have utilized ethnocracy quite often as a shorthand for Gulf hierarchies in our earlier work.

However, we have come to see that ethnocracy is also a limited framework for understanding difference and inequality in the Arabian Peninsula. It continues to define identities primarily as passport-based; it also collapses nationality with ethnicity, religion, language, class, phenotype, and a range of other factors that impact how people experience life in Gulf cities. And most of all, terms that reference nationality are not merely neutral descriptors of passport belonging—they code a regime of value through which human bodies, their abilities, characteristics, and inherent place in society are implied: as this essay explores, they are in fact racial categories. We have come to see in our more recent individual and collaborative work that race and racialization are much needed analytics for the study of the region both historically and ethnographically, as a way to analyze how multiple legacies of colonization and slavery are reassembled within current social hierarchies. Here we present a few observations regarding what the lack of a racial analysis has meant for Arabian Peninsula studies:

  1. Race is the primary technology through which transnational actors accumulate capital in the Arabian Peninsula. Ignoring race naturalizes a stratified immigration and labor structure that extracts value through racial capitalism.

In the Arabian Peninsula, like everywhere else in the world, nationality, language, gender, and race mediate one’s ability to migrate, the jobs they can get, and their compensation. Today’s differentiated transnational labor networks are effects of intersecting histories of colonialism and racial capitalism.[2] In the Arabian Peninsula, however, labor and migration systems appear to be starkly divided by nationality due to state restrictions on permanent residency and citizenship. This means that an immigrant worker’s daily life is circumscribed by the passport they hold, and the relationship of their home country to the Gulf country where they reside. Those with so-called “strong” passports, like the US and the UK, do not need to obtain visas to enter Gulf countries, and thus their mobility is less restricted. Passports also appear to set “market value” for salaries. Australian and Canadian immigrants get paid more than Filipinos and Indians, for example. State officials, residents, employers, and economists all claim that workers are paid more or less based on their earning power in their home countries. Such arguments echo the “abstract liberalism” of color-blind racism.[3] This form of differentiation appears normal in a world where we naturalize nation-states and markets—but this is fundamentally an effect of racial capitalism and specifically its manifestations across the Indian Ocean. Scholars have long documented how transnational capitalism leverages racial and gendered technologies in flexible accumulation practices—utilizing the “nimble fingers” of docile Asian women to make computer parts, for example, or using white foremen to police brown workers in the maquilas at the US/Mexico border.[4] Construction companies in Dubai that assign different forms of semi-skilled work and management to different national groups, and house workers separated by religion and language so that they are less likely to organize, are not utilizing practices that are outside of common racial technologies of late capitalism, or exceptional to the Gulf States.[5] While some work on the history of the region has explored the connections between imperial racism and nationality differentiation in the labor force,[6] there is still an overwhelming lack of racial analysis when it comes to contemporary immigration, employment, and segregation in Gulf cities, resulting in an ongoing naturalization of nationality-based hierarchies and exclusions.

  1. Ignoring race has also kept us from fully exploring the colonial history of the Arabian Peninsula and its relationship to contemporary forms of identity and difference.

Official, media, and academic discourses often reproduce the idea that there was nothing in the Arabian Peninsula before oil. In normative histories, British protectorates are presented as limited in scope and different from “real” colonization (even though colonization and imperialism have taken various forms all over the world and should not be essentialized), and as having no material consequences on Gulf states and societies—societies that were, according to the stereotype, very limited in numbers, and had primitive lifestyles and social organizations. Since the 2000s, various works have challenged this representation and highlighted how imperialism has contributed to shaping Arabian Peninsula societies. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, the British protectorate led to the choice of one ruling family over a specific territory. In other words, power was territorialized.[7] While Saudi Arabia was not formally colonized, a treaty signed in 1915 between Ibn Saud and Great Britain conceded sovereignty for protection; a second treaty, in 1927, declaring Ibn Saud’s complete independence, did not avoid strong forms of dependence on Great Britain until 1945, when Saudi Arabia became, to some extent, “America’s Kingdom.”[8] The development of industrial imperialism, in which white men were constructed as experts in charge of developing the country, is crucial to understanding current racialized hierarchies of nationalities, especially on the job market. Beyond direct, territorial colonization, the global, long-lasting effects of European and North American imperialisms around the world have consequences that justify using a postcolonial lens: for instance, they had a crucial impact on the definitions of skills on globalized jobmarkets, and on racialized labor stratification techniques to prevent organizing, in the Gulf and elsewhere.[9] Protectorates, industrial imperialism, and the global coloniality of knowledge have had long lasting effects on who is considered as skilled, and which skills and which universities and forms of knowledge are valued in Arabian societies.

  1. The production of the Gulf national is a racial project that has required invisibilizing the history and afterlives of both slavery and migration.

Gulf states work hard to police boundaries between citizens and non-citizens. This has required the purification of the Gulf national through romantic tropes of Arab Bedouin ancestry, heritage projects, the development of a ubiquitous national dress, and investment in narrow versions of language and culture education. The result is an imagined community purified of its multicultural, multilingual, and multiracial pasts and presents—a community that requires ongoing violences and erasures to maintain. Until recently academic scholarship has been rather complicit with state projects in representing Gulf nationals as a homogenous Arab group, when on-the-ground experiences with Gulf nationals quickly belie this presumption. Gulf nationals range in phenotype from whitest to darkest with a range of facial features; intermarriage for men is rather common as it is in many Muslim-majority societies, so many Gulf citizens have non-Gulf citizen mothers; Gulf citizens speak a range of languages and often their first language is not Arabic;[10] and many Gulf families are transnational across the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the horn of Africa. In addition, there is a long history of African slavery in the Arabian Peninsula; Zanzibar and Oman have had a long imperial connection; and merchants have settled in the region from both the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean. Many Gulf citizens have ancestries in current Iran.

Works on Blackness in the Gulf are still under-developed, while such a focus would reveal much about the legacies of slavery, structural racism, and the interlocking of race, class, gender, and nationality.[11] Religious difference is also part of the racialization of Gulf nationals. In Bahrain for instance, Frances Hasso has shown how discourses legitimizing the suppression of the 2011 mass uprising had racialized Shia protesters, especially by accusing them of being sexually deviant.[12] Gulf citizens grow up deeply aware of hierarchies that are rooted in these legacies, such as class, sect, tribe, ethnicity, skin color, maternal origin, language, culture, and a range of other factors which are fundamentally about divergences from an idealized pure Arab Gulf national identity. Race is an important concept to re-interrogate how nationality and Arabness are constructed, and how difference and hierarchy is constructed among national citizens.[13] It participates in class formations among them and is central to understanding governmentality, forms of securitization, and surveillance by Gulf states.

  1. Ignoring race contributes to Orientalism and exceptionalism as normalized ways of knowing the Gulf.

While Orientalism reifies a divide between West and East, modern and traditional, liberal and illiberal, progressive and savage, representations of the Gulf include, notably, the tropes of hypermodernity and inauthenticity, which is why we chose to talk about “exceptionalism” in a book we have co-written with Ahmed Kanna.[14] Among other exceptionalist representations, racializing, proto-orientalist stereotypes about “nationals” in the Gulf are sometimes uncritically reproduced in social science. For instance, some works about the nationalization of jobs give voice to managers in the Gulf asserting that “nationals are lazy,” analyzing it not as racist allegation, but as a factor explaining why nationalization policies do not have better results. More generally, we observed that in many academic circles, generalizing stereotypes about Gulf nationals as ostentatiously rich, hypocritical, exploitative, or sexually frustrated were commonplace in casual conversations. Similarly, a focus on the “kafala” system of migrant sponsorship as somehow the root cause of labor exploitation in the Gulf, and “modern-day slavery” as a condition that is exceptional in the contemporary world to the subaltern Gulf migrant, reproduces Orientalist representations at the expense of investigations into how Gulf labor conditions are produced in a transnational context and how exploitation is enabled by global racial hierarchies.[15]

  1. Ignoring race has engendered a lack of reflexivity about researchers’ statuses, perceptions, and privileges, especially as whites or/and as Westerners.

The researchers whose works have been published as books in English by Western publishers, and who are internationally recognized, are mostly based in Western European and North American universities, hold Western passports, and for the most part are white. Most of them (especially until the 2000s) have not analyzed their relation to Gulf societies, and presented themselves as objective outsiders, a discourse about one’s position that is also common among white/Western residents of the Gulf. Such positioning has gone with an ignorance of structural privileges that Western residents, and especially white Western residents, benefit from. These privileges have contributed, in many cases, to making fieldwork and international publishing possible. While migration studies have been an important subfield of Gulf studies, white immigrants have only recently been studied within the field, and we are two of the scholars who have written the most on this topic.[16] While white immigrants are a very small minority population, they nevertheless occupy professional positions in which they play crucial roles in the reproduction of social hierarchies, often as recruiters, consultants, and decision-makers. Far from being outsiders to Gulf societies as they often present themselves, they participate in implementing scales of salaries depending on nationalities, which, as we have argued above, are actually racial categories designed to both suppress worker organization and extract maximum labor value.

Having outlined the major shortcomings of not centering racial analysis within Gulf studies, we would like to conclude by suggesting three dimensions that make Gulf societies particularly interesting for race studies.

  1. The Gulf is a globally relevant place to study the rapid circulation and sedimentation of racial categories.

As various works in race and migration studies have shown, racial schemas – the way in which we associate people with racial categories – vary according to national contexts, and immigrants in particular often develop specific reflexivity on racial categories since they have experienced them in several contexts.[17] Gulf societies have the highest rates of immigration in the world, and people are constantly moving in and out of Gulf cities, bringing with them ideas about difference and belonging that not only impact localized categories but also change immigrant perceptions which they then bring back to their home communities. In Amelie’s work on Western privilege in Dubai, she studied how French passport holders living in Dubai interrogated what is Westernness and what is Frenchness, and how their questioning differed according to the position they had occupied in French social structure, as whites or nonwhites.[18] Some nonwhite French people defined themselves as bicultural, a self-categorization that is not so common in France where universalist republicanism, and more or less explicitly, cultural assimilation, remains the norm. Few talked about the racism they experienced in Dubai, and the ones who did so tended to minimize it. As for French white people, living in Dubai nevertheless led them to elaborate a discourse about egalitarian, liberal Westernness, through which they distanced themselves from middle and upper classes with non-Western backgrounds. Though the majority of Western passport holders in Dubai were not white, most of them, in an implicit way, still associated Frenchness with whiteness, which demonstrated the solidity of national racial constructs. In Neha’s research in Education City, Doha, she observed how nonwhite faculty found outlets to express the racism they experienced in the US once they migrated to Doha, and many preferred Doha as a location of racial comfort vis-a-vis the West even as they were frustrated by white supremacy that continued to structure their everyday lives within US branch campuses. White North American faculty and administrators, on the other hand, similarly to Amelie’s white French interlocutors, presented themselves as liberal, tolerant, and civilized in relation to other (nonwhite) national groups. This was despite perpetuating stereotypes that made Qatari and non-Qatari students feel deeply marginalized and choosing forms of racial segregation in their social, leisure, and residential lives.

  1. The region is also an ideal place to study how nationalities are racialized in the broader framework of racial capitalism.

Which processes contribute to the racialization of nationalities on global job markets and in specific diasporic locations? In the United States, “Latinx” as a racial category does not allow us to understand the specific ways that Mexican immigrants experience exclusion and violence, and politicians on the left and the right as well as everyday residents know that “Mexican” signifies much more than a passport or a geopolitical territory. In the Gulf states, a parallel argument can be made for the term “Indian,” which is commonly used as a pejorative category that encompasses a range of immigrants from South Asia (and even beyond) as well as characteristics that are supposedly associated with their physicality, intellectual capacities, sexual proclivities, criminality, and hygiene. Indians are the most ubiquitous national group in the Gulf and range from the most subaltern to the most wealthy. They live in every part of every Gulf city, work in pretty much every profession, and have long histories of settlement and longstanding diasporic communities. In some cases, Indians have obtained Gulf citizenship, and in many cases, especially in Dubai, Indian merchant communities have enjoyed special relationships with Gulf rulers. Indian and other South Asian languages are commonly spoken even by those who are not from South Asian backgrounds, and South Asian foods and cultural products are consumed by all Gulf residents. As Neha has shown in her research, the Gulf is inextricably intertwined with South Asia.[19] Yet despite this ubiquity, Gulf residents (even Indians themselves) use “Indian” as a pejorative to connote certain types of unwanted people, behaviors, and affects–which are fundamentally about class and labor (“Indian” operates as a racial marker similarly to the way “Srilankiyye” circulates in Lebanon to reference migrant female domestic workers, even though Sri Lankan nationals no longer populate that employment category, as Sumayya Kassamali discusses in her paper in this volume). The question of how nationality is racialized is understudied everywhere but is particularly important to understand in the Gulf context.

  1. The contexts of the region also reveal how race is gendered and sexualized.

Just as certain racial identities in the Gulf are naturalized onto certain occupations and class statuses, they are also deeply mediated by gender and sexuality. And only certain immigrants are able to legitimately perform sexual identities or construct family formations. The stereotype of the Indian or Nepali male construction worker, for example—a perpetual “bachelor” regardless of his age or marital status—is due to the fact that construction workers cannot migrate with family members and are also subject to highly regulated living and work conditions that are designed to remove them from the social fabric of Gulf cities. Their presence in public and semi-public spaces is thus suspect, and they are portrayed as sexually deviant and potentially criminal elements. Government policies and middle and upper classes share imaginaries of workers as potentially dangerous and maids as potential prostitutes, which justifies constraints on their intimacies.[20]The construction of whiteness in the Gulf, on the other hand, is associated with stereotypical heteronormativity, especially in areas that communication campaigns present as safe and family friendly. Racialization among citizens, and especially the construction of Blackness, also leans on sexual stereotypes, as Amelie could observe during her research in Riyadh in the 2000s.[21]

Studying race and racialization in the Gulf, we hope we have shown here, is a project that is not only necessary for regional studies but is also incredibly relevant for understanding larger contemporary patterns such as US imperialism, transnational family formation, international job markets, and citizenship regimes.



[1] Longva, Ahn Nga. 1999. Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait. Routledge.

[2] For a discussion of racial capitalism, see Kelley, Robin D. G. 2017. “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?” Boston Review January 12, 2017: (accessed February 9, 2021); Lowe, Lisa. 2015. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press; Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

[3]Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Fourth Edition. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefields Publishers; Cosquer, Claire. 2018. “Faire nation hors les murs. Dynamiques migratoires, construction du groupe national et blanchité dans l’expatriation française à Abu Dhabi.” PhD diss., Sciences Po Paris.

[4] See for example Ong, Aihwa. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. SUNY Press; Fuentes, Annette and Barbara Ehrenreich. 1983. Women in the Global Factory. South End Press.

[5] See Sumayya Kassamali’s paper on Lebanon in this conference.

[6] Khalili, Laleh. 2020. Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula. London: Verso; Vitalis, Robert. 2006. America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[7] Kanna, Ahmed. 2011. Dubai: The City as Corporation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[8] Vitalis 2006.

[9] Khalili 2020.

[10] Many children in the Gulf learn the language of their live-in nannies, who are usually immigrants from Asia or Africa, before or in conjunction with Arabic.

[11] See Gokh Alshaif’s paper in this conference.

[12] Hasso, Frances. 2016. “The Sect-Sex-Police Nexus and Politics in Bahreïn’s Pearl Revolution.” In Freedom without Permission: Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions, ed. Frances Hasso and Zakia Salime, 103-37. Durham: Duke University Press.

[13] See Noora Lori and Ioana Kuzmova’s paper in this conference.

[14] Kanna, Ahmed, Amélie Le Renard, Neha Vora. 2020. Beyond Exception: New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[15] For more on kafala’s history and interconnectedness with transnational racialized labor hierarchies see Al Shehabi, Omar Hesham. 2019. “Policing labour in empire: the modern origins of the Kafala sponsorship system in the Gulf Arab States. British Journal of Middle East Studies. Published online 27 Feb 2019:;

Fernandez, Bina. 2021. “Racialised institutional humiliation through the Kafala.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Published online 03 Feb 2021: See also Sumayya Kassamali’s essay in this volume on kafala in Lebanon.

[16] See Le Renard, Amélie. 2021 (2019). Western Privilege: Work, Intimacy and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai. Stanford: Stanford University Press and Vora, Neha. 2018. Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[17] Roth, Wendy D. 2012. Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[18] Le Renard, Amélie. 2021 (forthcoming). Western Privilege: Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai. Stanford University Press.

[19] Vora, Neha. 2013. Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.

[20] See for example Bristol-Rhys, Jane, and Caroline Osella. 2016. “Neutralized Bachelors, Infantilized Arabs: Between Migrant and Host Gendered and Sexual Stereotypes in Abu Dhabi.” In Masculinities under Neoliberalism, ed. A. Cornwall, 111–24. London: Zed Books; Buckley, Michelle. 2015. “Construction Work, ‘Bachelor’ Builders and the Intersectional Politics of Urbanization in Dubai.” In Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf, ed. O. AlShehabi, A. Hanieh, and A. Khalaf, 132–50. London: Pluto Press; Lori, Noora. 2011. “National Security and the Management of Migrant Labor: A Case Study of the United Arab Emirates.” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 20, no. 3–4: 315–37; Mahdavi, Pardis. 2016. Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrant Lives. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[21] Le Renard Amélie. 2014. A Society of Young Women. Stanford University Press.