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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia

[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]

(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally?

When I first began studying Arabic and, subsequently, formulating a research project in Yemen in the early 2000s, I did not consider myself to be working in or on the "Arabian Peninsula," as such. Rather, what drew me to Yemen was its historical, geographical, and cultural distinctiveness, which remains even now quite remarkable, but which nevertheless often obscures the relations, connections, and shared histories and presents that do exist within the region and beyond. This oversight is born perhaps out of what Sheila Carapico identified nearly ten years ago as a pernicious "dualism" that shaped not only American research agendas, but also the stereotypical conceptions, popular and academic, of "the Gulf" (rather than the peninsula as a whole): "Yemen is kaleidoscopic; the Gulf is monochrome…The Gulf is good for business; Yemen is good for ethnography" (Carapico 2004).

This same oversight—what Adam Hanieh in his response discusses as a "methodological nationalism"—is also born out of what we may call a secondary Orientalism: a way of "knowing" that considers the majority of the Arabian Peninsula without "culture" and without "history" in comparison to the Arab states of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. This fallacy has been exacerbated, of course, by the relative difficulty for short-term visitors and new scholars of actually engaging on a deeper level with the citizenry in countries like the United Arab Emirates, where it may be easier to befriend migrants from Egypt or Sri Lanka than its small minority of "nationals." As a result, although there have been notable exceptions—including recent scholarship on the political economy, political ecology, and youth and urban cultures in Saudi Arabia, in addition to an older, rich tradition of studies on kinship and its Bedouin—anthropological scholarship on Gulf-state citizens has seemed relatively flat in comparison to the "thicker" ethnographies of migrant populations in "the Gulf" and of "tribal" communities in Yemen. In both cases, these research foci emerge from the historically dominant approaches to these "two" areas: oil and security in the Gulf (and its resulting dependence on cheap, imported labor) and state-tribe relations in Yemen (and related studies on tribalism, sociality and gender). Nevertheless, they are also being productively complicated by theoretically informed analyses of space, political subjectivities, and belonging. A similar and amplified turn to non-labor migrant populations in the Gulf (as in the work of Mandana Limbert in Oman) and non-tribal populations in Yemen (such as Marina de Regt’s work on Ethiopian domestic workers or Susanne Dahlgren on the public sphere in Aden) remains welcome.

As for the difficulties in carrying out, rather than framing, research in the Arabian Peninsula, the challenges of conducting research in Yemen may be somewhat distinct. Adam Hanieh, Ahmed Kanna, Madawi Al-Rasheed and Neha Vora have touched on the lack of (Western) research institutes and networks in the Gulf, the dearth of statistical data, and the difficulty of gaining unmediated access. In Yemen, a robust network of foreign research institutes work in tandem with several Yemeni research and studies centers to house and fund scholars and to facilitate their research there. These include the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS), the French Center in Sana’a for Archaeology and Social Sciences (CEFAS), and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). In the early 2000s, when I lived in Sanaa, these centers supported a vibrant research community of both foreign and Yemeni scholars who frequented their libraries and attended their talks. The deteriorating security situation in Yemen and the subsequent evaporation of US funding for in-country research has had an unfortunate impact on these centers, which, during my visits in recent years, have appeared particularly vacant. Still, even with this institutional support, it could be challenging to be an anthropologist in Yemen. For one, as Ahmed Kanna notes, anthropology is one of the less known and less understood of the social science disciplines. And when my Yemeni acquaintances did have an understanding of anthropology, they were also well aware and suspicious of its colonial and imperial legacy. This was made clear to me when a professor of anthropology at Sanaa University asked me in March 2003 in front of his class of students why the United States had not sent one hundred anthropologists to Iraq, instead of bombing it. Suspicion toward the discipline and a more general suspicion of foreign researchers as spies was not new. One only needs to read Steve Caton’s remarkable account of his arrest and imprisonment in 1980 to see what an effect such suspicions have had on the kind of knowledge that is produced. Indeed, in reflecting on his own encounter with the National Security in Raydah, Paul Dresch notes that it is often the most mundane of facts that are the most heavily guarded.

This was certainly true of my own experience of fieldwork in Socotra. Whereas I was made privy to various conspiracy theories, extra-marital affairs, secret religious conversions, etc.—all things I hesitated to take note of, much less write about—it was nearly impossible for me to ask my hosts quite straightforward questions about their genealogies, tribal structures, and political past. Of course, I was conducting research at a time when US presence in Iraq as well as in Yemen was acutely palpable. Moreover, it made little sense to my Socotran friends that a US student would receive funding to hang out in Socotra or anywhere else if she did not have significant ties to the political powers that be. As a result, I turned to and became more interested in Socotri poetry where people’s opinions, struggles, and contestations were more forcefully voiced. In so doing, I thus followed, or rather stumbled, in the footsteps of a group of scholars who work on poetry in Yemen, including Steve Caton, Flagg Miller, Lucine Taminian and Samuel Liebhaber, but without their expertise! Fortunately, such suspicions do ease over time. Although it has become even more difficult in the past five years for anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in Yemen, now that I live in Abu Dhabi where I am easily accessible by telephone and where my current position is more comprehensible to my Socotran interlocutors, Socotrans are more comfortable reaching out to me, calling upon me for help, and working with me. I know that if I were to have the chance to return again for a lengthy period of time, fieldwork—in terms of the questions I could ask and the answers I would receive—would be very different this time.

(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches? How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches?

In my view, one of the most useful attempts to reframe and theorize the Arabian Peninsula occurred with the 2004 publication of Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (edited by Madawi al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis). It is here that Sheila Carapico issued her "Arabia Incognita: An Invitation to Arabian Peninsula Studies" cited above. Carapico’s is a research agenda that would bridge the conventional divide between Yemeni and Gulf Studies to focus on the interconnections between the inhabitants and nations of the peninsula as a whole. Whether in direct response to Carapico’s invitation or in reaction to the region’s most recent and emblematic transnational phenomena, such as the global “war on terror,” the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the spread of the Arab uprisings, several scholars and even academic journals have now taken up this call. For example, in the past two years we have seen the 2011 launch of the Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea followed by, in 2013, the conversion and expansion of the journal Chroniques yéménites into Arabian Humanities: International Journal of Archaeology and Social Sciences in the Arabian Peninsula, both focused on the Arabian Peninsula en bloc and from antiquity to present.

What is needed when it comes to theorizing the Arabian Peninsula, however, is not just an expansion of scope—a sort of micro "area studies"—but also scholarship that explicitly draws on and forwards this transnational and interdisciplinary peninsular perspective. This approach breaks with the traditional dualism described above in its recognition that one cannot adequately study migration, religious reformism, sectarian identities, state and popular (or cultural) sovereignty, youth cultures, urbanism, natural resource exploitation and conservation, gender transformations, heritage production, or class, etc., within one nation without at least recognizing the influences and entanglements of these phenomena throughout the peninsula and across its surrounding waters. New scholarship that exemplifies this approach includes, of course, Engseng Ho’s work on Hadhrami migration; Adam Hanieh’s work on transregional (Khaleeji) capital and class formation; Laurent Bonnefoy’s work on Salafism in Yemen (and yet highly contingent upon grassroots flows to and from Saudi Arabia); Steve Caton’s emerging research on water scarcity in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and Andrew Gardner’s comparative studies of the kafala system in Bahrain and Qatar, among others.

Even in a relatively "remote" and off-shore location such as Socotra, this "peninsular" perspective is imperative to an understanding of the "local" and of how Socotra has been produced recently as a World Heritage Site and a "natural" biodiverse research laboratory. Yet, in the early stages of my research on the development, conservation, and heritagization of Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago, and perhaps due to the pervasiveness of the distinctions drawn between Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, I was surprised by the degree to which my Socotran friends and neighbors were oriented not toward Sanaa or Aden, but rather toward Salalah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Sharjah, Bani Yas, and Jeddah. It was the cities and representations of "the Gulf" and Saudi Arabia—not mainland Yemen—which captured their imaginations and fueled their aspirations. Indeed, I soon learned that I could not examine heritage production in Socotra—conventionally understood to be a "national" project—without first examining heritage projects and discourses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. For example, the annual Festival of the Socotran Poet which, as I wrote about in MERIP last May, was transformed in 2012 into a platform for public debate on the viability of Socotra’s cultural and political sovereignty, was originally modeled after the United Arab Emirates’ reality television show, The Million’s Poet, created by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (now the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority) to promote and safeguard national Emirati culture. This small example demonstrates to me the importance of seeing and understanding the peninsula holistically instead of continuing to bifurcate it into Yemen and the rest.

This is not to say, however, that the space and study of the Arabian Peninsula is any more "natural" than are the constructed borders of its nation-states. I agree with Toby Jones and John Willis’ deep reservations about area studies and about the "Arabian Peninsula" as yet another imperially produced category. As well as they state it here, these reservations are, of course, not new. And yet, as all of the contributors to this roundtable point out or imply, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf—Yemen, too (hence Lisa Wedeen’s book title, Peripheral Visions)—have long been treated as peripheral, geographically and conceptually, to the Middle East and to Middle East studies. One only needs to look through the bibliography of Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar’s excellent review article, "Anthropologies of Arab-Majority Societies," to note that ethnographies and anthropological articles situated in Egypt or in Palestine far outnumber the recent scholarship produced on all of the Arabian Peninsula states combined. There is thus obviously no a priori reason to theorize the "Arabian Peninsula"—but we may still learn a lot in doing so.

Here, at New York University in Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), Pascal Ménoret, Justin Stearns, and I were hired into a nascent program named "Arab Crossroads Studies." During our first year teaching at NYUAD, we spent many hours debating both the merits and productivity of the name and the rationale for turning this then-concentration into a full-fledged undergraduate major. The legacy of US area studies’ Cold War roots was something we took seriously. What does "Arab Crossroads" even mean? And was it productive or just as flawed to move from a geographic focus, that is, Middle East studies, to a linguistic, cultural, and ethnic one: the Arab world? Even as these are questions we continue to ask, the renaming and reframing does something. If nothing else, it reminds me as a scholar and a teacher to focus more explicitly on the historical, political, economic, and social connections between the "Arab world" and its immediate surroundings (Africa, South Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and Europe) as well as on the human, material, and conceptual "crossroads" within "it." In doing so, it draws our attention away from place and toward movement across space and within various spaces.

In treating the Arabian Peninsula as a "center" rather than a periphery, we are forced to widen our geographical focus and broaden our conceptual one. That is, we cannot design classes or research projects as if the "Arab world" or the "Middle East" begins in Morocco and ends in Muscat. Nor can we ignore the capital and labor flows that link South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant (and also to the United States). Finally, as Tom Looser has convincingly argued, it is with the export of Western universities and branch campuses to the Gulf and East Asia, for example, that area studies gains new salience. With the fashionable emphasis today on all things "global," a critical area studies approach can ground and situate an otherwise imperialist (and predominantly Western) sense of "global" knowledge and "cosmopolitan" belonging. Through the newly established "Arab Crossroads Studies" major at NYUAD, we seek to emphasize to our "global" students that their being here, in Abu Dhabi—in the Arabian Peninsula—does matter and that Abu Dhabi is not merely the "global" city it aspires to be, but that it, too, has been historically and politically produced. Included, however, among the required courses for all undergraduate majors is a "Problems and Methods in Arab Crossroads Studies" course: a course that examines area, area studies, and areas like the "Arabian Peninsula" critically, while asking what new theoretical interventions such a focus may uncover. We welcome further discussion on this!

(3) "Sectarianism" seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of "sectarianism" as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created?

This is an important question.  As I have not worked on sectarianism directly, however, I will defer here to the other roundtable participants.

(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?

I think it fair to say that the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics from the outside is growing stronger, while still remaining contingent upon or even hampered by the hegemonic status of English as the scholarly lingua franca. We see this even in the shift from French- and German-language publications to English-language ones. Serious scholarship produced by "Western" academics does rely on local scholarship and knowledge production, but more can and should be done to translate these works to make them more widely accessible. For example, I recently assigned Ahmed Kanna’s Dubai: The City as Corporation to my students at NYUAD. Kanna draws heavily and productively on the writings of Emirati scholar Abdul-Khaleq Abdullah, thereby introducing his important work to Kanna’s English-language readership. As the majority of Abdullah’s articles have been published in Arabic, however, I am less able to assign them directly, meaning that "local" scholarship, like his, may be in danger of being presented or perceived as secondary to the English-language publications that build upon it.

Similarly, in my work on Socotra, I draw considerably on the texts written and published by the Socotran historian Ahmed al-Anbali (who resides in the United Arab Emirates), as well as on knowledge production by non-academics. The latter include Socotran guides, heritage brokers, and activists who, in response to and as a rejection of the international regime of "experts," are now fashioning themselves as what one may call "para-experts," engaged in an explicit and self-aware counter-form of knowledge production. Although I am mostly interested in the development and deployment of this parallel expertise (as opposed to the content itself), it remains a challenge to adequately present this knowledge production as scholarship and not just as ethnographic artifact. This is due in great part to what John Willis identifies as the incommensurable position of Yemeni academics in terms of their institutional and financial support and the different intellectual and political project in which they are engaged. Until recently, Socotran scholars were eager to promote a narrative of Socotran unity, stability, and exceptionalism. This has started to change, however, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, which have opened a space for more critical histories to be told.

Finally, as someone teaching at a US institution of higher education in the Gulf, I should say something about intellectual exchange and the proliferation of Western branch campuses mentioned by Al-Rasheed, Hanieh, and Vora. Madawi Al-Rasheed expresses concern that Western academic institutions (not just in the Gulf, but also in the West) may be forced through their funding sources to engage in self-censorship, if not the kind of outright censorship that occurred when Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen was denied entry into the United Arab Emirates for a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics this past March. Adam Hanieh questions whether these institutions will reproduce dominant narratives about the Middle East and both Hanieh and Neha Vora raise the specter of their financial motives. It is undeniable that there are restrictions on academic freedom in these places—as there are in the United States and in Western Europe, especially when it comes to untenured faculty. Here at NYUAD we are guaranteed academic freedom in the classroom and within the institution more broadly, as long as we do not criticize the ruling families or Islam. Critics of these institutions perceive this as a profound infringement upon academic freedom and knowledge production. On the other hand, my students—Emirati, Filipino, American, and Palestinian—are reading and discussing Yasser Elsheshtawy, Andrew Gardner, Ahmed Kanna, and Neha Vora on structural violence, labor regimes, citizen-foreigner relations, and the politics of race, class, and space in the Gulf. In history classes, such as the ones taught by Pascal Ménoret, students are reading Madawi Al-Rasheed, Mamoun Fandy, Stephen Hertog, Toby Jones, Amelie Le Renard, Timothy Mitchell, and Robert Vitalis on resource extraction, corporate capitalism, imperialism, authoritarianism, political protest, and gender in the Arabian Peninsula. If our collective efforts to "theorize the Arabian Peninsula" take root, it will be in universities like NYUAD where students are eager to engage these analyses. This is only one way, but an important one, of creating a new generation of critical scholars and also of developing spaces of inquiry in which "local" scholarship is given serious attention within "Western" universities.

(5) Some argue that the Arab Uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?

The immediate impact of the uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula has been an increased attention to both the transnational reverberations of these events and their antecedents—the politics of sectarianism in and across Arabian Peninsula states, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the peninsula, the impact of social media transnationally, etc. Another result seems to be a renewed attention to various modes of sovereignty—state, popular, cultural—and its contestations. What may and hopefully will emerge with this, then, is the more thorough replacement of the Orientalist notion of "Gulf" states and societies as monolitihic and monochrome sites with a "thicker" understanding of the richness and complexities that underpins each Arabian Peninsula state individually and in relation to one another. To paraphrase Sheila Carapico, it should now become increasingly obvious that the entire Arabian Peninsula "is good for ethnography"—or, more importantly, that it deserves and requires a broader group of scholars’ critical attention.


Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula
electronic roundtable contributions:

Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.

Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.

Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.

Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz. 

Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.

Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.

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