- Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora by Neha Vora
Impossible Citizens, Neha Vora’s first book, is a rich and comprehensive ethnography of Dubai’s Indian community that sets new standards for writing about “guest workers” in the Gulf. Much of the media coverage and scholarly literature on this region ascribes migration to the Gulf’s post-oil development, focusing either on the luxurious excesses of elite (white) expatriates or the human rights abuses of the lowest economic strata of domestic and construction workers. By contrast, Vora examines the experiences of Dubai’s most typical and entrenched residents: the middle-class, working-class, and elite Indians who populate the downtown neighborhoods. Accessible to both lay and academic audiences, her work uses Dubai’s largest community to push the study of citizenship and diaspora in new directions while dismantling the three dominant myths about immigration in the GCC: that migrants are temporary, economically driven, and ancillary to the politics or governance structures of the Gulf States.
Vora argues that while Indians cannot become legal citizens of the UAE, their everyday practices, forms of belonging, and claims to the city make them Dubai’s quintessential, yet impossible, citizens. She first points to the entanglements between the [End Page 656] Gulf and South Asia that enabled the Indian community to flourish in Dubai through merchant networks long before oil was discovered or the UAE federation was formed. Thus though Indians are legally temporary ‘guests,’ the Indian community has existed in Dubai for over a century and its members are into their second, third, and in some cases, even fourth generation. Indeed, as readers familiar with Dubai will recognize, there are spaces of the city that are culturally much more Indian than Emirati. So much so, that one of the book’s recurring themes is that while Indian foreign residents disavow formal citizenship in the Emirates, they simultaneously also stake claims on Dubai as “an extended city of India” (p. 71). Drawing the reader into the world of a community that is not temporary, but is permanently deportable, Vora reconsiders the approach to studying migration as a rupture between homeland and host country. The specter of return migration has enabled Indians to reproduce their own cultural resources, but this ownership over the city is mitigated by their location in a racialized economic hierarchy that ranks Indians behind not only Emirati citizens, but also other expatriates (Europeans, Americans, and Arabs).
It is in her careful analysis of the operational mechanisms of this hierarchy that Vora makes her sharpest revision to the conventional understanding of the Gulf’s guest worker system. The defining feature of the kafala guest worker scheme is that it merges residency permits with specific employment contracts. This requires each foreign resident to be sponsored by a national citizen or company (kafil) who assumes responsibility for repatriating the employee at the termination of the contract period. This is the feature of the kafala that renders migrants dependent upon their national employers, leading human rights and media accounts to emphasize the exploitation of foreigners by Gulf citizens. Yet Vora demonstrates that the day-to-day management of migrants habitually falls to elite foreign employers and managers (some of whom recruit employees through migration chains from their home country). As illustrated in Vora’s discussion of Indian gold merchants in chapter 3, elite noncitizens frequently act as proxies for their citizen business partners, who often exist on paper only. (A note to time-pressed graduate students: “Noncitizen Kafeels” [pp. 109–116] provides a rich but succinct sketch of the kafala). Vora refers to this practice as ‘substantive citizenship,’ since in governing other migrants Indian elites legitimize the state and perform a responsibility delegated to citizens. This informal — yet systematic — dependence upon kafil noncitizens in the governance of other noncitizens is critical to the longevity of the guest worker program as a whole. It shows that certain noncitizens enforce the very citizen/ noncitizen divide that excludes them, effectively becoming “part of the production of the state...