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  • The UAE: Geopolitics, Modernity and Tradition by William Gueraiche
  • Karen E. Young
The UAE: Geopolitics, Modernity and Tradition, by William Gueraiche. London, I. B. Tauris, 2017. 288 pages. $95.

William Gueraiche takes as a premise that the United Arab Emirates has modeled itself on Dubai and, in turn, that Emirati identity is branded with Dubai's identity as a cosmopolitan city. While this may be true in the minds and perception of some Western tourists, the project of state-making in the UAE has been much more complex and continues to face a central challenge: meeting security needs for domestic stability and a regional projection of power while meeting the need for economic diversification. Gueraiche's book is an effort to understand Emirati state-building from a cultural lens and very much from the perspective of a locally based foreign scholar. What he misses, perhaps, is that like culture, the process of state-building is iterative and constantly absorbing and responding to new demands.

It may be true that Dubai has provided an important external projection of Emirati identity, but it is also very true that the federation of the UAE was designed to be flexible and continues to shift among its seven distinct member emirates in its distribution of authority, wealth, and internationally projected power. Early on in the federation, separate military capacity existed between Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Those days have passed, and military and federal authority are firmly centered in Abu Dhabi. It is in the concentration of oil wealth and the increasingly interventionist foreign policy directed from Abu Dhabi that we find the core of the Emirati state. While Dubai may have put the UAE on the international tourism and emerging markets map with its early investment in building a logistics hub and international airline, the role of the UAE (as directed from its federal capital, Abu Dhabi) in regional politics and finance is now centered in its military capacity and its economic power through foreign aid and investment.

Gueraiche takes an introspective approach to Emirati national identity and state-society relations, asking fundamentally, who does this country want to be? He sees points of tension and divides between tribalism and capitalism, liberalism and Islam, and awkward geography stuck between a largely Asian population and a very Arab political culture. But in many ways, his assumptions of points of tension are from the perspective of an outsider and noncitizen. For citizens, it is not clear that there are such dichotomies. While the state has made significant interventions to promote a cohesive national identity among the seven emirates, there is little evidence to suggest that citizens reject these efforts. In fact, patriotism and symbols of national cohesion, particlarly [End Page 167] in light of recent military casualties in Yemen, are more prominent in Emirati culture now than they were a decade ago.

The book is organized in three parts. The first addresses "A State like No Other," arguing there is a uniqueness to Emirati state-building. The second part, "What Place on the World Map?" questions how geopolitical forces pull the UAE in different directions, in terms of its identity: from its relations with Iran to its favorable position toward financial integration in global markets, to its relations with Asia (as home and sending countries to most UAE residents), and to its pan-Arab identity. The third part of the book, "The Sky Is the Limit," addresses challenges to the state's ability to grow and sustain itself, from economic diversification efforts away from oil dependency to investments to enhance food security and to plan for the effects of demographic imbalance between foreigners and citizens.

Gueraiche has gathered a wide range of empirical data to support his study, and he moves from topic to topic with agility. His inclusion of interviews and comments from local businesspeople and policy-makers is important. However, with such a wide lens, there are bound to be some shortcomings. For Gueraiche, the weakness of the analysis is a lack of conceptual clarity, and an overreliance on the notion of difference, or essentialism, about his case. His own positioning, as analyst within the framework, complicates his analysis in the ways...


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pp. 167-168
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