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Transnational Communities Programme

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Connection and Imagery: transnational culture flows and the Arab Gulf

Short summary/Long description

Principal Investigators
Dr Paul Dresch
Inst. of Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Oxford
51 Banbury Road
Oxford OX2 6PE
Dr James Piscatori
Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
George Street
Oxford OX1 2AR
Dr Madawi al-Rasheed
Dept. of Theology and Religious Stduies
Kings College, University of London
The Strand
London WC2R 2LS
Dr Paul Dresch
Duration of Research
October 1998 - August 2002


Short summary

Aims and objectives

Endowed with vast oil wealth but heavily dependent on foreign labour, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman are intrinsically connected with a wider world. The project examines how states and peoples of the Arab Gulf create a "transnational community" anchored in their home areas yet heavily involved with foreign sites.


Flows of capital under Gulf control are vast. Labour and technical expertise are imported from elsewhere, while Gulf nationals invest heavily abroad and reside overseas for long periods. Control of media (often based off-shore) provides a powerful means of promoting regional and national identity. Satellite television, for example, is dominated by particular financial interests. Print, fax and Internet are less readily controlled. At home, meanwhile, with heavy foreign technical involvement, governments promote "heritage" and formalised national histories.

More intimately, personal networks, often based on kin, provide business connections and fields of sociability. The prominence of kinship is increasing, not declining. Nationality is in effect kin-based and allows increasing social exclusivity in an integrated economic world. The net effect is a powerful set of self-definitions which dominate an important part of transnational interactions.

Study design

Field research will be conducted in two off-shore locations (London and Beirut) and in three Gulf states (Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia). A multi-disciplinary, multi-site approach promises an integrated account of how Gulf self-definitions work in practice.



Long Description


To analyse practical inter-connections and modes of self-definition, here and abroad, of GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) states and populations within transnational flows of capital, persons and ideas. To develop cross-disciplinary approaches to GCC states as a valuable case of late-modern cultural and commercial involution.

Anthropology, political science and sociology of religion have too often operated in isolation. Combining them on a shared ethnographic base offers major dividends. Ongoing debates in anthropology and political science (see bibliography) provide the main frame of reference, supported by debates in area-literature on Gulf society and Muslim politics. An inter-disciplinary approach should allow us to replace current views of "local identity" with analysis of self-definition within inherently transnational systems.


The GCC states not only control globally significant capital resources, they are also centres of foreign labour, which has important effects on their self-definition. They are major investors beyond, as well as within, the OECD. They exert great influence on political and cultural patterns elsewhere: in for instance East and South Africa, South Asia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Neither culturally nor economically are they self-sufficient, however. They import both manual labour from South and Southeast Asia and specialist labour from South Asia and Western Europe (short-term UK expatriates are prominent). Meanwhile they themselves export population, as frequent visitors, owners of second homes, or quasi-permanent residents. From sites such as London they dominate regional media and also have considerable effect (intentionally or otherwise) on Western media coverage of their own states. At all sites, home and abroad, commercial dealings with non-GCC nationals are handled largely by a class of non-Gulf intermediaries.

The GCC is a vital export market, not least for the UK. It is essential to recognise, however, that the East-West trade link is only part of the world in which Gulf nationals operate. Apart from their role in constituting transnational communities for others (European and Asian labour, specialist business and finance, media and communications ), GCC nationals are a transnational community in their own right. Often they have yearly patterns of movement that link them intimately with other countries as well as with their neighbours. Their interests, both cultural and financial, are a prominent part of "globalisation" generally. Within this area of academic interest they provide a uniquely compelling field of study -- for the cross-state network that defines the region in global terms (and thus of course is sui generis) also provides a field for internal comparison: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman are worlds within worlds, each with distinctive structures and connections. London remains, for the moment, a major off-shore, European site for GCC activity (along with Paris, Geneva, and Marbella). Lebanon is re-emerging as a prime off-shore site, and remains the centre of the mediating class who facilitate activity throughout GCC citizens’ transnational involvement.

Theoretically the GCC countries raise several issues. 1) Non-state perspectives are essential to grasping their social structures, involved as these are with transnational investment, population movement and culture flows. 2) The GCC states exemplify sharply the simultaneity of globalisation and localisation, where the very scale and influence of global interests promotes unparalleled concern with exclusivity, placing financial decision-making for instance in the private domain of kinship and equating citizenship with concerns for genealogy and restrictive marriage. 3) Citizens become cosmopolitan while local identities are produced in archaising form; an annual celebration at Riyad, for instance, invokes camel-racing, bedouin dancing, and poetry to evoke the historical depth of the Saudi nation. 4) Such self-definition is established to a high degree at foreign locations and recycled to a home constituency; the Public Record Office at Kew, for instance, is a key source of Gulf history, while Western responses to local values are recycled constantly. 5) The centrality of GCC nationals in funding new technologies of communication (satellite TV, the new generation of dedicated phone satellites) makes them both donors and recipients of information flows no one state controls.

At home the GCC states, awash as they are with foreign populations and imagery, have made a major investment in nation-building: heritage sites, museums, folklore, "local" architectural themes have all been promoted heavily. Such representations involve the West also. The technical staffs and even designers come from here. Precisely the art condemned by Western academics as "Orientalist" goes to Arab buyers in London at high prices. A world of "Arabian heritage" is offered to Western journalists and visitors, or even established in the West itself, while "historical" productions for a home audience are imported as readily as are prestigious sports events. The resulting involution of imagery makes it essential that research work be grounded in ethnography. Common images are recycled through East and West. High level "models", meanwhile, whether drawn from economics or strategic studies, treat the GCC as composed of standard bureaucratic states. In fact their global, transnational involvements are inherent to their character, and conventional demarcations between "internal" and "external" concerns are often not applicable. A highly mobile population with widespread investments is different from a classical European citizenry; and the forms of society and administration they recognise are distinctive.

Contribution to larger project

The proposed research promises to contribute to the objectives of the Transnational Communities project in two main ways. First, the project will illuminate the simultaneity of transnational and localising forces which equally have an impact on changing modes of self-definition. GCC societies and citizens are increasingly drawn to projects of heritage, tradition-building and exclusive genealogy while their economic investments and dependence draw them into forms of high modernity and networks outside their countries. The resulting contrasts do not map onto physical space in simple ways. Traditionalising forms of Islam, for instance, flourish most clearly in off-shore settings connected by contemporary IT. Satellite systems, whose technology, and management are largely external to the GCC beam into the sites from which their funding comes images of domestic and Islamic community. GCC nationals, meanwhile, as they travel abroad, own foreign residences, and master languages with impressive skill, become increasingly tightly defined as an exclusive group, exemplified by concerns for hypergamy and, increasingly, endogamy.

Second, it will shed light on the crucial role that transnational networks play in state formation and re-formation, particularly as they apply in a non-Western setting. Although the Gulf states vary in historical depth, they have each been subject to pulls --of kinship (tribal as well as ideological, e.g. "Arabism"), religion, and commerce-- that go beyond state borders and that have complicated the search for collective coherence. But more is at stake than the formation of a seemingly unitary "national identity": transnational flows help to concretise sub-state actors within each society and provide models of alternative social and political organisation.

Research questions

The impact of transnational systems at specific sites is approached through four main topics -- the development of forms of self-definition and exclusivity among target populations; changing concepts of citizenship in three major cases; forms of mediation between these populations and the surrounding world; conceptualisations of state and civil society within transnational flows of persons, capital, and imagery. These topics are expressed in several modalities of social life. We have selected a limited range of these where access is possible and complementarity ensured among separate sites: presentation of self and society in media; moral discourse in official and non-official settings (e.g state broadcasting as against faxes); constructions of nationality through "heritage"; the symbolics of state performance; marriage patterns and restrictions; comparative representations of citizenship in state and non-state contexts. The whole is underpinned by major transnational flows of capital, goods, and population accessible in part by conventional work on statistics and published sources.

Methods and data

Flows of capital, investment and population are best mapped from statistical sources, and major issues can be established in outline from published literature (this is a major undertaking in itself). But their meaning is seldom self-explanatory. Without careful ethnography such sources as film-text and even statistical yearbooks remain responses to purely international agenda, framed solely in global terms. An inter-disciplinary approach has therefore been selected, combining anthropology, political science and sociology of religion, with the capacity to draw on literatures of adjacent subjects.

Three GCC states will be studied: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Each has a notable immigrant population (Saudi Arabia, 31%, UAE 76%, Oman 27%), and Oman also exports migrant labour. Two sites that contribute expertise to these states and in turn are heavily influenced by them will be subject to longer-term field-work: these are Lebanon (focus, Beirut) and London. London is chosen not only because of UK interests but as a vital node in GCC connections.

Parallel lines of enquiry will be pursued at each site on three analytic levels. (1) The internal dimension at each site involves the impact of transnational forces and interactions on notions of exclusivity and affiliation, citizenship and self-definition. To examine the transformations currently at work we shall focus on manipulation of kinship ties, manufacture of national history, public ritual and representations of state and non-state actors in the context of outside contacts. (2) Intra-regional connections selected for attention are student and cultural exchanges, business links, and local depictions of state, religion and society (all sites, for instance, receive each others’ radio and TV transmissions). Particular attention will be paid to the symbolism of regional meetings and initiatives. (3) Extra-regional links to be studied comprise not only flows of capital and population, but of media imagery (MBC in London, Orbit in Rome, Dubai TV), religious discussion (the presentation of for instance fatwa programmes in each state is distinctive), and alternative moral discourses in out-of-country centres (not only do London and Beirut provide off-shore sites, but the agendas of GCC states differ and flows of imagery among them are contested).

Detailed work

(1) UK: to examine the expatriate circuits of GCC nationals centred here, to establish their patterns of residence and investment, to understand the inter-relations of selected groups based in London, and to analyse the assumptions that underlie extra-territorial activity more generally.

(2) United Arab Emirates: to study the effect on local self-definition of the massive inflow of foreign labour from South Asia, Western Europe and elsewhere. Particular attention will be paid to the rhetoric of local heritage, to media and communications and to exclusive marriage laws.

(3) Saudi Arabia: to study perceptions of responsibility and opportunity within and beyond the Muslim World, with particular reference to Saudi citizens abroad . As the largest and most powerful of the GCC states Saudi Arabia’s perceptions of its neighbours and their wider connections are of particular importance.

(4) Oman: to locate longer-term Omani self-definition within a GCC context and more widely. Oman is the least wealthy of the GCC states selected (900,000 b.p.d; 1.2 million citizens) yet the most committed to projects of local heritage and historiography. Historical divisions related to Indian Ocean trade are important.

(5) Lebanon: to explore the composition and connections of the commercial class who not only invest in the GCC, and manage return investment, but mediate so much of GCC activity with the wider world. Lebanon is again becoming the locale for GCC secondary residence.

These are highly technologised populations, and highly mobile; key informants and associates move constantly across Europe and the Middle East. Such occasions as local conferences and book-fairs provide research opportunities at short notice Within the EU, visits will aslo be made to L’Institut du Monde Arabe and IFRI (Paris), Istituto d’Affari Internazionale and Orbit (Rome), Graduate School of International Studies (Geneva).

Engagement and communication plans

In each year a small workshop will be held to which selected non-academics from government and business will be invited, ideas will be sharpened with their help and preliminary results disseminated. The opportunity to think about EU-GCC relations and their ramifications in wider context may be useful even to existing experts. Experienced journalists with an established interest in the Middle East are another constituency to draw upon. Wider academic conferences with invitees will be held near the end of (academic) year two and at the project’s end. In each case interested colleagues will be invited not only from Britain but also from EU countries (particularly France) and the United States as well as from GCC countries.

Outline Bibliography

Altorki, S. and and D.Cole, 1989 Arabian Oasis City: the transformation of `Unayzah, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Baugé, G. 1986 "La kafalah: un système de gestion transitoire de la main-ouevre et du capital dans le pays du Golfe", Revue Européenne de migrations internationales, 2/1, 109-22.

Beblawi, H. and G. Luciani, 1987 The Rentier State, London: Croom Helm.

Bichara, K. 1991 Les Migrations vers le Golfe, Louvain: CERMAC

Bligh, A. 1984 From Prince to King: royal succession in the House of Saud in the twentieth century, NY: New York University Press

Buell, Frederick. 1994 National Culture and the New Global System. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press.

Chaudhry, Karen A. 1989 "The price of wealth: business and state in labor remittance and oil economies", International Organization 43: 101-45

Crystal, J. 1990 Oil and Politics in the Gulf: rulers and merchants in Kuwait and Qatar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, Eric and Nicolas Gavrielides. 1991 Statecraft in the Middle East: Oil, Historical Memory and Popular Culture. Miami: Florida International University Press.

Eickelman, D.F. 1992 "Mass higher education and the religious imagination in contemporary Arab societies", American Ethnologist, 19/4, 643-55.

Eickelman, D. F. and Piscatori, J. 1996 Muslim Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fardon, Richard. 1995 Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. London: Routledge

Field, M. 1984 The Merchants: the big business families of Saudi Arabia, London: John Murray

Gause, Gregory. 1994 Oil States: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Heard-Bey, F. 1996 "Kulturelle Aspekte der Zuwanderung in de Golfstaaaten, Wirkongen von Migrationen auf aufnehmende Gesellschaften, Nuremberg: Zentralinstitut fur Frankische Landeskunde.

Khalaf, S. 1992 "Gulf societeies and the image of the unlimited good", Dialectical Anthropology, 17/1, 53-84

Miller, Daniel. 1995 Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local. London: Routledge.

Mittelman, J. (ed.) 1996 Globalization: critical reflections. Boulder, London: Lynne Reinner.

Naqeeb, Khaldoun al-. 1990 Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula: a Different Perspective. London: Routledge.

Robertson, R. 1992 Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Shehadi, N. and A. Hourani 1992 The Lebanese in the World: a century of emigration. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wilkinson, J.C. 1987 The Imamate Tradition of Oman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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