American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
This paper draws on fieldwork conducted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) to analyze ‘expatriate’ as a category. The UAE’s population is largely comprised of foreign workers, with approximately 15% of the population holding Emirati citizenship. While conducting fieldwork in Dubai between 2015-2017, many of my interlocutors were expatriates, even though some were born and raised in the UAE. Because the UAE severely restricts citizenship transmission and does not offer a process for naturalization, people who have lived in the country for decades often hold foreign passports and their presence in the country is contingent on continued employment to secure them a residency visa. This paper offers two connected arguments: first, the term “expat” often operates as a racial category. Amongst my interlocutors, workers originating from Europe, the US, or Australia were labeled “expats” while low-wage manual workers from South Asia were termed “migrant workers.” These distinctions immediately racialized and classed individuals. These terms obscure the shared motivations behind migration to formulate social hierarchies and assert privilege. Secondly, this paper addresses how Western expats in the UAE leveraged educational capital and work experience in Anglo countries to claim professionalism and expertise and to justify their presence, building on a legacy of colonial intervention (or its adjacencies, such as the Trucial States Protectorate). The paper concludes by offering a reflection on the uncomfortable proximity of foreign researchers to such categories of expatriates, professionalism, and expertise.