Researchers Ask, Is Dubai Really Cosmopolitan?
ABU DHABI—The United Arab Emirates—on its shiny, glass-veneered surface—is an immensely cosmopolitan place. In the 2015 World Migration Report it was named as the world’s most cosmopolitan city because 83 percent of its population was born in another country. London and New York pale in comparison with 37 percent and Paris trails with just 25 percent.
But a group of social scientists at the Université Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi are beginning a research project to re-evaluate this assumption. They’re collecting data of all kinds. They don’t just want to count the number of foreigners. They want to understand why they have come to the cities of the United Arab Emirates, why they want to stay (or leave), and their attitudes toward fellow residents. They seek to be able to empirically say whether Dubai and Abu Dhabi really have the right to call themselves cosmopolitan, and to better understand the nature of cosmopolitanism.
“We want to tackle this in a very scientific way,” says Clio Chaveneau, an assistant professor of sociology at Université Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi.
Subsections of Emirati society have been divided up and assigned to the different researchers. Some of them will tackle themes like public transport, collecting intelligence on which groups of people are using it and how often. Other researchers will be assigned certain nationalities of expats to investigate. Chaveneau will be in charge of understanding why large numbers of Europeans come to live in the United Arab Emirates and say they are content there.
“A lot of these expats tell us it’s hard to go back home to France or back to Britain because they’ve spent too long abroad and no longer have a connection. But I want to know if these people are really looking for cosmopolitan spaces or the opposite. Maybe they’re looking to recreate France or Great Britain as they imagine it should be,” she says.
In other words, Chaveneau is operating with a broader definition of cosmopolitanism, which is more complex than a simple statistic describing the number of foreign-born residents. It’s also about the attitudes of populations.
That approach is sensible, says David Inglis, a professor of sociology and a specialist in cosmopolitan theory at the University of Helsinki.
“There are many different definitions of cosmopolitanism,” he says. “But the core of it is about being a citizen of the world and not any particular nation-state or culture.” With that definition, it wouldn’t matter where a city’s residents come from. What is important is where they feel they come from: is their identity specific to that country or more outward-looking?
A city could be made up entirely of people born in that country, but if its inhabitants are worldly and interact with foreigners just as they would with their compatriots, then it could be called cosmopolitan.
Sociologists discuss cosmopolitanism in two different ways: First as a cultural phenomenon and second as a political phenomenon.
“Someone living in Dubai from the local elite or the privileged expat communities might be open in terms of what they eat and buy. That’s aesthetic cosmopolitanism; you eat and consume the world,” says Inglis.
Politically speaking, he says a cosmopolitan would also be open to the world, value human rights, treat foreigners with respect, and advocate taking in refugees.
“You can eat sushi and listen to world music but not believe in letting refugees in. I’m basically saying there are different types of cosmopolitanism,” says Inglis. “I think to make the distinction between political and cultural cosmopolitanism is important.”
Exactly how cosmopolitan Dubai will be according to Chaveau’s research and a broader definition of the term remains to be seen. She’s currently collecting data and conducting interviews, and refuses to offer a verdict until her work is done.
Nevertheless, Inglis is happy to weigh in. “Dubai is not cosmopolitan in the political sense because it’s all about profit and looking after the nationals. That sense of human rights and respecting everybody doesn’t exist.”
But whatever your stance on Dubai’s cosmopolitanism or lack thereof, this kind of work is important, says Chaveneau. “I think we are in a fast-changing world with migration becoming more of a political issue in almost every country, so it’s important for social scientists to study as many cases of migration as possible.”
Inglis agrees and says we already know more about cosmopolitanism in other parts of the world. “This study is catching the region up with what’s already been done in other countries.”
“Measuring cosmopolitanism is a way to gauge people’s attitudes,” says Inglis.