Cosmopolitanism in Dubai

Dubai: world’s least cosmopolitan city

Dubai is probably the most international place in the world, with less than 10% of its inhabitants holding the local passport. 1 Most people you’ll see in the city are foreign to the place, and there is no powerful majority. It could be the perfect recipe for a society in which the international makes places for cosmopolitanism; where the globe comes together in a melting pot of ‘citizens of the world.’ But, as I argued in my dissertation, the cocktail of different nationalities makes Dubai everything but cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitan is not a synonym of international: as a philosophy or ideology, cosmopolitanism takes individual human beings as the ultimate moral units and assumes universal human equality.2 As it maintains that everyone belongs to a single community, it stands opposed to particularistic preferences for one group, such as nationalism and patriotism, which give priority to ones own country and fellow compatriots.3 These concepts are important in a globalizing ‘borderless’ world in which the meaning of nationality is challenged by changes in human movement, attachment, and belonging. An example is the short-term migration of the kind we find in Dubai, which has been called transnationalism: migrants form social fields that include both their country of origin and their country of settlement.4

For my dissertation I did research among one of these transnational communities in this ultra-international city: Egyptian middle class citizens. They are transnational because they are defined through and between two societies: they live in Dubai but maintain strong ties with Egypt and pay it frequent visits; their stay in Dubai is temporary and their reason for migration economic. Tied between those two countries, transnational migrants are said to develop “fluid and multiple identities.”5 In my thesis I concluded that for the Egyptians I interviewed in Dubai, living abroad often had a profound influence on their attitudes and behavior, but at the same time their identity stayed distinctly national: juxtaposed to so many other nationalities, many came to define themselves even stronger in terms of their own origin. If anything, they didn’t become cosmopolitan.

Thinking of transnational migrants as universal, cosmopolitan subjects that navigate through a post-Westphalian world would indeed go too far. In fact, transnational subjects are maybe more than anyone aware of the significance of nation states and borders. The two places between which these people move aren’t random: they are two national states, which constitute their possibilities of movement by defining conditions and limits through visa regulations, residency permits, migration security checks, labor laws, and so forth. So although we have to be aware of assumptions of ‘methodological nationalism’ in migration studies that can skew our interpretations,6 it would be a bridge too far to discard an international perspective altogether in favor of a ‘global perspective’ of cosmopolitanism.

Even, or rather, especially in a place like Dubai, nationality remains very important. During my research, many of my interlocutors reported differentiated treatment and salaries based on the passport one holds, which is even more important than the country in which one received education. In my thesis I argue not only that national identities become more pronounced when contrasted to other nationalities, but that this happened along an ethnic social hierarchy that is much more permeating and obvious than in many other places. Very roughly: locals stand at the top, Westerners come next; at the bottom are Asians.

This is, of course, not very surprising. Humans have some basic predispositions that include categorizing (i.e. to think in groups), forming hierarchies, and developing in-group bias while discriminating against out-group members. And research has shown that in situations where it is impossible to move between social groups – as is the case with ethnicity – people will primarily identify as members of their own group.7 But while other countries often try to discourage ethnic group thinking by promoting human equality and integration and embracing civic nationalism, Dubai does not.

Dubai nourishes human nature by impeding the emergence of a cosmopolitan culture. Nationalism in the Arab Gulf states is ethnic; immigrants are per definition temporary and not supposed to integrate into local culture, but are stimulated to keep their own lifestyles, traditions and values, as long as it is respectful of the country’s Islamic framework. For example, a research about the Indian middle class in Dubai,8 described a local kind of Indian identity based on new forms of belonging and citizenship. Due to many years and sometimes generations in Dubai, the Indian community in the city developed its own culture distinct from the one in India, but not together with other immigrant communities: it is almost exclusively a culture of Indians-in-Dubai.

The Dubai society challenges established understandings and expectations of multiculturalism, integration, social cohesion, and citizenship. Dubai is not a melting pot in which different cultures blend together as one. A creolized expat culture composed of unknown nationalities materializes probably only among those who precisely because of their passports have the luxury to pretend that passports are not important: the Western expats.9 Dubai is better served by the ‘salad bowl’ metaphor, where cultures live with each other but do not lose their own traits, and do not form a new culture.

Dubai is in some ways a contradictory city. In the most international place on earth, nationalities become more pronounced; its inhabitants are transnational, but not cosmopolitan. It is a place that some of my interlocutors during my research called “the most racist country in the world” while others contended that there is “zero percent discrimination.” It is a place characterized by a rigid ethnic hierarchy, but at the same time celebrated for its opportunities and social mobility. A meritocratic society, but one where some start out with more merits (i.e. a passport or education from the right country) than others.

When people talk about ‘cosmopolitan’ Dubai, what is often meant is ‘international.’10 Dubai is full of citizens from the whole world, but they are not ‘citizens of the world’ – the famous description of cosmopolitanism of Diogenes of Sinope (412 BC). Cosmopolitan subjects are free from any particularistic loyalties, while in Dubai everyone is very aware of their ethnicity and passport (and those of others), which dictates their lives in the city to a large extent. And maybe cosmopolitanism is too far removed from human nature. Cosmopolitanism is a beautiful ideal, but an unlikely reality.

This article is adapted from the dissertation I wrote for my MA in Global Studies in Social Sciences. Please do not hesitate to contact me for any questions or further academic references. I have written more about the same subject in this article.


Audi, R. (2009). Nationalism, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism in an age of globalization. The Journal of Ethics, 13(4), 365-381.

Cooke, M. (2014). Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Glick Schiller, N., Basch, L., & Blanc-Szanton, C. (1992). Transnationalism: A new analytic framework for understanding migration. Annals of the New York academy of sciences, 645(1), 1-24.

Glick Schiller, N. (2009). A global perspective on migration and development. Social Analysis, 53(3), 14-37.

Longva, A.N. (1997). Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Masad, M. (2008). Dubai. What Cosmopolitan City? ISIM review, 22(2), 10-11.

Soniewicka, M. (2011). Patriotism and Justice in the Global Dimension: A Conflict of Virtues?. Eidos, 14, 50-71.

Tajfel, H. & Turner, J C. 1979. An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In W.G. Austin and S. Worchel (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole.

Vora, N. (2013). Impossible citizens: Dubai’s Indian diaspora. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


  1. Of its estimated population of 2,698,600 persons (composing almost 30% of the total population of the United Arab Emirates), only 8.65% are Emiratis. Source: Dubai Statistics Center (2016). Population and Vital Statistics.
  2. Soniewicka, 2011
  3. Audi, 2009
  4. Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992
  5. Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992, p. 11
  6. Glick Schiller, 2009
  7. Tajfel & Turner, 1979
  8. Neha Vora (2013)
  9. As for example described by Cooke (2014) and Longva (1997)
  10. e.g. Masad, 2008