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Transnationaliser la péninsule Arabique : dynamiques locales, régionales et globales

Transnationalising the Arabian Peninsula: Local, Regional and Global Dynamics

Hélène Thiollet and Leïla Vignal
This article is a translation of:
Transnationaliser la péninsule Arabique : dynamiques locales, régionales et globales

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  • 1 Four articles of this Special issue are part of a five-year research programme (2010–2015) funded b (...)

1This seventh issue of Arabian Humanities aims to explore the processes of regionalisation and globalisation in the Arabian Peninsula by focusing the analysis on the oil-exporting countries that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). We decided to examine the dynamics of extraversion and integration of their economies, societies, cultures and political systems through the lens of “transnationalism”.1

The “Transnational”: A Multidisciplinary Approach

  • 2 Nye & Keohane, 1971.
  • 3 Rosenau, 1997.

2The notion of “transnationalism” emerged in the 1970s, in the field of international relations, to describe the modalities of non-state actions — and their spatialities — within the framework of “world politics.”2 The point was to break with the state-centred perspective of political developments to include non-state actors in a complex political game that no longer takes place exclusively within the legal and physical borders of nation-states. Thus, new approaches to transnational relations began to explore, within and beyond the state, the processes, networks and practices of multiple social actors that unfold according to specific modalities and scales: businesses, diasporas, religious communities, scientific or cultural networks, trade unions, social movements (including global protest movements), non-governmental organisations, etc. Gradually, and in a diffuse way, the concept came to not only refer to the individual and collective practices and strategies of persons, consumers, migrants, and professionals of a given field, but also to the culture of formal or informal institutions that operate transnationally.3

  • 4 Levitt & Jaworsky, 2007.
  • 5 Portes, 1997; Faist, 2000.
  • 6 Transmigrants are “immigrants who develop and maintain multiple relationships […] that span borders (...)

3The concept of transnationalism appeared concurrently in migration studies. As Levitt and Jaworsky recall,4 it served to describe how migrants (or refugees) maintain an active link between their country of origin and their country (or countries) of residence. Thus, social anthropologists, geographers and sociologists deployed the concept to trace the emergence of “transnational social spaces”5 with multiple dimensions (social dimensions, of course, but also economic, cultural, religious, political, familial, and affective ones). They showed how these social spaces connect the country of origin to the country of residence of migrants, or “transmigrants,”6 giving rise to collective resources and multiple individual affiliations.

  • 7 Vertovec, 2009, p. 2.
  • 8 Guarnizo and Smith, 1998.

4Since the 2000s, the notion of transnationalism has become widespread among social scientists, who, beyond the practices and spaces of migration, use it to describe and analyse the activities of individuals, groups and various social institutions that unfold and take root at the transnational scale. The social and material resources of these actors of mobility thus contribute to building transnational spaces that are fluid yet also marked by forms of permanence. This approach is integral to the definition of transnationalism proposed by Steven Vertovec, for whom the term designates “the multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states […] the sustained cross-border relationships, patterns of exchange, affiliations and social formations spanning nation-states.”7 Transnationalism is construed as both a process (the intensification of cross-border relations) and a space (a geographical scale of social interaction). It operates “from above” and “from below,”8 either via institutionalised economic and political ties — for instance, in multinational corporations or large NGOs —or via networks of ordinary agents of transnationalism — migrants, in most studies — and the everyday practices of their transnational lifestyle.

  • 9 One can mention the classic study by Matthew Frye Jacobson on the relation of Jewish, Irish and Pol (...)

5The relatively recent character of the notions in use must not obscure the historicity of the practices. Infra-, supra- or trans-state ties were not forged during the most recent phase of globalisation; they are older than this.9 Nevertheless, these ties have certainly been spurred, facilitated, intensified and transformed since the end of the twentieth century, thanks to the explosion of technological innovations and mobilities of all kinds. The different meanings of “transnationalism” are now being shaped by all “users” of the concept in the social sciences, be they geographers, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists or economists. In this regard, the current issue of Arabian Humanities aims to supplement the distinction proposed by Guarnizo and Smith — transnationalism “from above/from below” — by reflecting the diversity of the objects through which the transnational can be grasped, and by highlighting, from the perspective of the Arabian Peninsula, the wealth of disciplinary approaches and scales that help to comprehend it.

The Arabian Peninsula between Globalisation, Regionalisation and Peripherisation

6Indeed, the historical sequences of “contemporary globalisation” in the Arabian Peninsula are far from clearly defined and unambiguous. Since the 1950s, the proliferation, intensification, densification and acceleration of transnational networks and circulations in the region have offered a counter-narrative to the images of fragmentation or insularity that are often associated with the Middle East in general, and with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula in particular. The oil economy that dominates the sub-region has no doubt been a powerful vector for the internationalisation of the Gulf monarchies: The GCC countries are structurally “extraverted,” whether in terms of the oil trade or of labour migration. However, in recent contemporary history, this extraversion has taken on different forms, incarnated itself in distinct institutions, and translated into a wide range of discourses.

7The Pan-Arab period of regional integration (1950–1970) was little institutionalised, and, until the 1970s oil boom and the nationalisation of oil companies that ensued, it went hand in hand with a strong American and British presence. The discursive, ideological and political constructions of “Arab unity” then coexisted with powerful dynamics of political and economic fragmentation, as well as with episodes of direct or indirect confrontation between “brotherly” countries. However, the emergence of a “Gulf policy” in the 1970s (following the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council), and the development of “oil diplomacy” in the early 1990s, accelerated the emancipation of the oil monarchies from the rest of the Arab world, especially from Egyptian and Iraqi political hegemony. The self-assertion of the “Gulf” monarchies was notably achieved via renewed links with the rest of the world, and with Asia in particular. Since the 1980s, historical trade links with Asia have been revived through labour migration from that region and the sale of oil to Asian countries.

8The period initiated in 1990 was marked by the early political rise of the oil monarchies on the world stage. It was also characterised by the implementation of diversification policies in rentier economies. Thus, the “passive” integration in the global economy of the Peninsula’s oil-producing countries based on their role in energy production gradually evolved into an active positioning in financial markets, in the service economy, but also in the regional, and even international, political arena.

9The Gulf countries have now gained unexpected importance in sectors that are not directly connected to the oil economy: logistics, finance, tourism, culture, and trade. Of course, the small riparian monarchies of the Gulf did not all enter globalisation “on equal terms”: The United Arab Emirates, and in particular Dubai, represent a type of global integration that is hardly matched by the neighbouring Emirates — whether Qatar or, even less so, the more discreet Kuwait and Oman. Saudi Arabia claims a unique, privileged place, despite its diplomatic rivalry with Qatar in the domains of ​​pan-Arab media and regional security. This position of regional leadership is coveted more and more openly by the Kingdom, as shown by its willingness to sponsor a coalition of the different Syrian oppositions, its direct military involvement in conflicts in Yemen since 2009, and its open rivalry with Iran.

The Gulf Monarchies: Periphery and Exceptionalism

10Given the singularity of their economic and societal models, the Gulf monarchies, and to a lesser extent Yemen, have long been treated as Middle Eastern exceptions in the Arab world, but also in the wider space of economic, cultural and political globalisation. On the one hand, the magnitude of the oil rent, as reflected in GDP composition, has largely determined the functioning of state structures and provided these countries with a key geostrategic lever on the international scene. On the other hand, the presence in Saudi Arabia of the most important places of Muslim pilgrimage has enabled this country to promote the spread of Wahhabi Islam, strongly reinforcing its influence in cultural and religious matters in the Arab region and beyond. Finally, Gulf exceptionalism was constructed based on the monarchies’ strong dependence on foreign labour, as well as on their singular demographic structures marked by the overrepresentation of non-national populations.

  • 10 In this regard, one can mention the use of the portmanteau word “petro-Islam,” first coined by Egyp (...)
  • 11 Chiffoleau, 2015.
  • 12 Schriwer, 2014.

11Nevertheless, this constructed exceptionalism also partly stems from the fact that research on the Middle East in general, and on the Arabian Peninsula in particular, was long dominated by representations which might be qualified as culturalist, “orientalist,” or derived from a geopolitical reading of the historical evolution of the sub-region. These representations stressed the influence of the oil rent, and of a “quasi-natural” relation to authoritarian regimes and religion in the analysis of sociological, spatial, economic, cultural and other dynamics.10 The countries of the Arab-Persian Gulf therefore long remained at the geographical and scientific margins of research on globalisation and transnational phenomena. Yet the shift in paradigmatic focus offered by transnational analysis makes it possible to go beyond these localised and singular studies. It allows for exploring these factors of singularisation as different vectors of regionalisation and internationalisation in the areas of politics, economics and culture. The pilgrimage to the holy places of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the dissemination of the religious culture of the Gulf monarchies have fully contributed to these processes,11 as has the diversification of these countries’ economic markets. In particular, this diversification has prompted the monarchies to increase their commercial ties with emerging markets and to break their exclusive ties with their traditional clients (i.e., the large oil-consuming industrial countries), with the result that their main importers and refiners are now located in Asia.12 Lastly, the research agenda on Gulf states was also long dominated by geostrategic considerations linked to oil or to geopolitical rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East — a trend that has been revived in the 2010s by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

  • 13 Halliday, 1996, p. 261.

12This exceptionalism to which the countries of the Peninsula (and, more broadly, those of the Arab world) are often assigned still underlies much of the current analysis of the “Arab Spring.” From this perspective, one of the responsibilities of social scientists is to help demonstrate what political scientist Fred Halliday said of the Middle East: It is “not unique, except possibly in the content of the myths that are propagated about it, from within and without.”13

“Moving Beyond Exceptionalism”: New Research Agendas

  • 14 See, for example, Sakr, 2001.
  • 15 See, for example, Mermier, 2003.

13Scientific work aimed at de-exceptionalising these allegedly peripheral regions began in the 2000s. This went hand in hand with an in-depth re-evaluation of the analysis of globalisation dynamics and the rise of less Eurocentric research, echoing changes in the global political and economic balance and the erosion of Western dominance over the international economy in general. Thus, in the 1990s, studies on the explosion of pan-Arab media (in particular satellite television) helped not only to reveal new aspects of the global soft power strategies deployed by Qatar (Al Jazeera) and Saudi Arabia (MBC),14 but also to take a more empirical interest in the sociology of public and private actors of politics, economics and culture in the region and beyond.15 This scientific work accompanied as well the relative opening up of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to the circulation of their scientific elites at the global level. To a certain extent, it benefited from the development of academic institutions and the funding of scientific research in the region, whether in the branches of North American or European universities (for instance, in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar) or in local institutions (such as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). The limits of this “opening up” are obvious when they touch on sensitive subjects like the power of ruling dynasties or movements of political and religious protest.

  • 16 See, for example, Seccombe & Lawless, 1986; Shafik, 1999; Fargues, 2000.
  • 17 One can cite, as an example and without pretending to reflect the diversity and wealth of contempor (...)

14This departure from exceptionalism is manifest in the field of migration studies. The Gulf region is the third largest migratory region in the world, but it has remained largely under-studied until recently. Following the pioneering works initiated in the 1980s and 1990s on migrations to the Gulf,16 there has been since the 2000s a welcome exploration of Gulf issues by a new generation of scholars (in many cases women) from different social science disciplines: political science, international relations, sociology, anthropology, human geography, political economy, and social and urban history.17 Overall, by deploying highly diverse methods that range from textual analysis to ethnographic studies through the creation of quantitative databases, research on Gulf issues has not only helped to develop knowledge of these societies, but has also contributed, on the basis of this knowledge, to a reflection on the transformations of the state, contemporary capitalism, and social and human mobilities. These studies focus on countries whose economies are no doubt dominated by the oil rent, whose societies clearly have a highly singular demographic identity — with a large and sometimes majority presence of foreign populations — and whose history is at once ancient and recent, local and reticulate. Yet by exploring these societies in light of evolutions that can be observed throughout the world, social science studies conducted on and in Gulf countries also highlight the latter’s contemporaneity. In so doing, research on these societies is carried out within studies of globalisation and the social, political, economic, cultural and spatial transformations that accompany it.

Regionalisation, Internationalisation, Transnationalisation

15This Special Issue sheds light on the ways in which the transnational dimension contributes, via practices, institutions, networks and spaces deployed and articulated at different scales, to transforming the social, cultural, economic and political dynamics that shape the evolution of the Arabian Peninsula.

  • 18 Vignal, 2016.

16In the Middle East, the space in which transnational circulations and networks develop is not fluid and open. It is uneven, hierarchical, marked by inequalities of development, by the political and military prerogatives of regional and global powers such as the United States, and by conflicts. Borders in the region are a significant political, legal, economic and strategic reality, and they have an important impact on transnational circulations and networks. Nevertheless, the liberalisation and economic opening undertaken in the various countries of the region since the 1980–1990 period, as well as the progressive integration of these countries in the global economic system, have been decisive factors in the development of the transnational dynamics observed. These dynamics have notably contributed to reinforcing “from below,” within and beyond institutional arrangements, the ties and forms of regional integration. The Gulf countries have played an important role in structuring these dynamics throughout the Middle East.18

17The six articles gathered in this issue draw on original research to analyse the dynamics — “from above” and “from below” — of transnationalisation in the Arabian Peninsula, be they locally anchored, articulated within the regional space of the Middle East and the Arab world, or oriented towards Asia, Africa and the world. These articles are written by scholars from different social science disciplines: political science and international relations (Hélène Thiollet), human geography (William Guéraïche, Delphine Pagès-El Karoui, Amin Moghadam), and anthropology (Franck Mermier, Melanie Sindelar). The common thread running through these articles is that Gulf societies are marked by individual or collective practices that unfold between here and elsewhere — in a fluid or uneven manner, competitively or cooperatively, conflictually, informally, or within the limits of various arrangements.

18The article by Hélène Thiollet proposes a political history of labour migration in the oil-exporting countries. Thiollet uses the concept of transnationalism as forged in international relations to include public and private actors in the analysis of international political phenomena in the context of globalisation. Thus, she observes that a hybrid — public/private — management of labour flows and immigrant communities, characterised by the economic, social and political exploitation and alienation of migrant workers, has been in place in the Gulf countries since the 1930s. Transnational migration policies in the Gulf countries reflect the different phases of the sub-region’s political economy: the colonial period, marked by the dominance of American and British interests, which has lastingly shaped both the relations between foreigners and nationals and the forms of spatial segregation still observed today; the pan-Arab period, during which the migration of Arab labour to the monarchies became one of the most effective vectors of regional integration; and the last period, initiated in the 1990s, which saw the Gulf states regain control of their demographic and economic development.

  • 19 Thiollet, 2011.

19William Gueraïche analyses diplomatic relations and transnational social dynamics between the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates from the angle of “migration diplomacy.”19 Gueraïche begins by showing the diversity of this migration through deconstructing the often-homogeneous representation of the “Filipino, a migrant,” commonly identified with the domestic employee or the low-skilled worker. He describes the different actors that shape the diaspora’s trajectory in the Emirates; in particular, he shows that the UAE and Filipino states actively participate — sometimes conflictually, sometimes cooperatively — in the structuring, organisation and management of this highly diverse diaspora. Moreover, the role of the strategies, practices and discourses of Filipino(a)s themselves is essential to the analysis of this transnational migration space. The diversity of the transnational link is thus captured through state and non-state ties, everyday practices, labour and social relations, the formal and the informal.

20Delphine Pagès-El Karoui proposes in her article to look closely at the forms of identification and life conditions of approximately forty middle-class Egyptians living in Dubai. She lays out the characteristics of this community, which is in the minority as compared to Asian migrant communities but which nevertheless represents the largest migrant community from the Arab world. Pagès-El Karoui traces the ambivalence of these migrants’ perceptions of Dubai and Egypt, and she analyses their frustrations and aspirations. Finally, she ponders over the forms of cosmopolitanism that are accessible to those residents who have no prospect of formal political integration, and who are confined to remaining Arab “neighbours” — culturally close but living in perpetual insecurity owing to the threat of potential expulsion.

21Amin Moghadam explores the intimate dynamics of transnationalism in Dubai. He uses amorous relations and marriage as a site of tensions and ambiguities between State control and policies, social and religious norms, and social representations of the self and of others. The ethnographic narrative of an unfortunate love story unveils not only the discrepancies between the “iranianness” of an Emirati of Lārestānī origin and a recent Iranian expatriate, but also their relationships to religion, tradition, the family and social institutions. It also highlights the spatial dimensions of social control over individual lives and intimacy. Paradoxically, the article confronts the gilded cage of Gulf social conservatism and conformism, despite the bright attires of wealthy cosmopolitanism.

22The article by Franck Mermier documents the affirmation of new actors on the regional cultural and political scene: Arab cultural foundations. Mermier shows how the proliferation of these foundations has contributed to the development of a cultural and political polycentrality in the Arab world. The latter belongs to a historical trajectory that saw Pan-Arabism lose its relevance and effectiveness as a mobilising ideology, and that witnessed the consolidation of national cultural and intellectual scenes. Franck Mermier shows that this consolidation occurred in particular through these “foundations,” whose operating structures, publics, intellectual figures and managers are de facto, if not pan-Arabic, at least “regionalised.” The increasing role played by the Gulf countries in the development of this regional scene has contributed to the local and transnational construction of new Arab intellectual and political hubs.

23In her article on the annual art fair in Dubai, Art Dubai, Melanie Sindelar analyses the strategies implemented by the organisers of the fair to promote it as one of the major events of the international, contemporary and modern art scene. One of these strategies is to construct Art Dubai as unique, on the one hand by presenting it as an artistic hub between East and West and between South and North, and on the other by making available to institutional or private investors a “selection” of artworks from regions that are less present on world art markets. In this respect, the analysis proposed by Sindelar well reflects the choices the Emirate has made more generally with a view to promoting, in multiple sectors and at different scales, development strategies that will ensure the diversification of its economic resources.

24Through these various contributions, this Special Issue contributes to the exploration of the Gulf as a field from which it is also possible to engage in a reflection on the current transformations of the world as well as on the formation of the social, including its practices and representations.

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1 Four articles of this Special issue are part of a five-year research programme (2010–2015) funded by the French research funding body (Agence Nationale de la Recherche), a programme of which Leïla Vignal was the principal investigator. These articles are the articles by Franck Mermier, Amin Moghadam, Delphine Pages El-Karoui and Helene Thiollet. This Special issue is part of this research discussing transnational circulations and networks in the Middle East with regard to regionalisation. 

2 Nye & Keohane, 1971.

3 Rosenau, 1997.

4 Levitt & Jaworsky, 2007.

5 Portes, 1997; Faist, 2000.

6 Transmigrants are “immigrants who develop and maintain multiple relationships […] that span borders,” according to Basch et al., 1994, p. 6.

7 Vertovec, 2009, p. 2.

8 Guarnizo and Smith, 1998.

9 One can mention the classic study by Matthew Frye Jacobson on the relation of Jewish, Irish and Polish migrants to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century (Jacobson, 1995) or Nicholas Van Hear’s study of African and Middle Eastern migration crises throughout the twentieth century (Van Hear, 1998).

10 In this regard, one can mention the use of the portmanteau word “petro-Islam,” first coined by Egyptian philosopher Fouad Zakaria (Zakaria, 1986). This term conveys the idea that the economic circuits of the oil rent overdetermine the history and political developments of the region, favouring the Gulf’s political subservience to the United States, as well as the direct or indirect dominance of the Gulf monarchies (in particular, Saudi Arabia) over the Arab countries of the region. The term has met with increasing success and has been put forward by the neo-conservative intellectual Daniel Pipes, or, in a slightly more subtle manner, by Gilles Kepel (Kepel, 2003, chapter 3, p. 61ff.) and by Fawaz Gerges (Gerges, 2014). It generally serves to explain the Gulf through this double — economic and religious — variable, reducing the region to its petro-strategic and civilizational dimension. The analytical weakness of the expression was highlighted by Joel Beinin (Beinin & Stork, 1997, p. 8) and Nazih Ayubi (Ayubi, 1995, p. 233).

11 Chiffoleau, 2015.

12 Schriwer, 2014.

13 Halliday, 1996, p. 261.

14 See, for example, Sakr, 2001.

15 See, for example, Mermier, 2003.

16 See, for example, Seccombe & Lawless, 1986; Shafik, 1999; Fargues, 2000.

17 One can cite, as an example and without pretending to reflect the diversity and wealth of contemporary studies, Thiollet, 2010 and 2016; Hanieh, 2011; Kanna, 2011; Beaugrand, Le Renard & Stadnicki, 2013; Le Renard, 2014; Al-Nakib, 2016; Vignal, 2016, etc.

18 Vignal, 2016.

19 Thiollet, 2011.

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Electronic reference

Hélène Thiollet and Leïla Vignal, « Transnationalising the Arabian Peninsula: Local, Regional and Global Dynamics », Arabian Humanities [Online], 7 | 2016, Online since 08 December 2016, connection on 26 March 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Hélène Thiollet


By this author

Leïla Vignal

University of Rennes-2, ESO-Rennes Research Unit / University of Oxford

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Licence Creative Commons
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