Dubai: world’s least cosmopolitan city

Dubai is possibly 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 that shifts its focus from multiculturalism’s aim of ‘unity through diversity’ to the concept of social cohesion: focusing on similarities that exist despite differences, striving for ‘unity through commonality.’ The ‘international’ could go beyond the transnational to cosmopolitanism, where the globe comes together in a melting pot of ‘citizens of the world.’ But, as I argued in my master thesis, 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 (Soniewicka, 2011). 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 (Audi, 2009). 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. Short-term migration such as the kind we find in Dubai has been called transnationalism: migrants form social fields that connect their country of origin and their country of settlement (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992).

For my master thesis I did research among one such transnational community 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” (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992, p. 11). In my thesis I concluded that for the Egyptians I interviewed in Dubai, living abroad often has 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.

Indeed, thinking of transnational migrants as universal cosmopolitan subjects that navigate through a post-Westphalian world would 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, passport control, and so forth. So although we have to be aware of assumptions of methodological nationalism in migration studies that frame our interpretations (Glick Schiller, 2009), it would be a bridge too far to discard an international perspective altogether in favor of a ‘global perspective.’

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 nationality. In my thesis I argued that national identities became more pronounced when contrasted to other nationalities, along with an ethnic social hierarchy (with locals and Westerners at the top and Asians at the bottom) that is much more permeating and obvious than in many other places. In a society where it is impossible to move between groups, as is the case with ethnicity, people primarily identify as members of their own group (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

To an extent, this is by design: Dubai does not nourish or allow for a cosmopolitan culture to develop. Immigrants are per definition temporary and not supposed to integrate into local culture, but are given the possibility to keep their own lifestyles, traditions and values, as long as it is within the confines of the country’s Islamic framework. As such, this society challenges established understandings and practices of multiculturalism, integration, social cohesion, and citizenship.

In her research about the Indian middle class in Dubai, Neha Vora (2013) described the emergence in Dubai of a kind of Indian identity based on new forms of belonging and alternative definitions of citizenship. The Indian community in Dubai 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. 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 passport have the luxury to pretend that passports are not important: the Western expats (as for example described by Cooke (2014) and Longva (1997)). 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.” A place characterized by a rigid ethnic hierarchy, but at the same time considered a place of opportunities and social mobility. A meritocratic society, but one where some arrive 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’ (e.g., Masad, 2008). 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, but in Dubai everyone is very aware of their ethnicity and passport (and those of others), which dictates their lives in Dubai to a large extent. But it is not only Dubai that emphasizes people’s nationality: indeed, cosmopolitanism “seems not to understand the nature of our relationships and the role of our social affiliations that constitute our deepest moral allegiances” (Soniewicka, 2011, p. 60). Cosmopolitanism is a beautiful ideal, but an unlikely reality.

This article is adapted from the graduation thesis 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.


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.  

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  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. Available from:

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