The Duck of Minerva

Mall Culture in a Global City

2 June 2012

Starbucks in the Ibn Battuta Mall

Greetings Ducklings!  Just sending y’all a little post-card from the United Arab Emirates where I am spending a couple of weeks in Dubai and the neighboring emirates trying to learn more about the political economy of this fascinating and dynamic country particularly since the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Between meetings I seem to find myself visiting a lot of malls.  With the summer time heat, the many malls here become the center for public life or at least a site of perambulation in a nominally open, air-conditioned space by ethnically segregated family units plus trailing nannies. One of the things that fascinates me about the mega-malls here in Dubai are the generally flimsy attempts to encourage expatriates and visitors to respect local customs by asking them to cover their knees and elbows. The suggested dress code seems to be ignored rather regularly and occasionally egregiously.  Most Emiratis seem quite tolerant of the sartorial choices of their visitors and foreign residents, but there has been a twitter campaign (#UAEDressCode) by some Emiratis to encourage greater modesty.

I wonder what it says that such suggested norms in a host country are so regularly flouted by foreigners. I think of it as a kind of micro-drama of power whereby the local culture is viewed as semi-sovereign or at least the space of the mall is viewed as a “cosmopolitan space” (or more precisely a terra nullis) outside the sovereign territory of the host state because there are so many foreign retail outlets. Some boorish tourists may simply not even see a need to be “culturally sensitive” anywhere in the country when they are on vacation — an attitude of perhaps neo-colonial privilege that itself needs to be unpacked. Of course, the now rather standardized Emirati national attire is itself an assertion of status in a country where the national population is a tiny and apparently rather pampered elite. Moreover, the default preference for the wishes of the local population reflects a potentially antiquated notion of sovereignty. While there are Emiratis who do not support encouraging a strict dress code and visitors/foreign residents who respect the desire of locals to preserve their cultural norms, we generally seem to have a situation of contending privileges and a potential failure of cultural interchange in this most global city-state…