Gulf Futurism: How Post-Carbon Imaginaries Are Reproducing the Systemic Crisis

After the Gulf boom propelled the growth of both the region and of oil-devouring economies in the West, new realms of capitalist expansion are being developed in the name of smartness and sustainablity, ultimately reproducing the lasting systemic crisis of which Dubai is somewhat representative, researcher Özgün Eylül İşcen argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


But what if democracies are not carbon copies, but carbon-based?” (Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, 2013)

Writing about CNN’s live coverage of the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) in the mid-1990s, McKenzie Wark argues that “[t]here is no safe haven from which to observe, unaffected” since we are all, always, “implicated within it.” Wark mobilized Paul Virilio’s idea of a vector for reflecting on a technologically mediated entanglement via linkages across different sites constituting “virtual geography.” The Gulf War was an event that happened within a network of global vectors, necessarily implicating the globality of such events and our own participation in them. For Wark, it is ultimately about “[t]he evolution of the vector field which made the Gulf War, and the critical response to it, possible.”

I approach the theme of extractivism from a similar vectorial field while focusing on oil-centered economies and imperial aspirations that have intensively shaped the modern history of the Middle East.

In this respect, the above-mentioned virtual geography is inherently a material and historical one, given the underpinnings of the oil industry, ranging from colonial legacies, imperial wars, and military invasions to the im/possibilities of democratic politics either in the region or within imperial centers. With the notion of “Carbon Democracy,” Timothy Mitchell demonstrates the significance of unpacking the networks through which oil flows, such as the cycles of extraction, distribution, and consumption, and its conversion into energy, profits, and political power.

Therefore, mapping the relations of extractivism cannot be restricted to the site of extraction itself, which most often entails the interwoven violence of dispossession and exploitation. It is a vectorial field that encompasses and resonates across communities and collective demands that (physically) seem far away. With these priorities in mind and as part of my ongoing research, I will briefly address the imaginaries of post-oil futures in the Arabian Gulf, which have material implications in the present and beyond the region.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

While facing post-oil futures, referring to the times after oil reserves dry up or lose their current value, the Arabian Gulf and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, have put weight on economic diversification via the themes of sustainability. Those high-tech spectacles of emerging technologies most often manifest in technical adjustments and infrastructural worlding that keep the country attractive to the creative class and global capital.

For instance, Expo 2020 Dubai, delayed one year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, was centered around the idea of sustainability with its thematic emphases while revealing the shifting geopolitical constellations through national pavilions competing for the narratives of the future. In the meantime, the UAE succeeded in its first Mars Mission with an uncrewed satellite Amal (Hope). This interplanetary mission is part of the country’s long-term architectural and bioengineering plan for establishing an inhabitable colony on Mars, which exposes the extractive logic underlying these projections of an ostensibly sustainable future.

The Gulf boom and the rise of the US

Gulf Futurism, according to the artists Sophia Al-Maria and Fatima Al Qadiri, who coined the term in the early 2010s, marks “a deranged optimism about the sustainability of both oil reserves and late capitalism.” It currently dwells on “hopeful resilience” that prescribes preemptive risks and hopes for the future. In response, I tackle the material implications of Gulf Futurism rooted in the 1970s oil boom while embracing a new façade in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis.

As this historical timeframe indicates, the vast reserves of oil and natural gas in the Gulf and the larger Middle East region have been consequential to the rise of the United States as a global power in the post-World War II period. Indeed, the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 as a regional bloc of the six oil-rich Arab monarchies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – has been closely entangled with US’ dominant role in the oil-centered economy, financialization, militarization, and the global supply chain.

As a result, complicating the rentier state framework, Adam Hanieh identifies a capitalist class that he calls “Khaleeji Capital,” dominated by a few massive conglomerates around a Saudi-Emirati axis. This local capitalist class, promoting capitalist expansion with a public-private hybrid model, draws profits from the regional and international export of capital and the deep exploitation of non-citizen labor via the Kafala (sponsorship) system. The Kafala is currently active in the GCC countries, Lebanon, and Jordan, constituting seventy percent of the workforce in the GCC while stratifying it across class, race, gender, ethnicity, and citizenship.

Labor struggles in Dubai

In the meantime, the urban landscape has symbolically acted as the Gulf’s projection of power, of which Dubai is a spectacularized example. Due to the limited oil reserves, Dubai’s long-term success has relied on economic diversification, accompanied by various branding strategies. Even though the region formed a strategic node within the wider circulatory networks of British colonialism since the late 19th century, the UAE’s logistical space advanced, following its foundation in 1971, via Dubai’s multimodal platforms (ports, airports, free trade zones, and logistics corridors). Writing about Dubai Inc., Rafeef Ziadah highlights the role of port infrastructures in linking diverse moments of capital accumulation, state-owned conglomerates promoting the internationalization of capital, and repressive labor regimes underpinning the logistics industry.

It is more accurate to frame the Kafala as the “Kafala industrial complex,” which involves a set of labor legislation, migration policies, border enforcement, privatization of services, and supremacist entitlement. With regard to this, Omar Hesham AlShehabi reminds us that the Kafala has rooted in the pre-colonial period of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula and institutionalized further with British colonial rule via labor contracts in the earlier pearl industry and later in the oil industry. Despite the spatially confined spaces of the Gulf and the deprivation of some basic civil and labor rights, dozens of visible strikes have swept across Dubai and other UAE cities since the early 2000s.

Then again international collective efforts such as the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition made public interventions and boycotts at cultural institutions that did not secure fair labor standards during the construction of the world-famous museums in the UAE (e.g., Guggenheim Abu Dhabi). Such increased media visibility triggered the recent waves of reforms. Nonetheless, workers still have problems regarding the effectiveness and inclusivity of these reforms and ultimately demand abolishing the Kafala on a systemic scale.

Polarized accumulation of wealth and class formation

On the same trajectory, the accelerated urban growth in the Gulf has also led to the destruction of Bedouin/tribal living forms and desert ecosystems, the segregation of socio-economic groups, such as low-class, non-citizen workers, and the securitization of everyday life. At the same time, as Hanieh emphasizes, the Gulf oil wealth sustains the power of ruling elites and authoritarian regimes. Those are radiating out to a broader Arab world through government aid and corporate investments, reshaping sectors from banking to agrarian. Thus, the economic and political dominance of the Gulf has led to the massively polarized accumulation of wealth and class formation in the greater Middle East and North Africa region.

When the global recession originating from a subprime-induced financial crisis in the United States and Western Europe arrived on the shores of the Gulf in 2008-9, Dubai got a big hit to its real estate boom dependent on foreign loans and speculation, which led to an economic collapse. Dubai’s neighbor Abu Dhabi, where the UAE has most of its hydrocarbon reserves, bailed out Dubai with a government loan (saving Dubai World, the state-owned holding company, from defaulting). In the meantime, socio-economically marginalized communities within the GCC countries and the surrounding region suffered from its worst impacts, including unemployment, deportation, poverty, and resource scarcity. Finally, the Arab uprisings of 2011 contested the hierarchies of the regional system by claiming people’s right to shape their future paths. The masses on the streets chanted against the economic stagnation and corruption led by local governments and the sharpened inequalities on a regional scale at once.

In the aftermath, as Hanieh explains, the GCC came forth alongside foreign colonial powers in suppressing the unrest and extending its regional domination. The most prominent examples are the Saudi war against Yemen and the Gulf states’ support of various oppositional forces and armed groups in Syria. Since 2017, marked by the downturn due to falling oil prices, the GCC countries have also fallen into conflicts among themselves and built new alliances, such as with Israel. Given the destabilizing impacts of the deepening economic crisis, the so-called second waves of uprisings have arisen with massive anti-government protests from Algeria and Sudan to Iraq and Lebanon since late 2018.

The other side of the coin is that Dubai has expanded its regional footprint within the fast-changing international order and the shifting centers of global accumulation, such as China with oil trade and digital infrastructures, such as the Digital Silk Road. Eventually, Dubai has become a commercial, military, and humanitarian nexus in the post-2011 Middle East and North Africa.

The false promise of smartness

Due to the ongoing economic instability and environmental deterioration, Dubai’s urban development and equivalents in the Gulf increasingly emphasize manageable cities and sustainable futures. These examples range from Dubai Future Foundation’s initiative Museum of the Future, “where the future lives,” to Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, which was planned to become the world’s first zero-carbon city but failed in its premises. In this respect, such examples, or what Gökçe Günel would call “spaceships in the desert,” underscore the dominance of the smartness mandate. They aim at building “a smart infrastructure that can absorb constant shocks” rather than actualizing deeper political-economic transformations. At the same time, non-citizen workers who build those spaceships cannot get on board, like the workers who built Expo 2020 Dubai, while the global pandemic has instantiated the underlying condition more explicitly.

With the idea of extractivism as a vectorial field, I situate the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East within larger geopolitical contexts, thereby highlighting the historicity of contemporary profit-driven, high-tech spectacles of Gulf Futurism. It is not a matter of whether pre-oil times were or post-oil futures will be better; they can only be witnesses of the ongoing struggles against the varied forms of imperial violence. In this respect, the Middle Eastern context is relevant to the global debates around the transition to post-oil futures, given its significant role in oil-centered economies and shifting patterns of global accumulation. Yet, it is also a setting that confronts the inherent contradictions of capitalist modernity, as today’s smartness mandate exemplifies.

In response, people’s reclaiming of their right to land, basic needs, justice, and ultimately, the future could contest the hegemonic spectacles of sustainability by means of countervisuality – enacting alternative imaginaries of sustaining collectively. What kind of political demand, consciousness, and collectivity would it look like then? Returning to Wark’s note, the vectorial field has conflicting possibilities, producing the mechanisms of both oppression and emancipation. For the latter, I propose to start by addressing the question of how we are always already implicated in the imperial wars we attend to online today.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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