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Leaving Europe, Navigating Access: Status Migration, Traveling Habitus, and Racial Capital in Euro-Maghrebi Mobilities to the United Arab Emirates

This doctoral thesis is an ethnographic study that examines the emigration motives and social itineraries of second-generation Euro-Maghrebis who resettle to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) using a qualitative methodology. It focuses in particular on tertiary-educated EU citizens born and raised in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, who had at least one parent born in Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia, and who were themselves either working in the UAE when I first contacted them, had returned (temporarily) after doing so, or were about to depart (again) with this objective in mind. It draws on long-term multi-sited fieldwork carried out between 2015 and 2019 in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the UAE. This included a yearlong (2016) ethnographic fieldwork in Dubai, as well as exploratory and follow-up work in Europe (2015, 2017–2019). Participant observation and semi-structured interviews were employed as the main data gathering methods during this study.

This dissertation asks three main questions: First, (1) can “racialization” operate as a key driver of migration, much like other structural or mediating factors? In other words, can processes of racialization in the new Europe engender a set of migratory dispositions among a specific segment (and group cohort) of Europeans, “compelling” them to leave behind their native societies in pursuit of social mobility overseas? Second, (2) what sort of life(style) practices, everyday habits and leisure tastes—i.e., habitus—do these Euro-Maghrebi migrants cultivate after resettling in the UAE? And what does this tell us about their sense of (former) in/exclusion in/from Europe and the overall nature of their mobility and their aspirations? Third, (3) after discerning their status (trans)formations across space and time, I ask what “home” or “feeling at home” could mean to these minoritiesturnedexpats in an infamously segregated and allegedly impermanent urban context such as Dubai? In trying to answer these questions, this dissertation takes inspiration from critical race studies, migration and mobility studies, as well as social anthropology and Bourdieusian cultural sociology.

This dissertation advances three critical interventions to existing paradigms in the anthropology of migration. First, by focusing on emigration from, rather than immigration to “Fortress Europe,” this study redefines and epistemically “provincializes” Europe, which is so often taken as a teleological endpoint and universal center in studies of migration. This was done, however, without losing sight of the central role that European states continue to play in global political economy, evident in their “security” relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council and the “techno-managerial” function of “European” migration in a country such as the UAE. While the economic and geopolitical interdependency of these regions has been studied by some scholars working on the Gulf region—thus debunking the idea of the latter’s “conservatism” as the political “other” of Europe—this dissertation presents an anthropological exploration into the increasingly complex and dynamic social and cultural links between them. Second, my research helps remedy the continued paucity of scholarship about (upper middle-class) migrant life in the Gulf Arab states, a region that is undergoing rapid economic, social and cultural transformation, and which has today come to sustain one of the most prolific migration corridors in terms of global labor flows. In particular, it sheds light on hitherto under-documented non-White negotiations of the “expatriate” figure in the context of the “Dubai model,” the leading neoliberal frontier in Gulf space. Third, by studying race in the context of international migration to the Gulf Arab states, my dissertation foregrounds the need to valorize and expand on Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977; 1984; 1986) body of work for the purpose of social-scientific theory building in migration and mobility studies. This is primarily achieved by conceptualizing “racial capital” as a distinct form of analytical capital in its own right, as well as by developing the transitive tool of “traveling habitus” that can be employed when analyzing trajectories of social mobility through longer-term migration.

With this dissertation, I hope to have demonstrated the (highly raced and classed) status complexities that are deeply embedded in narrated modes of belonging and a spatially differential sense of inclusion during international migration. It was precisely by delving into the largely uncharted relationship between local racialization processes in Europe and outward (Maghrebi-Muslim) minority migrations that I was able to move beyond the dominant frame of studying European emigration as inevitably voluntary or serendipitous. As such, this dissertation has come to conceptualize the contours of “status migration”—understood here as a relational process, or dialectic migratory counter-technique—on the part of status-degraded citizens trying to cope both with specifically ascribed (e.g., racial) status inflictions as well as larger conditions of systemic neoliberal crises and socio-cultural transformations. Status migration thus encapsulates the skillful propensity of acting-by-moving. It follows not solely from strictly individual calculations about the projected economic yield of one’s technical qualifications (and former professional experiences) in specific labor market fields abroad, but is also contingent upon deeply held relational calculations about (a multiplicity of) future social status gains in the (national) space of arrival. In sum, this dissertation has unearthed the social grounds (and paradoxes) involved in the narratives of racialized minority publics who speak out against—and back at—the concocted discourse of “integration” in Europe from a position of relative privilege in the UAE. 

Date:1 Feb 2015 →  2 Jul 2021
Keywords:Europe, social anthropology, cultural sociology, Maghrebi minority, second-generation, integration paradox, (mis)recognition, aspirations, home-making, migration, social mobility, European Muslims, Dubai, European expats, racial capital, habitus, cosmopolitanism, class distinction, arrival infrastructure, classificatory struggles, racial mobility, heterotopia, status migration, Persian Gulf, Gulf Arab states, Middle East, Abu Dhabi, traveling habitus, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Islam in Europe, Maghreb, guest workers, racism, discrimination, United Arab Emirates (UAE), skill, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), social class, Pierre Bourdieu, turbo-development, urban anthropology, economic anthropology, political sociology, Arabian Peninsula, labour migration, cultural mobilities
Disciplines:Cultural sociology, Political sociology, Anthropology
Project type:PhD project