On Autocratic Neoliberalism in Dubai

Characterized by a unique system of governance emerging from a conflicting political agenda of autocratic neoliberalism, Dubai offers a lens to demonstrate the politics of aesthetics and their ability to alter a context and its existing infrastructure. 

Much like its regional counterparts, Dubai maintains an authoritarian system of rule that has been firmly established, and continually reinforced, throughout its history. However, in recent years, the pure autocracy that was previously synonymous with the state’s identity has yielded to highly contagious neoliberal influences that control other ‘global’ cities. In Dubai, the agendas of autocratic neoliberalism extend far beyond politics, encroaching upon the responsibilities of architecture and urban planning by reordering the city into discrete zones. In one such zone of the city, the notorious ‘labor camp’, low-wage migrant construction workers are contained and systematically excluded from the widely circulated global image of the city. 

To demonstrate the inherently aesthetic nature of politics, Jacques Ranciere asks, “who has the capacity to be a political subject and what form of sensible experience produces or forbids that capacity?” Contextualizing this aesthetic question in an autocratic neoliberal state like Dubai reveals how political power is concentrated at the hands of the ruling class and global corporations - a small, exclusive group of elite entities self-anointed as figures of authority best equipped to advance the state’s neoliberal aspirations.

At the other end of the spectrum, low-wage migrant construction workers represent another political extreme, embodying the class of laborers characterized by their political inaccessibility in Plato’s ideal society. The workers’ supposed lack of acumen to engage in discussion and make arguments leads to their marginalization and exclusion from the political operations of the city. In Disagreement, Ranciere considers the “sensory capacity” that factors into political hierarchies and concludes that the marginalized must produce “sensible evidence” of their capabilities to be perceived as equals by those who enjoy political access.  In this thesis, the politics of autocratic neoliberalism are studied through the sub-plots of the exclusion of low-wage migrant construction workers, the ethical and jurisdictional issues of the free-trade enclave, and the culture of material excess.