Cosmopolitanism in exclusionary contexts

Helene Thiollet, Laure Assaf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although over time mass migration has brought about de facto cosmopolitan situations in Gulf cities, foreign residents continue to experience segregation and endure exclusionary policies and practices on a daily basis. This article unpacks two sets of internal tensions that characterise cosmopolitanism in the Gulf, through a comparison of cosmopolitan discourses and practices in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jeddah. The first tension relates to official discourses and policies: Saudi and Emirati governments design and enforce exclusionary policies and, at the same time, publicly endorse cosmopolitan ideals and projects—consisting in Islamic universalism for Saudi cities and the rhetoric of tolerance for the United Arab Emirates. Such cosmopolitan claims are, moreover, reflected in the aspirations and subjectivities of migrants and local citizens while also generating feelings of alienation. We call this discursive paradox cosmopolitanism in denial. The second tension concerns migrants' everyday practices and modes of consumption in urban spaces. We argue that these are best understood as a form of segregated cosmopolitanism, whereby both Gulf citizens and the various migrant communities explicitly acknowledge, and at times consume, urban diversity but also maintain certain boundaries. Drawing on an analysis of both governmental and individual discourses, as well as on ethnographic observations collected over a decade of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, our research engages with theories of cosmopolitanism from a situated perspective. As such, it moves away from the dominant unitary and normative approach to cosmopolitanism and instead emphasises both the resilience and transience of everyday cosmopolitan situations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2358
JournalPopulation, Space and Place
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Gulf
  • cities
  • identity
  • migration
  • segregation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Geography, Planning and Development


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