Reorienting the Gulf: Epistemologies, Intellectual Traditions, and New Approaches
This is a call for contributions to a set of articles we aim to submit to a leading peer-reviewed journal as a special issue on “Reorienting the Gulf: Epistemologies, intellectual traditions and new approaches”. The project is organised by Charlotte Lysa (University of Oslo), Marc Owen Jones (Hamad bin Khalifa University), and Fatema Hubail (Georgetown University Qatar). Among possible target journals, the Journal of Arabian Studies has expressed an interest in principle, subject as always to the usual double-blind peer-review process.
As states in the region defined as the Gulf increasingly continue to assert themselves in regional politics, the rise of the so-called ‘Gulf moment’ (Abdulkhaleq, 2011) invites corollary questions of epistemologies of Gulf Studies and their discursive construction. The post-truth age, rising populism, and the reported global decline in academic freedom (Education International, 2021) have also raised attendant questions about the role and value of knowledge itself. From archaeology to imperialism, the existence of the ‘Gulf’ and ‘Gulf Studies’ as a concept itself reflects discursive production across social, political, economic and cultural fields. But what is the state of this field, or ‘area’? The Journal of Arabian Studies recently offered a review of Gulf Studies, from its inception in the 1940s/50s to the creation of a specific journal dedicated to the Gulf (Onley and Nonneman, 2021), and the Exeter University Gulf Conference in 2018 invited critical reflections on the field. Matthew Gray, in his 2018 survey of Gulf Area studies, highlights the need for more theoretical and cross comparative approaches, but broader efforts to determine the epistemic nature and intellectual traditions of Gulf Studies remain limited. As Gray notes, “To a certain extent, Gulf studies in the coming years will be shaped by two key factors: trends in the disciplines with which it is most closely linked; and trends within the region itself” (Gray, 2018, p. 12). However, we need to go beyond disciplinary silos and solicit far-ranging contributions and reflections across multiple spheres to understand this.
Attempts to summarise the state of Gulf Studies result in charges of exceptionalism (Gray, 2018; Kanna et al, 2020), but it is not clear if there is consensus around the theoretical and disciplinary conditions of the field. At its very least, invoking exceptionalism implies intellectual traditions, whether stagnant or thriving. What might they look like if they exist? Such invocations of exceptional imply unexceptional or de-exceptional, yet this also invokes problems of binary thinking and dialectical framing. Does delineating between exceptional and unexceptional run the risk of dichotomous, albeit nuanced thinking? This itself raises crucial questions about how we write about the region, and from within the region. Even here, not specifying whether it is the Persian or Arabian Gulf is born out of bowing to hegemonic sensibilities. Have such paradigms, and dichotomous lines of enquiry limited the framework for scholarly engagement, including what questions are being asked (and by whom) and what sources are used? What about liminality? Has a search for policy relevance led to an overrepresentation by think tanks and/or certain disciplinary lenses? Who are these think tanks, and how can we analyse the sum of their outputs? How can we determine such arguments without being guilty of presenting strawmen? How can we adequately survey and reflect on Gulf Area Studies or studies involving the Gulf without reducing the literature and the region? Is there even consensus about what is meant by the ‘Gulf’? Indeed, what are the discursive and non-discursive underpinnings of the region’s reification within and outside the academy, and are they evolving? Who is involved and excluded from knowledge production? Is exceptionalism a simple product of limited disciplinary analysis, a paucity of focus, or intense focus sharpened by specific interests? How is the Gulf situated in relation to broader Middle East Studies?
A reorientation implies centering the region to any scholarly inquiries, an attempt not to just move beyond Orientalist tropes but other thought systems that frame the study of the region. This does not equate to an understanding of the Gulf region as exceptional or unexceptional per se, but rather as a geographical area that deserves scholarly attention and to be subject to studies based on a search for knowledge and understanding – independent of external policy concerns, ideological demands or as relative to foreign systems. The special issue seeks to explore epistemological underpinnings of the study of the Gulf. It is interested in how perceptions of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affect how the region is being studied across various fields in social science and the humanities and how readjusting the research agenda can bring about new and important knowledge. It also seeks to examine the link between power, politics, and knowledge production of and within the region. This special issue is an attempt to critically explore, survey and encourage dialogue with scholars from multiple spheres about the visibility, existence, reification and potential absence of the Gulf across respective disciplines and/or sub-disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.
This special issue welcomes papers addressing topics on two levels. Firstly, the epistemological level, concerning the state of Gulf studies; Gulf orientalism, post-orientalism, the impact of colonial, conquering and imperial powers (European/Western/Regional/Tribal/Religious/Ethnocentric) on the study of the region, and structural issues such as funding.
Secondly, the empirical level: we seek empirical papers adopting these views, highlighting topics that have previously gained little scholarly attention or where new sources or methodologies contribute to new understandings. We should note that these questions also overlap, as many questions about epistemology might be explored with empirical case studies to expand the conceptual analysis.
Questions include but are not limited to:
- What epistemologies are shaping Gulf studies or the study of the Gulf? What disciplines, methodologies, technologies, ideologies or interests are dominant or absent in the study of the Gulf, and how can we determine this? Are there identifiable schools of thought or intellectual traditions within Gulf Studies? How present is the Gulf in scholarly debates of global concern, e.g. climate change, refugees, human rights?
- Who are gatekeepers, whether internal, external or in between, that define, influence, shape, limit, or enable the study of Gulf Studies?
- What, if it exists, is gulf exceptionalism? How have notions of ‘exceptionalism’ affected research on the region, and how might a ‘de-exceptionalized’ or ‘unexceptional’ research agenda look in terms of methodology, sources and theoretical perspectives?
- How is the Gulf discursively produced and represented in media, academia, and popular culture? What role do international and regional bodies play in the discursive, legal, political and social construction of the ‘Gulf’? What is the role of technology?
- Is there an increasing overemphasis on dichotomisation of constructs: e.g. east and west; Arabisation and westernisation; Sunni and Shia; Badu and hadhar; ‘chicken nugget’/foreigner and local; insider and outsider? How do notions of transnationalism, third culture and hybridisation help our understanding of nuance? Does the binary Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf subsume the nuance of identities within the Gulf? Are such dichotomies a product of reified constructs that reflect extant power dynamics?
- How does the construction of national identities reflect structures of power, marginalising and magnifying certain groups? How are hegemonic projects competing to define a specific Gulf identity? How do memories of the Gulf and lived experiences emerging from within the Gulf shape national narratives? And, how do marginalised lived experiences reflect national imaginaries, nationalisation, and where do imagined communities sit within determinants of belonging?
- How do intersecting issues of race, gender, class matter in the Gulf? What does it mean to be Khaliji? How can positionality be understood in the Gulf context? Who has the authority to define this?
- What role do international law and its attendant institutions have in the Gulf? How is international law adapted, criticised or implemented by courts, groups or the state? What impact have the Gulf states had on international law?
- In what ways do international interventions in national laws shape practices? What is the role of civil society in shaping law(s) and norms? How does the adoption of specific laws (labour laws, domestic violence law, personal status law etc.) affect Gulf societies?
We encourage submissions from scholars, educators, practitioners, and analysts at all points in their careers and across all humanities and social sciences disciplines. Abstracts should be 350-500 words long and include a description of the empirical sources and/or methodologies adopted. Please send your abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org by 27 November 2021. Please include a short bio and contact information. Any questions can be directed to this email or any of the editors. A number of contributions will be invited to submit a full-length paper for a double-blind peer-review process. Decisions will be made based on the excellence of the abstract and its resonance with the project’s rationale. The anticipated deadline for full-length articles is March 31st, 2022.
Charlotte Lysa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. She holds a PhD in Middle East Studies from the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the same university. Her current research focuses on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the international refugee regime.
Marc Owen Jones is Assistant Professor at the Middle East Studies Department at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha. He is the author of Political Repression in Bahrain (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2021). He holds a PhD in government and international affairs from Durham University. Jones grew up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and writes about information controls and digital culture in the Middle East.
Fatema Hubail is a researcher and teaching assistant at Georgetown University in Qatar, supporting faculty in the fields of philosophy, history, culture, politics, and gender. She obtained her MA in Women, Society and Development (WSD) at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). Her ongoing research deals with legal codification, family laws, dystopian satire, gender violence, and dissent.