Interview by Patrick Lewis
Patrick Lewis: When I first came across the title of your book, two things came to mind: Betty Anderson’s (2011) history of the project of liberal education at the American University of Beirut and Talal Asad’s (2003) collection of articles on secularism and liberalism in the Arab world. How do you see your work building on or diverging from these earlier approaches to liberalism in the Arab World and why does it matter for how we imagine liberal higher education?
Neha Vora: Betty Anderson’s work on AUB was indeed one of the texts that really resonated with me and my approach to this project! Anderson considers how a missionary and colonial institution became a central site of Arab politicization (al-Nahda as well as anti-colonial activism). She also has a very interesting section in that book where she discusses how theories of evolution were normalized through protest by medical students and instructors at AUB almost a hundred years before they became acceptable in the US academy, challenging conventional Western understandings of Islam as somehow antithetical to modernity or science. While I do consider the colonial and missionary approaches within Education City’s American branch campus, the contexts and time periods of my project and Anderson’s are of course very different. Nevertheless, she points to the way that these seemingly hegemonic projects lead to unforeseen and sometimes even contradictory outcomes, and she denaturalizes the US academy as the source of knowledge which then supposedly flows to the Middle East. In relation to Asad’s work, I am not in direct dialogue with his work on secularism – there is a chapter in the book where I discuss his earlier work in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter to argue that anthropological ways of thinking about culture have permeated the US academy and its containment of difference. I’m not a scholar of religion but I do think that I approach liberalism with a similar spirit to Asad’s approach to secularism, liberalism, and modernity. That these are mythologies which structure world-making and not reflective of essentialized differences between societies and places. I think we are both engaged in provincializing projects but from different entry points.
Patrick Lewis: In your discussion of recent higher education reform and Qatarization, you describe a state project to develop post-oil citizenship that envisages a gradual transition away from oil extraction toward an economy built on information technologies and services in which Qatari citizens will perform many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs now performed by foreigners. However, you also describe a degree of skepticism, if not outright cynicism, around this transition among locals and argue that new investments in higher education, rather than “shifting economic reliance away from petro-wealth, [are] rather sustained by it” (p. 33), and have in fact increased Qatar’s dependence on foreign academics and administrators. Are there any larger lessons here for regional or national economies attempting to transition away from extractive industries through education or technical training?
Neha Vora: I can’t really speak to lessons on how to move away from extractive industries, as these economies are shaped by much deeper and longer transnational connections and pressure from imperial powers (previously Britain and now the US). My approach to “knowledge economy” is to disentangle its rhetoric from its effects on the ground, which are in fact quite messy and oftentimes contradictory. The book discusses how local elites leverage nativism in nation building projects, of which knowledge economy is one. This is done in the name of a supposedly homogenous group of citizens, but citizens do not uniformly benefit from these projects. I try to showcase the heterogeneity of Qatari citizens and how the idea of Qatariness needs to be consistently rehearsed and performed to have any coherence. I also highlight ways that Qatari leaders produce forms of inclusion for non-citizen immigrants, who are rhetorically and legally cast as perpetual outsiders but are actually integral to the country’s future. Education City is a project that benefits non-citizens as much as citizens, and the Qatari state offers generous financial aid packages for immigrants, which are forgiven if one works a certain number of years in Qatar after graduation. Higher education is quite obviously a space where multicultural futures are being produced. Thus the “transnational Qatar” in my book title.
Patrick Lewis: Throughout the book you work to push back against boilerplate takes in US academia on American higher education in the Gulf that promote “top-down understandings of branch campuses solely as arms of neoliberal profit or colonial replication” (p. 154). One point you return to again and again throughout the book is the generous public funding that sustains these projects and, in the context of your own experiences working at universities in both the United States and the Gulf, the relative security of your academic colleagues working in Qatar. How might the story of US branch campuses in the Gulf complicate the narrative of the neoliberal university and global higher education – a narrative that these projects are often used to buttress in US academic discourse? How have your experiences in the Gulf shaped your perception of the ‘crisis of the public university’ as it is narrated in the United States?
Neha Vora: One of my entry points into the language of crisis has been to ask whose crisis it is. In this way I am very much in conversation with scholars within a growing field of abolitionist university studies. The kind of nostalgia that US academic crisis narratives traffic in is one that does not acknowledge the exclusionary and violent underpinnings of the university as an institution that has been fundamentally shaped by slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and elitism. Simply by considering the history of the US university, it becomes impossible to separate it from US military endeavors or corporate interests. These are not new entanglements but ones that underpin the academy, so to claim a current state of crisis due to neoliberalization requires some major elisions of that history. I argue that the ability to perform those erasures is only available to a small group of elite, non-precarious (usually white and/or male) academics who have experienced the mythologies of the liberal academy as real (egalitarianism, free inquiry, and inclusion for example). Most of us who learn and labor within the US academy do not have the privilege of that experience. Yet we also replicate liberal mythologies and crisis narratives, especially in the way we view a globalizing university. But the US academy has always been global as well, in that knowledge production has always been a core facet of US imperial violence.
My experience teaching and researching in Education City allowed me to see my own investment in what I call liberal piety more clearly. The difference between an American and Qatari classroom, for example, is not one between freedom of speech and censorship but rather both are spaces in which instructors and students are constrained by particular norms and pushed to perform particular personas. Teaching about Palestine in Qatar, for example, was a rewarding experience in comparison to teaching in Texas or Pennsylvania. I also was able to see how the hierarchies and exclusions of the American academy get reproduced in the Gulf: despite being in a country where most of the people (and most of the students in Education City) are brown, I still had to navigate my (predominantly white) colleagues and superiors as a woman of color in ways that felt quite similar to what I have to do at home.
I also saw how Western administrators utilized nonliberal aspects of Qatar’s immigration and employment structure for the benefit of the “liberal” university (outsourcing custodial work, paying people from different nationalities at different scales, capitalizing on trailing spouses (almost all women) as a cheaper source of local labor, and so on). And the students schooled me quite early on some things that I had blinders to—all international students in the US are dependent on visas and have no opportunity to stay in the country after graduation without securing employment almost immediately. In Qatar, international and immigrant non-citizen students were also visa dependent, but there were more formal and informal avenues to attaining employment after graduation. In addition, the Islamophobia and racism students in Education City experienced when studying abroad in the US made Qatar feel like a much more welcoming place to live and potentially settle, despite the barriers to permanence in the Gulf. The book is not arguing that neoliberal changes are not taking place—they certainly are. But it is challenging the way that criticisms of neoliberalization reify the US home campus as one of liberalism and the Gulf as a space of illiberalism, when in fact there are many things that critics want from the university (state subsidies, resources, living wages, lower teaching load, diverse and inquisitive students) which academics in the Gulf branch campuses experience to a greater degree than those at the home campuses. On the other hand, much of what academics miss from the supposedly eroded liberalism of the neoliberal US academy is in fact the product of things we would consider rather illiberal if they happened elsewhere.
Patrick Lewis: A significant amount of the book is devoted to exploring different subject positions in the university across differentiated axes of gender, class, race, and citizenship. It considers, inter alia, the relative positions of Qatari citizens and foreigners, as well as between international vs. ‘local expat’ students, and between South Asian migrant workers who often labor in menial jobs (or, as you describe when talking about your own experiences in chapter 5, are imagined to work in such jobs even when this is not the case) and (frequently white) experts from Europe and North America. What does a study of Education City allow us to see about difference and belonging in Qatar, that better-known journalistic and academic work on migrant labor camps for instance, perhaps obscures?
Neha Vora: Some of this I have already addressed in my previous answers. One of the things that we can see through the study of a transnational corporation in the Gulf (and these branch campuses function legally almost exactly like corporations) is that the ethno-racial hierarchy in employment, and the ability to hyper-exploit certain employees (usually low wage from the Global South), is the product of a partnership between global—often Western—consultants and Qatari leaders. In my previous book, Impossible Citizens, I detailed how it was Indian immigrants who were most often acting as the managers (and exploiters) of their less fortunate compatriots. In Teach for Arabia, I look at how larger institutions shape working and living conditions for various immigrants in the country. The journalistic and academic representations of toiling South and Southeast Asian workers in labor camps almost always put the blame for labor exploitation on Gulf governments and citizens when in fact this is a product of transnational elite cooperation.
Patrick Lewis: Finally, I want to ask about this book’s different audiences and its reception in Qatar and the United States. There is certainly much in this book that would be of interest to higher educational planners in Qatar and the wider Gulf. But it also seems to me that there is a message for US academics and university administrators as well. How did you conceive of the audience for your book and how has it been received in the United States and the Gulf? Has anything about its reception surprised you?
Neha Vora: This book was difficult to write in that I wanted to find a balance between centering what goes on in the branch campuses on-the-ground through my ethnography and offering a criticism of US academia more generally. However, I did not want the ethnographic information to be operationalized just for the purpose of critique, which is always a concern in anthropology. I wanted readers (both in the Gulf and elsewhere) to really get a feel for what different actors in Education City experience and the viewpoints they have on the project. What has been most rewarding is the circulation of this text among students in Doha and hearing that it resonates with their lived experiences in the branch campuses. It was used as a core text by my colleagues at Northwestern Qatar, in a class that all students are required to take about liberal arts education. Many of the things I discuss in the book came to a head last year when Northwestern Qatar students protested the ways they were being treated by faculty and administrators, and the way lower-ranking staff members are also treated. I had a chance to engage some of these students through Zoom last week as a guest speaker in the class I mentioned, and it was a great experience.
At the same time, the reception of the book has been mixed among faculty in the branch campuses. I have received a lot of praise from some, especially faculty of color who find that I articulate some of their frustrations. But I have heard there is also a lot of resistance, with some people even refusing to read the book. I was actually disinvited from a talk at a branch campus after a dean found out I had been invited by my colleague. His reasoning was that Qatar Foundation and Qataris might be offended, which is ironic because I discuss throughout the book how Qatari culture becomes an excuse for (white) American administrators to legitimize choices that work to their benefit. My criticisms in this text are not of Qataris or Qatari culture, but of the ways that whiteness, Americanness, and transnational expertise are leveraged in (re)producing essentialized ideas of cultural and racial difference, to the detriment of both Qatari and non-Qatari students. Colleagues in the US have been receptive to the book but there is still a lot of investment in essentialized and spectacular understanding of the Arabian Peninsula, and of course these are the very understandings that end up producing the structural conditions of inclusion and exclusion in the branch campuses. I have co-authored a book with two other ethnographers of the region, Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna, which just came out this year and discusses the role of exceptionalism in knowledge production about the Gulf, called Beyond Exception.