“This Place Should Have Been Iran”: Iranian Imaginings in/of Dubai

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Image credit: Al Miller
A view of Sheikh Zayed Road – a major highway in Dubai that has been the site of rapid urban development. (Image credit: Al Miller)

Passing remarks, it turns out, can make a lasting impression. I had come to appreciate such remarks while conducting my dissertation fieldwork in Dubai during the course of 2010. That year saw me regularly engage and intermittently reside with various segments of Dubai’s Iranian population as my research focused on their everyday experiences with urban transformation, identity politics, and migration.

Ironically, it was some time after my return home to Toronto that such a passing remark distilled for me a sentiment I had often encountered, in one way or another, among many of the Iranians with whom I engaged in Dubai. It is this remark, by a young Iranian friend made in reference to Dubai, that I seize upon here: “this place should have been Iran.”

The setting was another routine gathering of young middle-class Iranians ushering in the weekend. It was getting late and the suggestion was made to cap the night off with the recent non-narrative documentary film Samsara – the cigarettes, music, politics and video games having run their course.

Those familiar with this genre of film know something of its time-lapse cinematography and undulating landscapes. They will also recall the juxtaposition of nature and urbanity, the ‘primitive’ and ‘modern,’ wealth and poverty, utopia and dystopia. Sometime into the film, aerial views of Dubai’s superlative cityscape also made their appearance. It was these panoramic images that elicited the remark. With a blank expression and a flat tone to boot.

I was immediately reminded of my conversations with Iranian expatriates in Dubai, and the repeated juxtapositions of this city with Iran that they often featured. The content of these juxtapositions varied considerably according to the topic of conversation. Yet what emerged between them was a distinct sense of displacement.

These sentiments of displacement reflected the peculiar situation of Dubai as a certain kind of place in relation to Iran. To begin with, there is a widespread and unmistakable sense of proximity to Iran among Iranians living in this city. After all, the distance between Dubai and Iran’s southern shores is approximately less than 100 miles, and a flight to Tehran usually takes about two hours. Sentiments of displacement, therefore, were not necessarily emphasized as displacement from Iran itself. In this regard, Iranians in Dubai have not engaged in cultivating a shared romance about returning to Iran like their counterparts living in North American and Europe have. These are the well-worn diasporic imaginings that we are familiar with; exilic tropes of rupture and loss coupled with quixotic yearnings for ‘homeland’ (variously invoked as meehan or vatan). The affective substance of exile, however, is far less pronounced in the shared imaginary of Iranians in Dubai. Iranians remain “expatriates” in Dubai regardless of their duration of stay. As such, they are subject to protocols of residency that render them a transient population unable to claim permanent residency – much less naturalization. There is no ‘mythical return’ to Iran in these circumstances; just the routine stuff of business trips, summer holidays, and stop-overs.

To appreciate the ensemble of images, narratives and vocabularies through which Iranian expatriates articulated such a sense of displacement it is first necessary to briefly elaborate on the extent to which Iranian society has been implicated in Dubai’s history and present. It is in relationship to this context that notions of displacement and its relation to the claim that Iran should have been Dubai are imagined.

Revitalization of the old Bastakiya district in Dubai – settled by Iranian merchant families from the city of Bastak in Iran.
(Image credit: Kamran Jebreili)

To begin with, Dubai’s geographical proximity and history of trade with Iran has seen it historically settled by Iranian merchant families hailing from Iran’s port cities. Locally referred to as ajami (Emirati’s of Iranian origin) their history is inextricably tied to Dubai’s and dates back to the late 1800’s. Successive periods of settlement came with Dubai’s pearl boom of the early 1900’s, and continued well into the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Iran’s Reza Shah respectively imposed steeper taxes on trade and infamously outlawed the hejab. This ban, referred to as kashf-e hejab, still figures prominently in the narratives of many such ajami, and even Iranian expatriates, and was explained as an indignity and religious affront that many were simply unwilling to tolerate.

It is worth noting that their settlement resulted in some of the earliest birth pangs of urbanization in Dubai as these Iranians brought with them wind-tower architecture. Though these structures are by now a ubiquitous symbol of local history and a draw for heritage tourism, their Iranian origin is widely (if often informally) acknowledged.

Another period of Iranian influx into Dubai came on the heels of the 1978-79 Iranian revolution, and the ensuing eight-year war with Iraq. Yet whereas earlier arrivals had generally been naturalized following the independence of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, post-independence Iranian immigrants were now officially “expatriates.” Nevertheless, this period saw economic exchange between Iran and Dubai flourish to such extent that some analysts even suggested Iran’s private sector to be located in Dubai! In fact, until recently, Iran has been among Dubai’s top trading partners and was even its largest in the mid 1990’s – e.g.: Dubai’s trade with Iran in 1994 represented about US$1.1 billion while that with its second largest trading partner, India, represented only US$243 million.*

More recently, Dubai’s emergence as a major leisure destination has also seen it attract significant tourism from Iran. Until a devalued Rial began to render such tourism increasingly untenable in the last year, large numbers of middle-class Iranians arrived to frequent Dubai’s mega-malls and attend exhibitions and concerts by popular Iranian artists often based in Europe or North America. This city emerged, in other words, as a site of ‘counter-culture’ where opportunities to fashion identities outside the realm of moral possibilities prescribed by the Islamic Republic were abundantly available. This was especially the case for Iranian middle-class youths.

In the transnational circuit of Iranian aesthetics, monies and bodies, Dubai continues to be situated as a site of mediation – even featuring as the subject of the Persian pop song below. It is a place where multiple Iranian imaginaries from within and without Iran both intermingle and elude one another.

It is precisely this position between an Iran back home and an Iran abroad, or Iran’s present circumstances and possible future, which informs the sense of displacement so widely shared among Iranian expatriates here. For many Iranians, Dubai’s emergence as a global metropolis is imagined to have resulted, more specifically, from the displacement of Iranian modernity.

Dubai’s nascent urbanization and economic progress are often cited as resulting from the abortion of progress in Iran. The reasons for this are variously explained and ranged from colonial interventions to some vaguely stated failing in our “culture,” or both. Dubai’s proximity was key to these conceptions. Displacement, after all, suggests that something has been moved out of place, not eliminated. The influx of merchants, white-collar professionals, private investments, and tourism to Dubai were thought to represent a societal potential that has been alienated from Iran’s borders but settled nearby – unofficial estimates in public discourse often claim the population of Iranians in Dubai to be about 400,000.

This is not quite the same politics of cultural despair featured in Iranian public discourse and scholarship, where an allegedly inherent Iranian “backwardness” is invoked in contrast to “Western modernity.” Such a meta-narrative leaves little room for imagining an alternative present, as its objective is to explain why the long sweep of history made Iran what it is today.

Image credit: Behzad Sarmadi
The “Persian Court” of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai, featuring a large-scale rendition of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. (Image credit: Behzad Sarmadi)


In conversations with my Iranian counterparts in Dubai, however, contemporary Iran was rarely a historical inevitability. Their elaborations hardly reached so far back into the past to offer up such events as the arrival of Islam, an oft-cited milestone in many a nationalist diatribe bemoaning Iran’s “backwardness.” Notions of modernity, here, were not often articulated in terms of a grand arc of world history. Such accounts would do little to explain Dubai’s urban transformation given the rapidity with which it unfolded, and their immediate experience of it in so short a time.

Instead, when Dubai was described as a foil to contemporary Iran it was usually in more grounded terms that implicated their recent histories. I often encountered, for example, the refrain that “we actually built this place!” – a sentiment also shared by other nationalities of long standing in Dubai. This was always in reference to the early settlements of Iranians in Dubai and their historical predominance in as a merchant class ever since. Sometimes these comments even cited the introduction of wind-towers as well. While this sentiment smacks of ethnocentrism for denying Emirati society agency in the development of its own modernity, it is also an implicit appeal for a return to a potential Iranian present that may be recovered.

Clearly a particular notion of rupture underpins these shared imaginings. It is not so much rupture from a place frozen in time (such as an idyllic ‘homeland’ at the time of departure), but from an Iran that would be Dubai had it been allowed or capable to continue progressing. It is a rupture in national time that is evident in, for example, urban space,  as displayed in films like Samsara.

To be sure, all of this has been something of a snapshot. I’ve tried to show that Iranian society has hardly been absent in Dubai, and that the imagined substance of displacement among Iranian expatriates here is informed by this history and proximity, along with Dubai’s recent urban transformation. Like all snapshots, however, this one leaves much to be desired. There are also other modes of narration and vocabularies of difference by means of which identity is articulated and performed among various segments of the Iranian population in this city. These, however, will require other snapshots. Piecing these together, I hope, will eventually yield a panorama from the ground up.


* Parsa, Ali and Ramin Keivani. 2002. “The Hormuz Corridor: Building a Cross-Border Region Between Iran and the UAE.” In Global Networks: Linked Cities. S. Sassen ed. Pp. 183-208. London: Routledge.




  1. “This ban, referred to as kashf-e hejab, still figures prominently in the narratives of many such ajami, and even Iranian expatriates, and was explained as an indignity and religious affront that many were simply unwilling to tolerate.”
    The vast majority of Iranians I know (and most of them still live in Iran) actually said this was a good thing and/or said it was necessary for the time. I’m curious as to where you found these opinions that spoke of it negatively?

    Other than that, interesting article.

    1. Haha that’s funny. All the women in Iran I’ve heard from have always said exactly the opposite!

      The majority of books and articles I’ve seen on the issue seem to concur as well that the ban was received very negatively by both men and women and prompted mass migration (a flow reversed somewhat after the ban was lifted).

      See for example, Hamideh Sedghi’s book “Woman and Politics in Iran” pages 87-89, or Minoo Moallem’s, “Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister,” pages 69-71.

      The Iran Chamber Society’s article on women’s rights in Iran mentions that unveiling was well-received by, “professional middle class women,” but in the 1930s these women could not have constituted more than half a percentage of Iranian women, if that, given literacy and employment rates at the time (http://www.iranchamber.com/society/articles/women_prepost_revolutionary_iran1.php).

      1. Looool you may want to just slightly diversify your group of people you associate with if literally every single women you’ve met said that, just saying :))))))

        And I don’t think most of the women I asked were alive in the 1930’s anyway haha.

    2. FORCING anyone to do anything is never popular. Forcing women to not wear what they want is wrong, no matter what you’re forcing them to wear or not wear.

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