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The alt-right Leninist

Steve Bannon, the US president’s chief strategist, wants to destroy the state.

In 2013 and 2014, Steve Bannon organised “The Uninvited”, an event on the fringes of the Conservative Political Action Conference which gave a platform to right-wing thinkers deemed too extreme for the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. But on 23 February this year, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist took to the CPAC stage in his trademark uniform of an open-necked shirt, boxy jacket and rumpled chinos and greeted the audience with the self-satisfied swagger of a game-show host. Having surveyed the room with a smile, he quickly revealed a flash of malice. “Is that the opposition party back there?” he asked, gesturing towards the press corps, before jutting out his chin and nodding his head, like a brawler preparing to exchange blows.

Bannon, a 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film-maker who owes his fortune to an early investment in the hit comedy Seinfeld, has rarely spoken in public since he joined Trump’s inner team, but on this occasion he was expansive. He hailed the president for ushering in a “new political order” and described the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history”. Asked to list the new administration’s priorities, he cited three “lines of work”: first, the protection of “national security and sovereignty”; second, the promotion of “economic nationalism” by renegotiating US trade deals; and third, the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The crowd applauded.

Bannon usually outlines his end goal using less bureaucratic language but the message is unchanged. He has described himself as a “Leninist” who shares with the Bolshevik leader a desire to “destroy the state”. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he told the historian Ronald Radosh in 2013. (Bannon has since said he does not recall their conversation). Described by one ally as a “walking bibliography”, Bannon is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious, and believes that America is facing an existential crisis that can be averted only through radical action. He was one of the most widely anticipated speakers at CPAC this year and, by many accounts, is the chief manipulator and mastermind behind the Trump presidency, yet he is resolutely anti-conservative: Bannon wants to break things.

Last August, he took leave from Breitbart, the provocative, far-right news organisation he began leading in 2012, to become the chief executive of the Trump campaign. Bannon’s influence has grown since then. On 28 January, eight days after Trump’s inauguration, the president gave him a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Council, a body made up of senior military officials and top policymakers that discusses the most pressing foreign policy issues. Although presidential aides have occasionally attended NSC meetings in the past, many see Bannon’s formal presence as demonstrating an unprecedented politicisation of national security decisions and an alarming rise to power of a man with no previous experience of government.

In an editorial following his appointment to the NSC, the New York Times suggested that Bannon was positioning himself as “de facto president” and expressed concern about his “penchant for blowing things up”. A week later, the paper published an investigation alleging that Trump was angry that he had not been fully briefed before he signed the executive order granting Bannon this exceptional access. The suggestion that Bannon may be taking advantage of the president’s short attention span and thin policy knowledge to serve his own interests is not far-fetched. Trump is “a blunt instrument for us”, Bannon told Vanity Fair last year, seemingly referring to American nationalists. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”

Former colleagues have described Bannon as a “bully”, a “nasty human being” and a “monster”. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, has repeatedly slammed him as a “white supremacist”, and he has faced accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny and Islamophobia. From an office at the White House that he calls “the war room”, he has driven, reporters say, some of Trump’s most contentious policy decisions, such as the ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States (subsequently reduced to six). He is also reported to have been one of the authors of Trump’s dystopian inauguration address, with its vision of “American carnage”.

Described in a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, Bannon delights in his evil overlord persona. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in November. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

 

***

 

Stephen K Bannon was born in 1953 to a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, Democrat-voting family in Richmond, a city then of just over 230,000 people in the Southern state of Virginia. His father, Martin “Marty” Bannon, started out repairing telephone lines for AT&T and eventually moved into management. Bannon was the middle of five children and attended the all-boys’ Benedictine High School (now Benedictine College Preparatory), a Catholic, military-type institution owned and run by the monastic order. The headmaster and some of his teachers were Benedictine monks. The pupils, or “cadets”, wore military tags and were known by their surname only.

“It was a very traditional education, if you will, and definitely a very conservative school. I remember when we did mock elections, they’d be 90 per cent for the Republicans,” John Pudner, who also atten­ded Benedictine High School, told me.

Pudner now leads Take Back Our Republic, a group that aims to break the influence of big donors on campaign financing, and he has worked with Bannon on several occasions, serving at one point as the launch sports editor for Breitbart. He believes their schooling helped shape the contours of Bannon’s world-view: a commitment to small government and conventional family values, combined with a distrust of political and economic elites of all persuasions. Bannon maintained a close relationship with his alma mater. He served for a while on its board of trustees and in 2011 he joined a campaign, together with Pudner, to prevent the school from relocating from the diverse inner city to Richmond’s wealthy, all-white suburbs. Pudner says they were motivated by a sense of “Catholic mission”. “That’s part of what we understood our Catholicism to be, that you weren’t just kind of off in an elite spot . . . you mingle, and you convey ideas but you’re also part of the community,” Pudner said. They lost the campaign but not, Pudner was quick to point out, without claiming a few scalps: three county supervisors who supported the move lost their seats in that year’s election.

Bannon studied urban affairs at Virginia Tech university and was elected president of its student government association in 1975. On graduating, he joined the navy. Though he was not directly involved in the operation, he was serving as a junior officer aboard the destroyer USS Paul F Foster in 1980 when US forces launched a failed attempt to rescue 52 people held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f***ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. After Ronald Reagan’s election that year, Bannon worked in naval operations at the Pentagon while taking an MA in national security studies at Georgetown University.

In 1983 he made the first of many career changes and enrolled at Harvard Business School. A classmate from those years told the Boston Globe that Bannon was “top three in intellectual horsepower in our class – perhaps the smartest”. After completing his MBA he joined Goldman Sachs but left in 1990 to set up his own investment firm, Bannon & Co, specialising in the media industry. He acquired his stake in Seinfeld in 1993, when the sitcom, centred on the lives of four highly strung New Yorkers, was in its fourth series and still drawing relatively small audiences. Within a year, the show became one of the most popular in America. It is not known how large Bannon’s stake is, but in 2013 the Financial Times reported that Seinfeld had earned $3.1bn through syndication in the previous five years. He continues to earn royalties today.

The Seinfeld windfall helped fund his career as a film-maker. Julia Jones, a screenwriter who worked with Bannon on and off for two decades, remembers first meeting him at a party in Beverley Hills in 1991; they spoke of his plans to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen. Bannon’s overgrown hair, pasty complexion and dishevelled clothing recently prompted the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe him as “Robert ­Redford dredged from a river”, but in the 1990s, Jones told me: “He dressed down, but he was still neat and clean. He was preppy. He was really very attractive, good-looking, charismatic – and he weighed a lot less.”

They struck up a close friendship. Jones describes him as “very, very smart, but not in an obnoxious way”, and an avid reader with a keen interest in ancient philosophy and military strategy. He was fun to be around, largely because he had “an idea a minute”, some quirkier than others. When he called one day to say he had written the opening to a rap adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus set in LA during the 1992 race ­riots, she agreed to work with him on it.

Bannon’s faith was evidently important to him – at one point he considered ­adapting St Mark’s Gospel for the cinema – but the writing partners rarely discussed politics. Jones, who considers herself left-of-Bernie-Sanders, told me that though he expressed “the usual GOP views” he usually ignored rather than confronted the opinions of liberals he worked with. The most overtly political project Jones and Bannon co-wrote was his directorial debut – In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, released in 2004. The trailer splices Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech with footage from the Second World War, Communist-era Russia and the 9/11 attacks, intercut with pseudo-religious captions: “In mankind’s bloodiest and most barbaric century . . . came a man with a ­vision. An outsider, a radical with extreme views . . . of how to confront evil. Evil is powerless . . . if the good are unafraid.”

Jones says: “The Reagan documentary really launched Steve into the world of Washington politics. Before that he was a wannabe film-maker in Hollywood.” It was at an early screening of In the Face of Evil that he first met Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the eponymous news group. He later began making films with David Bossie, who leads the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Bossie introduced Bannon to Donald Trump in 2011, when Trump was contemplating running for the Republican presidential ticket. Bossie and Bannon worked together on hagiographic documentaries of the Tea Party leaders Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, as well as Generation Zero (2010), which attributed the 2007 financial crash to a “failure of culture”, and Occupy Unmasked (2012), which promised to tell “the true story of the radicals behind the Occupy movement”.

“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal in 2011, adding that he was a “student of” the Nazi propagandist, as well as the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the liberal documentary-maker Michael Moore.

In his new incarnation as a crusading film-maker, he started to dress differently. Jones recalls how, while he was working on The Undefeated, his 2011 film about Sarah Palin, “I looked up one day and I couldn’t tell him from Michael Moore.”

 

***

 

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bannon’s world-view grew darker. He has consistently argued that Islam is at odds with Western values and civilisation. In a speech delivered to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, he argued that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”, using the phrase popularised by Christopher Hitchens. He sees the whole religion, and not just its violent fringes, as a threat. “If you look back at the long history of the Judaeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world,” he said.

Pudner, his friend from Richmond, says Bannon first expressed an interest in entering politics after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Bannon’s father, who is in his nineties and with whom Bannon is very close, lost almost all his life savings as the stock market crashed. “He felt like, ‘My dad’s working class, worked his whole life, put money away to save up and now he has no money to do anything, and all my old friends at Goldman Sachs are figuring out how all the rich people are not hurt in this recession,’” Pudner told me. “That was his first motivation, when he just said, ‘You know something? I’m going to have to get into politics because something’s wrong here.’”

Bannon’s anger at the financial elite did not forestall his profound hatred for the Occupy movement. While promoting Occupy Unmasked, he said, with characteristic crudeness, that the film would leave viewers wanting “to go home and shower because you’ve just spent an hour and 15 minutes with the greasiest, dirtiest people you will ever see”. He is also no champion of the poor. The focus of his concern is those in the middle, who he believes are hardest hit in an economy that provides “socialism for the very poor and the wealthy and a brutal form of capitalism for everybody else”.

He argues that the United States faces a threat to its existence, not only because of its financial vulnerability but also because capitalism has become separated from its “Judaeo-Christian” roots. The solution he proposes is a populist, middle-class revolt against the Democratic Party and the “apparatus on the left”, which includes the mainstream media and the education system, as well as the Republican leadership.

In a speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon described the challenge facing post-crash America as the “great fourth turning in American history”. The Fourth Turning is a 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe which argues that history works in 80-to-100-year cycles, each culminating in a two-decade “turning” or “crisis”, in which the old civic order is replaced by a new one. “Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mode. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire,” the book warns. The result could be war, civil violence, a break-up of the US, or authoritarianism, “Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people.”

 

***

 

By 2012 Bannon had transformed himself again, this time from film-maker to far-right media chief. Two years earlier, he had begun offering free office space to Andrew Breitbart for his pugnacious news site. When Breitbart died of heart failure at the age of 43 in March 2012, Bannon, already a board member of the Breitbart group, was appointed chairman. Under his leadership, breitbart.com pursued an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda and ran such incendiary headlines as “‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’”. Bannon has proudly declared that the website is “the platform for the alt right”; this term covers a broad spectrum of far-right ideologies that share a core belief that white identity is under attack. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group, told me that “alt right” is best thought of, in essence, as “a whitewashing rebranding of old-fashioned white supremacy, or white nationalism”. Among the writers Bannon championed was Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter in 2016 for racially abusing the actress Leslie Jones and encouraging his followers to do the same, and who most recently made headlines for appearing to condone paedophilia.

Many of Bannon’s former colleagues, including some of his fiercest critics, have denied that he is racist or anti-Semitic. Yet he appears, at the very least, untroubled by the prejudices of those who write for Breitbart and comprise much of its readership. In July 2016, speaking to the progressive magazine Mother Jones, he conceded that some white nationalists, anti-Semites and homophobes were attracted to the alt right, but argued that the American left also attracts “certain elements”.

Ex-staffers at Breitbart have accused Bannon of exerting dictatorial control over the site’s content, using it to curry favour with friends and take down enemies, and ordering changes to articles he deemed not vitriolic enough. “Everyone who works with Steve in a position of subordination is scared shitless of him. Because he’s a bully and he yells at people and he harasses people and he’s a nasty human being,” Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor-at-large, told me.

In March 2016 several staff members, including Shapiro, left Breitbart. The trigger was the organisation’s refusal to stand by one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, after she was allegedly assaulted by Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But many also objected to Bannon transforming Breitbart into a “propaganda outlet” and “a whorehouse for Trump”, as Shapiro put it. Bannon’s media strategy was two-pronged: in 2012, as he built a growing audience on the fringe right through Breitbart, he co-founded the Government Accountability Institute, a non-profit organisation whose sophisticated investigations into subjects such as the Clintons’ finances were picked up by the wider media.

In November 2015, Bannon became the founding host of the Breitbart News Daily radio show. Donald Trump was a repeat guest. Here, the frequently offensive Bannon showed himself to be also an effective sycophant. “I know you’re a student of military history . . . ” he told the candidate who professed to have too little time to read books. The pair enjoyed an easy rapport, Bannon asking leading questions and pontificating on Trump’s wealth, the size of his rallies, his skill as a deal-maker.

“The way he gets in people’s ears is by telling them that they are the greatest geniuses he has ever met and he will make them famous and powerful,” Shapiro told me. “And then he proceeds to give the go-ahead to all of their worst instincts because if you’re the yes-man you never get fired.”

 

***

 

Bannon often boasts that he was among the first to recognise Trump’s political potential. The property tycoon and reality-TV star announced his candidacy in June 2015 with a speech in which he pledged to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep out immigrant rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. “The idea of somebody running for president – of all things – who talks about essentially ethnic nationalism was a wake-up call, an electrifying event for people like Bannon and in general what is called the alt right,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Centre for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Even before Bannon formally joined Trump’s campaign the two men enjoyed a close relationship. Trump consulted Breitbart and other fringe websites for news and echoed their anti-foreigner, America First rhetoric.

“Bannon saw in Trump someone who could be a vehicle for realising at the presidential level those kinds of ideological tenets. While Trump saw in Bannon someone who was very effective at messaging along the lines of what Trump had already understood about nativism: anti-immigrant, that kind of nationalist rhetoric,” Rosenthal says. He believes that Bannon “reveals the ideological heart of Trumpism”.

An unnamed former associate described Bannon to Politico as “the Rain Man of nationalism” because of his speed-reading habits. The Politico site reported that he had urged White House staff to read books such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, a treatise on how to thrive in an age of chaos and uncertainty.

Public comments made by Bannon show his familiarity with writers who remain obscure beyond far-right circles. In his 2014 Vatican speech, he cited the work of Julius Evola, whose writings provided inspiration for the Italian Fascists. He has repeatedly described the European migrant crisis as mirroring The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail, in which France and the rest of Europe are overrun by dark-skinned, faeces-eating, sexually predatory refugees bent on
overpowering the white population. However, Bannon may read more widely: late last year a New York Times reporter spotted him at an airport poring over The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s account of foreign policy mistakes made by the brilliant young advisers who worked for J F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. He told the reporter he had asked several people in the Trump administration to read the book, saying it’s “great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later”.

Bannon has been divorced three times and has three daughters, to whom he is reportedly devoted. During the presidential campaign, journalists uncovered police records showing that he was charged with domestic violence during his second marriage (he pleaded not guilty) as well as court records from after their divorce in which his ex-wife alleges that he didn’t want their twin daughters “going to school with Jews”, because he “doesn’t like Jews”. (He denies having said this.) Generally, however, those close to him say that the self-styled Prince of Darkness is enjoying his time in the spotlight and is thriving under the pressure of his new role.

The chief strategist had a glaringly obvious influence on Trump’s inaugural address, and is reported to have pushed for the administration’s hard line on immigration. Under Trump, the White House website no longer mentions climate change, nor does it have a section on LGBT rights. Bannon has described global warming as a “manufactured crisis” (implying it isn’t real); Breitbart similarly dismisses climate change as a “hoax” and a “scam”. He has little patience with left-wing identity politics but is obsessed with right-wing identity politics. On his watch, Breitbart published several articles under the tag “Black Crime” and stories on “immigrant” and “illegal alien” crime before Trump landed on the same theme.

He is also reported to have been responsible for some of Trump’s more reckless executive orders, such as the so-called Muslim ban, overturned by the courts again this month. His rash approach to policymaking may be a product of his combative personality. “Any time there’d be a sort of controversial move his first instinct was always: go for it . . . and that’s what blows up in his face,” Shapiro told me. Having made the transition from outsider agitator to ultimate political insider, Bannon may find his long-term success depends on an ability to curb his attack-dog instincts and to compromise.

Bannon once compared himself to “Cromwell in the House of Tudors”, the history buff perhaps having forgotten that ultimately Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason. The Trump administration having spent its first weeks in near-permanent crisis mode, that boast may yet come to haunt him. Yet the master of reinvention could equally outlast Trump. “If they all get swept out of the White House, Bannon’s still going. He’s still got an agenda; Trump isn’t all he’s interested in,” Julia Jones told me.

It is not clear where he might end up, should Trump no longer serve his interests, but this much is evident: the right-wing Leninist is unnaturally good at getting what he wants and to where he wants to be.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.

 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution