Neoliberalism, Self-Identity, and Consumer Culture in the UAE

Neoliberalism, Self-Identity, and Consumer Culture in the UAE

Başak Özoral (Istanbul Commerce University, Turkey) and İlke Civelekoğlu (Istanbul Commerce University, Turkey)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1037-7.ch003
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Over the last half-century, modern societies have been experiencing a drastic social, cultural, and economic transformation. The change in the behaviors and habits of consumers under the strong impact of neoliberalism demonstrates the close relationship between economy and social psychology. Globalized neo-liberalization has become an unavoidable, powerful force that impacts all elements of social, cultural, and economic life and defines people's identities and their consumption preferences. This chapter addresses the link between neoliberalism and consumer behavior, with a focus on non-Western societies. It examines if there is a contradiction between the features of consumer culture and the prevailing domestic culture in these societies. Many scholars associate consumer culture with Western societies, but the authors argue that consumer culture has become a significant phenomenon even in the most religiously conservative, non-Western societies. By taking Dubai in the UAE as the case study, this chapter demonstrates how consumer culture helps redefine culture and self-identity. The chapter concludes by arguing that since individual behavior is not rational, individuals' needs are defined by the dictates of consumer culture across the globe in neoliberal times.
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How the citizens of the UAE have redefined their behavior, values and identity under consumerism help us understand the influences of globalized neoliberalism in non-Western societies. In order to understand the dynamic processes of acculturation on identity in a setting where cultural pressures are obvious, this study was undertaken in a religiously conservative city of the UAE. The data was collected in Dubai, a city with a liberal economic environment in which a very big expatriate population contributes to its economy (Malecki & Ewers, 2007).

With the welcoming liberal environment it offers, Dubai is an important cosmopolitan hub in the Gulf. The increase in foreign investments and job opportunities has made the expat population significant within the total population of Dubai and thus, multiculturalism has become the central feature of the Emirati culture. The multicultural and the multinational environment in the city has produced cross-cultural communication and cultural exchange.

Not only this multicultural population but also multinational companies, hotels, investments and schools have changed the social and cultural structure of the Emirati society. With the strong penetration of foreign western brands such as Armani, Chanel, Sony and Mercedes, luxury consumption has penetrated into the city. As Shukla and Purani (2012:1417) indicate, the symbolic value attached to consumer goods may be ‘highly influential among all cultures and countries. However, their degree of influence may differ dramatically.’ Similarly Al-Mutaaw (2013) points out that this influence is more related with cultures, where differences are more significant. According to Marciniak and Mohsen (June, 2014) consumers in the Gulf are almost obsessed with brands that have highly recognizable logos such as Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Dior. This chapter argues that the choices of consumers in Dubai represent a homogeneous attitude when it comes to consumption of luxury products and famous Western brands with flashy decoration. The consumers in Dubai have economic power to engage in luxury consumption. Also, they are extremely interested in consuming Western life style. In contrast to traditional Emirati life that was very simple and modest, the Emiratis today have an interest in integrating themselves into a globalized world. In this context luxury consumption has become not only a consumer behavior but a matter of identity, prestige and power in the UAE society.

This chapter aims to understand the main motivation of Emirati consumers in consuming luxury goods and redefining their identities at the age of globalization. In doing so, the purposes of the research are: to understand how Emiratis perceive luxury, modernization and materialism; to define the greatest personal motivation for the consumption of luxury goods among the people of the UAE. This chapter also highlights the increasingly important position of shopping malls in Dubai nowadays. Today, shopping malls with their restaurants, bars, cafes or even hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, cinemas and entertainment parks have become the centers of consumer culture. Since the biggest and most impressive shopping malls were founded in Dubai, analyzing their influence on consuming behavior helps address how globalization has deeply penetrated into the cultural and social life of Emiratis and led to significant changes in the daily practices and preferences.

With its interdisciplinary approach, the chapter aims to make a contribution to the model of rational economic man in economics by bringing in the psychological approach to unpack the consumer behavior in traditional local cultures. Put differently, it aims to bring together social psychology and economics to better understand the contemporary cultural, economic and other factors affecting societies of hyper-consumption. Most significantly, this chapter addresses how the personal choices and actions of consumers reflect a wider pro-market paradigm that encourages certain values, habits and practices across the globe. Thus, the study aims to contribute to the growing literature on the intersection of economics and psychology, in general, and to the literature of the sub-discipline of consumer behavior, in particular.

Key Terms in this Chapter

The United Arab Emirates (UAE): The UAE is composed of seven Emirates, namely Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah, Dubai, Umm al Qaywayn and Ra's al Khaymah. Emirates got its independence in 1971. Oil and global finance are the most important economic activities the UAE. The UAE in recent years has played a significant role in regional affairs.

Consumer Society: It is a society that associates personal success, happiness and well-being with the purchasing of material possessions.

Consumerism: Consumerism is a social and economic order that inspires the buying of goods and services in large amounts. In economics, consumerism refers to economic policies which emphasize consumption. Consumerism is also defined as the trap of material goods. It would be helpful to know that the theoretical debate about consumption in the last two decades has mainly been driven by a philosophical engagement with ‘modernity’.

Dubai: Dubai is the largest and most populated city of the United Arab Emirates. It is the most liberal and developed city and has become a role model for many other Gulf cities. Dubai is known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and a lively nightlife.

Cultural Capital: A marker of one’s status and position within a social and cultural hierarchy. It enables an individual to gain membership to social categories.

Consumer Culture: A culture organized around the consumption of goods and leisure. The items consumed are non-necessary but they represent important symbols related to the formation of self-identity.

Consumer: A consumer is someone who buys products or services just for personal use. During the decision making process this individual can be influenced by marketing and advertisement strategies. Any time someone goes to a store and decides to purchase something, let it be a car, jean, food, or anything else, he is making that decision as a consumer.

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