Infrastructuring Authoritarian Power: Arab Gulf-Chinese Transregional Collaboration beyond the State

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Julia Gurol; Benjamin Schuetze
International Quarterly for Asian Studies
2022, 53: 2

From collaboration on infrastructural megaprojects to vaccine development and digital surveillance techniques: Arab Gulf–Chinese relations in times of COVID-19 are complex and multi-layered. Nonetheless, established regime-centric, analytical approaches often fail to see this complexity by almost exclusively focusing on questions of collaboration between authoritarian regimes. Such approaches not only ignore the diversity of involved actors and the inherently transregional nature of contemporary authoritarian power, but also bear the risk of reproducing binary notions of authoritarianism vs. liberal democracy that fundamentally ignore the latter’s coercive core. Recent work on the duality of infrastructure as both enabling global flows of goods and (re)producing social hierarchies helps us overcome the methodological nationalism found in the majority of scholarship on authoritarian power. In this article, we provide a selective overview, through the prism of logistics and infrastructure, of Arab Gulf–Chinese authoritarian entanglements in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding authoritarian practices as territorially unbounded modes of governance, our objective is to develop a more in-depth and context-sensitive understanding of the transregionally connected mechanisms of (re)producing authoritarian power. We argue that the pandemic constitutes a seemingly technical opportunity for the intensified diffusion of authoritarian practices that both enable certain infrastructural politics and in turn are also rendered possible by them. This emphasis on infrastructure, understood as simultaneously fostering a global circulation of goods and capital, as well as reinforcing containment and facilitating new forms of managing and repressing public discontent, provides us with a helpful lens for the development of a truly transregional understanding of authoritarian power. We discuss this argument based on select examples of digital and physical infrastructure(s) in Arab Gulf–Chinese relations, and their embedment in global flows of capital.