Distinguishing Arabesques: The politics and pleasures of being Arab in neoliberal Brazil

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John S. Burdick


Arab, Neoliberal, Brazil, Nationalism, Globalization

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Race and Ethnicity | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology


Tracing their origins to early twentieth century immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, Brazilians of Middle Eastern descent gained greater visibility as "Arabs" today. In the public sphere, they oversaw multi-million dollar business ventures, represented ten percent of federal congressmen in Brasilia and of city councilors in São Paulo, as well as maintained some of the most luxurious country clubs. My dissertation asks how executives, politicians, and socialites of Middle Eastern descent sought and were conferred increased acknowledgement as "Arabs" in contemporary Brazil. I argue that they intensified Arab ethnicity as a project peculiar to the neoliberalizing Brazilian nation-state. In the transitional contexts of economic openness, government reform, and consumer diversification, my work shows that Arab Brazilian ethnicity gained greater recognition as export-oriented entrepreneurship, ethically-charged leadership, and commodified leisure. Ultimately, my wider contention is that Arabness became a prism particular to the ways that the Brazilian nation-state globalized.

This dissertation rethinks the interaction between ethnicity and nationalism vis à vis the world economy. I argue that although Arab ethnicity remains linked to Brazilian nationalist hegemony today, its coordinates and references intensified according to global economic trends. Far from indicating the demise of nationalism, this ethnic resurgence was part of national reorganization today. Once solely rejected or coerced, Arab subjects and substances were now also acknowledged as allies in the historic bloc in Brazil, insofar as they met demands in the current model of the world economy: neoliberalism. Focusing on the "culture of neoliberalism," I construe not only economic openness, but also political transparency and consumer diversity as part of the neoliberal transition. My aim is to grasp how the historic bloc in Brazil today used the free market precepts of the Washington Consensus, the good governance ideals of the World Bank, and the worldly desires of marketers and consumers in efforts to advance itself in the global economy. An entrepreneurial, ethical, and authentic Arab ethnicity, this dissertation demonstrates, reflected and helped shape the remaking of the Brazilian nation-state amidst global conditions of open markets, transparent governments, and consumer diversities.


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