The Urban Guru Website

Arab Cities on the way to Better Urban Life?

28/04/2010 00:00

In April 2010 the first international meeting on the State of Arab Cities took place in Kuwait City, in a place only three hundred kilometres from Uruk, the Mesopotamian city-state.

Located on the Euphrates, Uruk is considered as the first city in the world history. Under King Gilgamesh, five thousand years ago, it counted 40,000 people. If Kenya claims to be the cradle of mankind, southern Iraq could claim, thanks to the Sumerians, to be the cradle of urban-kind. Not very far, the first big village of the world, Jericho on the Dead Sea, already had 5,000 people seven thousand years ago.  So the meeting took place in a region where urbanization was born (also in Anatolia).  One can safely affirm that urban issues are not foreign to the Middle East.

One must also acknowledge that the Arab world has played a very important role in the history of urbanization.  From Damascus, the first capital of Islam under the Umayyad dynasty; Baghdad, the Abbasid capital and Cairo, the Fatimid creation at the end of the 10th century, the region is where urban civilization was born.  Both the Sumerian and Arab contributions to world urbanization have indeed been outstanding.  With the official creation of Cairo in 969, the modern era of urbanization started in earnest, long before the Italian Renaissance.  The Arab world is a region where urban matters have been addressed for centuries.

Initially Arab civilization was nomadic. But very quickly it created a number of cities. One of the greatest geniuses of all times, the Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun, wrote in the 14th century about this confrontation between nomadic origins and city life.  Ibn Khaldun founded urban sociology six hundred years ago, explaining the relations between rural/nomadic and urban conditions, noting the complementary and confrontations between the two worlds.

The Arab urban civilization, which has evolved over the last millennium, provides the historical background for our coming report entitled, The State of Arab Cities.  It is well known that some of the most beautiful cities in the world are in this region, from Marrakesh and Fez in Morocco to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria without forgetting Sana’a in Yemen, Jerusalem, Cairo, etc.  Any lover of cities would testify that these cities are the pearls of the Islamic World. 

With the contributions of many specialists, UN-HABITAT has started to analyze the current State of Arab Cities, noting that different sub-regions face different problems.  The Arab world is unified by cultural and linguistic features, but it is also marked by many diversities.

In terms of urbanization one should distinguish three major sub-regions.  The first one covers the Gulf Cooperation Countries with an extremely high rate of urbanization, an average of 86 per cent which is the highest in the world, much higher than in Europe.  Kuwait holds a world record with 98 per cent, and is clearly one of the most urbanized States in the world.

The second region (which will be sub-divided in the report) includes the Maghreb and Mashreq which together represent the bulk (close to 70 per cent) of the population of the Arab World.  It is two-thirds urbanized today, with an average rate of 67 per cent.

The third “region” is made of the Arab Least Developed Countries. They are very heterogeneous, combining Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan in the East, with Mauritania in the West, and the Comoros Islands. There is no homogeneity, but this group is still under-urbanized – only up to 45 per cent on average.  So the Arab States include three completely different regions. One cannot compare Doha, Kuwait City, Bahrain or Abu Dhabi with Mogadishu or Nouakchott; these are two different worlds. This will make UN-HABITAT’s survey and analysis a bit difficult because what will be said of one part of the Arab world will not necessarily apply to the other parts.  However there are common aspects, common features of these agglomerations, which can be highlighted to show that “Better Arab Cities” – in reference to the theme of the recent Shanghai EXPO – may indeed be around the corner. 


The first common feature is the Arab architecture.  Arab architecture has evolved down the years, but there are still a number of similarities among all parts of the Arab world.  The Arab architecture is well known to urban specialists. It developed as a physical response to social and environmental conditions, social challenges – high family values, defined men-women relations, and harsh climate conditions in predominantly dry countries.  Many books have been written on the Arab House and on the Arab pattern of urbanization.  The traditional Medina or Old City is the common denominator of this heritage. Policy-makers need to combine the urban heritage with modern development objectives and Kuwait is a good example where one needs to build a city almost from scratch while preserving what is left from history. Moving towards “better cities” requires heritage preservation and integration in urban development strategies.

The second feature is the centralized governance prevalent in the region.  All Arab countries in the last fifty years have developed centralized governance systems. These are systems where the governor (Wali) is more important than the mayor, where western-style local democracy remains hard to adopt. So far the centralized Arab pattern of government has demonstrated some effectiveness in term of infrastructure development, but also some obvious limitations in term of environmental management and political participation.

This explains partly why the third common feature is the water challenge faced by Jordan and many other countries where water scarcity is becoming more and more a political concern. The Arab world is water-stressed and has to invest more in adequate infrastructure, including desalination plants, to face this situation. Betterment of cities requires adequate water supply and improved sanitation, together with participatory environmental planning and management.

The fourth feature relates to the need to accommodate a flow of migrants in a number of cities.  Traditionally students learnt about rural-urban migration.  At present rural-urban migration remains an issue only in Least Developed Countries, it is no longer on the agenda in most Arab countries.  Migration has now become an international matter which directly affects city development.  Because of its geographical situation, the Arab world is where most migrations are taking place.  One could witness migration from Asia to the Gulf countries as well as migration from the Mashreq to the same countries. Migrations occur from sub-Saharan Africa to Maghreb countries, from Maghreb to Europe, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Kenya.  One can see internal migration in countries like Sudan and unfortunately, migration as a result of conflicts affecting Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.  The Arab world is a region where migrations have increased in recent decades, having an important impact on the development of cities. Urban refugees and migrant workers must certainly be given more attention in public policies.

On the positive side, the Arab world seems to be the region where cities are the safest.  While political violence has increased in some countries, urban delinquency and crime remain low in most of the Arab world. This reveals that the traditional social fabric is still strong. Women and men can walk almost everywhere in Cairo, Casablanca, Algiers, Damascus without fear, even in the evening. This safety is something that sometimes the Arabs themselves do not notice.  That is a positive dimension of the Arab city. 

Another dimension to highlight is related to the introduction of urban innovation in many areas.  Particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Countries where a number of cities have recently introduced urban innovations, most of the time coming from the Western world.

Some are strictly technical innovations which make sense because they save time or money, and improve living conditions. Others are more artificial, even superfluous.  They are often a sign of modernity with little impact on the quality of life, which benefit international architects rather than urban populations. Urban malls, cloned from the USA, reflect both sides of this innovation process. On the negative side, they are a mechanism of exclusion and privatisation of public space. On the positive side, they are a modern substitute to the traditional souks (markets) and could allow some degree of conviviality, provided they are well designed and well located. Social and technical progress should go hand in hand in the cities of tomorrow.

On the economic front, the recent Dubai crisis, where a number of real estate companies went bankrupt because of wrong investment strategies, must be critically analyzed.  In a way Dubai has been victim of its successful diversification strategy. Since 1980 there have been a lot of investments in Arab cities. Billions have been invested, sometimes in the right direction (trunk infrastructure) and sometimes in the wrong direction (real estate speculative operations). The economy of cities will be discussed squarely in our report on the State of Arab Cities.  Compared with other regions, the last 30 years have seen positive developments in many Arab cities. Journalists often highlight the negative aspects, the uncontrolled urban expansion, the increasing urban poverty, the deteriorated environment. 

My first visit to Cairo took place 38 years ago.  At that time in the local newspapers one could read that Cairo was a complete disaster; that the city will collapse within 10 years or become totally chaotic. Then I went to Cairo approximately every two years in recent decades and each time I read the same articles explaining that Cairo was finished, dead, and without a future.  This was simply untrue. In fact Cairo is not becoming a nightmare. Cairo has improved. Cairo is manageable, Cairo is managed. And it is by far the largest Arab city with 12 million permanent residents.  How come these cities which journalists regularly brand as potential disasters have emerged, have improved, have become more productive? Not being an NGO, the United Nations has to acknowledge the positive aspects of urbanization.  There are difficulties, there are serious employment problems, but there are also successes and we have to objectively recognize progress when and where it occurs. 

Since the Istanbul City Summit of 1996, Arab cities have become more and more globalized as part of the globalization of the world economy.  More and more links have been established between the Arab world and the rest of the planet, the international world.  This is a major phenomenon both in economic, cultural and social terms. Cities are now internationalized, except in Least Developed Countries.  This is a general trend and in the Arab world it is accelerating.     

During the years 1986-1996, UN-HABITAT provided technical assistance to Dubai Municipality and contributed to create the basis for sound urban management. At that time Dubai was relatively small but its growth has been extremely fast, its population doubling every 10 years (from 350,000 inhabitants in 1986 to 700,000 in 1996 and 1.4 million in 2007).  In less than 50 years a big village became a metropolis.

This link with the outside world is important and will be highlighted in the State of Arab Cities report because cities are no longer driven by their own internal conditions but primarily by external factors.  Many cities have become international hubs, like Doha and Dubai.  Towns which were small have become large agglomerations. Apart from Cairo, the only Arab mega-city, nine cities have passed the 3 million people mark: Baghdad, Khartoum, Riyadh, Alexandria, Algiers, Casablanca, Jeddah, Aleppo and Damascus.

Most of them, not all, are better today than they were twenty years ago, in both social and economic terms. In North Africa for example the proportion of slum-dwellers in the urban population went down from 34 per cent in 1990 to 13 per cent in 2010, according to UN-HABITAT data. However many Arab cities still face very difficult environmental challenges.

The first chapter of the State of Arab Cities will deal with demography. It will be based on the UN Population Division’s World Urbanization Prospects: the 2009 Revision which shows that out of 350 million people in the Arab world, 200 million live in urban areas.

The growth rates are also available, provided by the National Bureaus of Statistics. This is the easiest part even if statistics have their own limitations.  But we have to work on the basis of UN data because they are the only official figures, accepted by all governments.  In the other chapters the report will discuss the economy of cities and their social dimensions, including the housing conditions, and particularly the conditions of the poorest segments of the population.

It will discuss the current environmental problems of cities including water, sanitation, transport, energy, impact of climate change and finally the political dimension of cities, the way they are managed by central and local governments, what is known as urban governance. Insufficient decentralisation, lack of popular participation and corruption practices will have to be analysed, particularly in light of the recent events in Tunisia and other countries.

 We expect that the first State of Arab Cities report will be completed, printed and available for the sixth session of the World Urban Forum, to be held in 2012. During that session the evolution of Arab cities will be assessed by hundreds of experts and policy-makers. The on-going evaluation should provide the facts, figures and analysis required for the promotion of better urban life in the region, while the Forum will also provide ample opportunities for inter-regional exchanges. The spirit of Gilgamesh and Ibn Khaldun will certainly enlighten that forthcoming session.


This article was published in "Urban World' in January 2011.