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Villes et dynamiques urbaines en péninsule Arabique

Beyond the Skyline: Cities in Transformation in the Arabian Peninsula

Claire Beaugrand, Amélie Le Renard et Roman Stadnicki
Cet article est une traduction de :
Au-delà de la Skyline : des villes en transformation dans la péninsule Arabique

Texte intégral

1Cliches and stereotypes pervade popular perceptions of the cities in the Arabian Peninsula. On the one hand, they boast rapid urban growth rates and count amongst the few cities that can afford to indulge in life‑sized architectural experiments, such as air‑conditioned stadiums or the world’s tallest skyscrapers. As a result, they appear in a fantasy vision, as the place of endless possibilities: oblivious to nature’s constraints, defying the arid climate and pushing back the limits of sea and sky. On the other hand, and in an equally exaggerated fashion, the peripheral cities of Yemen, the interior of Arabia and Oman appear to be doomed to an inevitable decline, condemned to depopulation, thereby, further increasing the demographic pressure on neighbouring urban centres, their infrastructure and their fragile water resources — already on the verge of exhaustion in the Yemeni capital.

  • 1 This image and expression are borrowed from the title of a conference organised for the publication (...)
  • 2 This term is borrowed from the lecture by Andrew Gardner, during the conference in Abu Dhabi.
  • 3 Sassen, 1991; Roy and Ong, 2011; Elsheshtawy, 2004; Marchal 2001
  • 4 For a pioneering study, see Bonnenfant (ed.), 1982.
  • 5 Manama studied by Fuccaro, 2009, and Jeddah by Freitag, 2011.
  • 6 Elsheshtawy, 2004 and 2010.

2This special issue aims at filling a gap in the academic literature by raising attention on the so‑called ‘declining’ cities and deliberately studying them in parallel with the booming cities of international standing and the emerging mid‑sized cities. By doing so, this issue aims at showing the diversity and complexity of the urban phenomenon in the Arabian Peninsula, revealed at the outset by Nelida Fuccaro in her ‘preface’. In fact, the ‘Boom cities’1 of the Gulf — referring to the petroleum ‘boom’, as well as their rapid urban growth and the social antagonisms that they display — represent only the tip of the iceberg of urban dynamics. Although their ‘trophy architecture’2 have put some of these cities on the map of ‘global/world cities’,3 the social dynamics behind them, the up and downs of their growth paths as well as the decision‑making processes guiding the perpetual transformation of these cities are left out of the spotlight. Urban studies in the Arabian Peninsula, still fairly undeveloped in the 2000s,4 are today a growing field with innovative perspectives, encompassing the history of the coastal towns during British and Ottoman rule,5 as well as, for instance, approaches combining architecture and social sciences to explore their ‘kaleidoscopic’ character.6

  • 7 Davis and Monk, 2008.
  • 8 Sassen, 2011.

3This issue distances itself from the shortcomings of various approaches to study Gulf cities. Firstly, it is important to escape simplifying dichotomies such as: ‘towns where modernity and tradition come together’, or ‘rich nationals and poor immigrants’. Secondly, we wish to go beyond the exceptionalist, polemic discourses — even at times the doomsday discourse —7 which ignore the fact that, in many ways, cities in the Arabian Peninsula face the same phenomena of land speculation, increasing inequality, social marginalisation and urban fragmentation as other global cities do — cities to which, by virtue of international competition and mimicry, they end up resembling.8 The researches presented here are grounded in empirical material, and as a result, identify with precision some of the contemporary processes at work, while finely contextualising them.

Boom, stagnation and decline

4The contributions to this issue show, first, that the demiurgic notion of a boundless urban sprawl in an uninhabited desert environment does not hold true in the face of a detailed study of urban expansion. Indeed, urban growth is feeling the full force of the vagaries and crises of a globalized economy. The case of the real estate sector in Dubai, which is only just recovering from the recession of 2008, is a prime example: the construction frenzy, which was largely led by private interests, ground to a halt. The need to regulate investment in real estate also requires some downtime; this is evidenced by Elizabeth Harrington’s study of the accumulated delay of the “Saadiyat Island” mega‑project following a revision of procedures for the disbursement of public funds. In Bahrain, the “Marina West” project, at al‑Buday‛, on the north‑west coast of the island, has been frozen since December 2010, to the extent that some investors want out. Finally, these varying growth rates, even negative at times, also appear in the case of Kuwait: the “National Development Plan” analysed by Philippe Cadène shows a desire to break with Kuwait’s relative stagnation following the trauma of the Iraqi invasion and the collapse of investor confidence, including nationals.

5Slowdowns, decline, loss of status and reclassification are thus also part of urban dynamics in the Peninsula which are too often seen only through the only prism of ‘growth’. Sebastian Maisel’s contribution highlights the case of a medium‑sized town in Central Arabia, ‛Unayza, which is struggling for survival in this era of global cities. Despite the plethora of state services, the city exhibits a profound urban monotony and looks to its past to maintain its identity; the case of ‛Unayza is certainly not an isolated one: the same conclusions could apply to other cities of the Saudi Interior marginalised by new trade routes, such as Abhā, or other cities in Oman, like Nizwā, or Jahrā’ in Kuwait. Maisel points out that “although the population has grown, the city [of ‛Unayza] has remained on the sidelines of economic growth and failed to become a strategic location in the country’s development”. Thus, what seemed to be unbridled urban growth instead follows different trajectories: Gulf city‑states continue to concentrate their efforts and ambitions on ‘show‑case’ capitals, designed to be heart of economic activity, financial hubs and prime stopover choices. Despite the crisis, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are still developing, in diverse ways and modulations, according to the same urban model of a ‘global hub’. Meanwhile, medium‑sized coastal towns, like Sharja in the United Arab Emirates and Ṣuḥār in Oman, or in a class of their own, the Saudi pilgrimage towns, are emerging and trying to find their place in the regional urban hierarchy.

  • 9 Schmid, 2009.

6This issue of Arabian Humanities devotes several articles to the development of medium‑sized cities. We follow the growing number of regional cities with global ambitions that, until now, have been stifled by macrocephalic capitals. Secondary cities are gradually globalising through the promotion of urbanism, as demonstrated in the contributions by Brigitte Dumortier and Steffen Wippel. Both Ra’s al‑Khayma (Ras al‑Khaymah) and Ṣalāla have adopted ambitious master plans reflecting the contradictory position of competition/complementarity in which they, as local actors, find themselves vis‑à‑vis the major urban centres of their respective national territories. In the case of Ṣalāla, as Steffen Wippel shows, the objective is to build a complex urban system allowing the city to both diversify its economy away from its container port, and reduce the marked territorial inequalities between Dhofar and the Muscat region. As for Ra’s al‑Khayma, according to Brigitte Dumortier, today’s urban policies seem to be giving in, as it is the case in Dubai, to “an economy of fascination”9 in order to upset the current hierarchy within the United Arab Emirates, dominated by the twin cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with Ra’s al‑Khayma on the outside looking in.

  • 10 Al Nakib, 2011; Henderson and Rajakumar, 2010.

7Finally, it is important to study stagnating or declining cities, those cities that are left out, whose inhabitants come to swell the ranks of new arrivals in the more dynamic cities. Through these declining trajectories, it is indeed the historical character of the Gulf towns, all too often swept aside, which surfaces, opening the way to study the history of places, particularly those which have disappeared beneath the urban palimpsest.10

  • 11 Al‑Shihābī, 2012.
  • 12 Burt, 2012; Al‑Ansari 2009.

8The limits of urban development go beyond hierarchies and the shifting relationships between cities. They also appear in the details of the neighbourhoods, the urban fabric and in the day‑to‑day experience of their inhabitants. Thus, in ‛Unayza, just as in Bahrain and Kuwait, inhabitants complain about the delay in accessing state‑subsidised housing. Sebastian Maisel notes that according to the Saudi “National Housing Strategy Plan”, the central region of Qāsim would require 50,000 housing units. This is in line with the work of ‛Umar al‑Shihābī in his analysis of the social tensions between nationals and non‑nationals seen through the specific prism of the development of housing projects intended for foreigners who, in addition to having access to real estate, obtain long‑term resident permits.11 Aside from housing capacity, the infrastructure and services of cities are being put to the test by demographic pressure, such as the water supply to Riyadh, the electricity supply in Kuwait and issues of traffic jams in Medina. In Bahrain, where population density is amongst the highest in the world, with urban settlement concentrated on the north coast even though it requires land reclamation, awareness of limited resources, such as the lack of public access to the seafront, contributes to political tension centred on issues of redistribution.12 Indeed, in the fast‑growing suburbs of sprawling conurbations, some neighbourhoods give the impression of relative or even deliberate neglect: the areas of buyūt sha‘biyya (popular housing) housing the bidūns (‘paperless’) in Jahrā in Kuwait, or the Shiite ‘villages’ in north‑eastern Bahrain, which, in spite of the name, form part of the continuous urban fabric, are thus also prey to urban degradation. It is in these marginalised zones that the bidūns rose up in February 2011 and continue to do so. It is also in such areas that, in Bahrain, the youth, claiming an affiliation to the ‘villages’ where they are from (shabāb Bilād al‑Qadīm, taḥāluf shabāb Sitra, Ḥarakat shabāb Sanābīs — “the Youth of Bilad al‑Qadim”, “the Alliance of the Youth of Sitra”, “Youth Movement of Sanabis”), have been clashing with police forces almost daily since the clearing of the Pearl Roundabout in the city centre pushed the protest movement into the ‘suburbs’.

Urban policies: a change of direction?

  • 13 Marchal, 2001; El Ghoul, 2003.
  • 14 Singerman and Amar, 2006.
  • 15 Davis and Monk, 2008.

9In order to serve economic growth, urban policies in the majority of large cities in the Arabian Peninsula are shaped by market logic, such as project planning, suspension of regulations, huge facilities offered to large private real estate groups that act as land development companies etc.13 This symbiosis between economic and urban growth, between the world of business and the world of urbanism which, on the ground, translates as a succession in space and time of urban mega‑projects, has been the object of criticisms. Based on the concept of the ‘Dubai model’, exported more or less successfully across the region,14 Mike Davis and Daniel B. Monk see here the mark of hyper‑capitalism.15

  • 16 Stadnicki, 2012.

10In the context of political uprisings and economic crisis in the region, some projects seem to indicate a change of direction in urban development. They indicate, for example, a distancing from the excesses of Pharaonic creations and the spectacular operations to conquer nature which are increasingly being questioned by the inhabitants themselves.16 The “Msheireb Downtown” project in Doha is the embodiment of this regeneration, going so far as to position itself as a counter‑model for Dubai: it concerns the centre of the Qatari capital, not its outskirts; it promotes density and a socio‑functional mix in an agglomeration characterised by urban sprawl and segregation; it highlights the old and the vernacular rather than the new and all‑glass. In this issue, Nadine Scharfenort shows that, through this project, Qatar is developing a real policy of urban regeneration resulting in gentrification, understood here as the replacement of the working and immigrant classes by wealthier categories of the population who had left the centre of Doha in favour of the coast farther north (particularly in the reclaimed peninsula “The Pearl”) and suburban compounds.

11Beyond this particular case, three main strategies emerged from the urban policies currently advocated in the region: the development of an environmental approach to urbanism (Maṣdar City in Abu Dhabi) as Gulf cities are often singled out because of their high energy consumption; the invention of an urban heritage based on a reconstruction, often ex nihilo, of parts of the ‘traditional’ Arab‑Islamic city (creation of the ‘Heritage Villages’ in Doha, Dubai etc.); and finally, the multiplication of urban projects with significant cultural emphasis, like the “Saadiyat island museum” project in Abu Dhabi. Elizabeth Harrington shows that the search for growth opportunities through sophisticated activities has guided the Emir of Abu Dhabi towards choosing culture. But more than a simple architectural challenge, the author reveals that the government is looking to create swiftly a new urban identity, as well as a reputation aimed at foreigners, based on a cosmopolitan outlook and access to international culture.

  • 17 Al Nakib, 2014.

12Urban planning documents (‘Master Plans’, ‘Strategic visions’, etc.) constitute a major stage in the writing of economic policies and, as such, are an indication of the new directions given to urban development. The preservation of people’s identity by safeguarding ancient fabrics, for example, as well as the reinforcement of democratic institutions, are among the new priorities in certain documents on urbanism, as revealed by Philippe Cadène in his article on the development of Kuwait‑City, a city where the inhabitants’ desire to be involved in development projects has grown continuously over the past few years.17 In hyper‑centralised political systems and in countries like Qatar and Kuwait, where the rate of urbanisation is close to 100 %, national policies and urban development blend together. Developing a metropolitan project is therefore crucial because it legitimizes the leadership and even contributes to the creation of urban governance: in Kuwait, according to Philippe Cadène, the “Kuwait Vision 2035” master plan is the “fruit of a complex process engaged at the heart of a system of actors which, often, is initiated upon designing the strategy to be put into place”.

  • 18 Kanna, 2011.

13As for the mega‑projects themselves, they have not completely disappeared from the master plan of Kuwait‑City, which is slightly lagging behind its regional competitors (e.g. the new Silk City with its 1001‑metre tower etc.). But they are no longer quite at the heart of urban policies, be it in Kuwait or elsewhere in the region where the rulers today are not so much looking to communicate through out‑doing one another architecturally as to prove their ability to adapt to international urban standards18 and to the philosophy of sustainable development.

14Governments thus demonstrate the need to fashion a new urban model for the region. Nonetheless, this change of direction in urbanism in no way hinders the mechanisms of social and spatial division that are at work in the towns of the Arabian Peninsula, contrary to what would suggest the urban marketing developed by the municipalities and chambers of commerce and industry, in charge of the international promotion of each city at the local level. In other words, although new urban concepts are appearing, the ways in which urban spaces are treated seem unchanged. Thus, the regeneration of the centre of Doha, Nadine Scharfenort tells us, is happening through the expropriation and relocation without compensation of its non‑national inhabitants who had been living in this cosmopolitan neighbourhood for two generations. Similarly, Elizabeth Harrington explains that apart from the principle of select access to the island of Sa‛diyāt excluding lower social classes, its development introduces another principle of segregation between various categories of visitors whose paths are not meant to cross. Steffen Wippel shows that the realisation of the first stages of the new development plan for Ṣalāla (new neighbourhoods and extensive transport infrastructure) contributed to the fragmentation of the second town of the Sultanate of Oman. It created new socio‑spatial differentiations at the heart of a territory, characterised by its relative homogeneity in the Dhofar regional setting and by the fact that the city has not been at the centre of modernisation policies.

  • 19 Mueller, 1963.
  • 20 Elsheshtawy, 2010.

15Finally, informal urbanisation also exists in these cities, though it is still little studied. It was an incipient phenomenon in the 1960s, for example in Kuwait, where studies show that workers from the rest of the Peninsula used to sleep on the ground;19 this was contained by compounds reserved for foreign workers, though such regimentation was never succeeded in eradicating this informal urbanisation. Along with Yemeni cities, which are the poorest in the Arabian Peninsula, this phenomenon can be observed today with particular intensity in the Saudi and Emirati cities.20

Living in the cities: belongings and hierarchies

16Going beyond centralised approaches to urban policies, some studies show how the different categories of inhabitants contribute to shaping these cities, through their lifestyles, their experiences and their social relations. Whether through anthropology, sociology or geography, these studies demolish the idea that the Peninsula cities are mirages or tricks. Several important pointers emerge from these studies.

  • 21 Vora, 2013.

17Firstly, the ideology of transience does not prevent the emergence of forms of belonging. Although the Gulf States are founded on the exclusion of the majority of immigrants, to ignore all the forms of attachment and anchoring that have emerged over the decades would be to reproduce and reinforce their discourse. In this regard, the work of Neha Vora, devoted to the Indian diaspora in Dubai,21 opens some interesting avenues by describing types of ‘urban citizenship’ (consumerist, or in terms of belonging to a diaspora group, amongst others) despite the impossibility of obtaining citizenship. Laure Assaf’s analysis, in her article on the corniche of Abu Dhabi, would seem to concur. She describes families of Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian origin who, by picnicking on the corniche, recreate their own intimate space within the public space, thereby appropriating it. In this way, these families, whose presence in the Emirates often dates back twenty or thirty years, demonstrate their belonging both to the city — to an urban community much larger than that of the nationals — and to a particular group of its inhabitants, the ahl al‑Shām (people from Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories). The article also addresses the stimulating but little‑studied question of the memory of places that are in a state of constant transformation. The article by Amin Moghadam looks at another dimension in terms of living in these cities, by describing the trans‑national spaces through which the ‘Iranians of Dubai’ reinvent an imaginary Iran. The history of migrations and exchanges between the two shores of the Gulf predates by far the beginning of the petrol boom, contrary to a widespread idea that the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of these towns is something recent.

  • 22 Gardner, 2010.
  • 23 Thiollet, 2010; Vora, 2013; Dumortier (ed.), 2012
  • 24 On Ryadh, Ménoret, 2010 and 2014; Le Renard, 2011 and 2014.
  • 25 Beaugrand, 2011 and 2014.
  • 26 Le Renard, 2011.

18Secondly, urban society in the Gulf and in some cities of the Arabian Peninsula cannot be described simply in terms of conflicts between ultra‑rich nationals and extremely poor immigrants, contrary to the caricature. The articles in this issue explore in detail some of the models of interaction between class and nationality based on the use of different types of space. On the one hand, within each national group there are diverse and complex situations, as Andrew Gardner has shown in the case of the Indian community in Bahrain, which is divided between the proletariat and entrepreneurs.22 Thus the status of ‘Iranian from Dubai’ can apply equally to someone who is a national of one of the Emirates or who has European or American nationality, as to someone who has arrived directly from Iran (Amin Moghadam). Recent studies have highlighted the emergence of middle classes composed of non‑national residents,23 on the one hand, and shown that class relationships also structure the urban society of the ‘nationals’,24 be they passport holders or stateless, on the other hand.25 The people who enjoy privileged access to urban space, such as being able to drive around or enter leisure areas, are not only ‘nationals’ but also the ‘Western’ expatriates (Laure Assaf). Studying urban spaces through the uses that shape them makes it possible to determine the way in which large projects are recomposing hierarchies. Thus, whilst being part of urban transformations in terms of privatisation and security, the shopping malls of Riyadh are some of the few spaces accessible to women in the city, all the while continuing to accentuate consumerist norms and contributing to the reinforcement of class hierarchy.26 The corniche of Abu Dhabi, a public space frequented by very varied categories of inhabitants, is marked by the contrast between its two ends, the Mīnā (port) where labourers from the Indian subcontinent live, and the Marina, with its luxury hotels and shopping malls. These groups cross each others’ ways, but do not develop the same activities and do not socialise together; the poorest are, implicitly or explicitly, excluded from certain spaces: migrant workers, for example are forbidden to enter public beaches in Abu Dhabi (Laure Assaf).

  • 27 Longva, 1997; Le Renard, 2012; Mahdavi, 2011; Vora, 2013.
  • 28 See for example Davis, 2007.
  • 29 Mahdavi, 2011. For a critical review of this work, see Grüntz, 2013.

19Although it would be hazardous to generalise conclusions to the entire Peninsula, given the huge differences in income, social structure and proportion of nationals, it is nevertheless useful, for each city, to look at relationships of gender, class, nationality and race.27 Yemeni novels analysed by Patrizia Zanelli show these hierarchies by highlighting marginal city characters: these protagonists range from a young unmarried man who recently arrived from the countryside and is left all by himself, to the black beggar woman of a slave origin who wears gloves to hide the colour of her skin. Some paradoxes still remain: thus Dubai, a city where men are in the majority, has the reputation of being safe for women and many are seen in public spaces, unlike what is observed in other cities of the region, said to be dangerous for women. In this regard, the articles in this issue do not really address those that are invisible in the city, people (mostly women of various nationalities) who are unable to access urban spaces because they are assigned to remain in the domestic space, particularly to carry out salaried or unpaid work. However, many discussions about Gulf cities have focused on the male workers visible in the streets, considering them as victims par excellence of urban projects, thereby doubling the invisibility of that other category of poor and vulnerable workers working in villas and apartments.28 Other perspectives are possible: Mahdavi’s inquiry on sex workers in Dubai shows how the segregation and hierarchy at work in the towns accentuates the differences between work conditions (risk‑taking, lodging, pay) according to the nationality of the women in question.29

  • 30 Stadnicki, 2009.
  • 31 Ménoret, 2009; Le Renard, 2011.
  • 32 Beaugrand, 2011.

20Finally, let us underline extent to which narratives about these cities are loaded with political and social issues. What type of narrative, what type of discourse should one use to describe and explain the cities of the Arabian Peninsula? Patrizia Zanelli reconstructs and analyses dominant discourses of the liberal Yemeni elite on Sana’a, which they describe as a miserable, under‑developed town, whose inhabitants have not yet acquired a ‘city’ mentality; yet this discourse does not reflect the capacity of inhabitants from rural backgrounds to reinvent urban life and to reconfigure the territory of the Yemeni capital.30 Such distinctive discourses are at work in all the Peninsula’s cities, with regard to its national inhabitants — more particularly of certain, recently arrived, nationals who are stigmatised as being ‘Bedouin’, ‘backward’,31 or as ‘impostors’, ‘upstarts and greedy’ for those recently naturalised (that is after the ‘original’ nationality was first granted around the times of independence).32 Such discourses have very real effects in terms of hierarchies within urban societies.

  • 33 Al Nakib, 2014; Matthiesen, 2013. Note that the autumn 2014 issue of Arabian Humanities, coordinate (...)

21Yet, in exceptional circumstances these hierarchies can become blurred, as described by Laurent Damesin in his report on the revolutionary movement in Sana’a. Civic spirit as well as principles of egalitarianism, desegregation and relative goodwill marked the atmosphere of ‘Change Square’ observed by the researcher. Although relatively poorly reported in the media and academically documented compared to the rest of countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring’33 movements within urban societies of the Arabian Peninsula, albeit harshly repressed sometimes, have nonetheless allowed new narratives about these cities and their inhabitants to emerge.

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1 This image and expression are borrowed from the title of a conference organised for the publication of this issue at NYU‑Abu Dhabi on the 4th and 5th December 2012:

2 This term is borrowed from the lecture by Andrew Gardner, during the conference in Abu Dhabi.

3 Sassen, 1991; Roy and Ong, 2011; Elsheshtawy, 2004; Marchal 2001

4 For a pioneering study, see Bonnenfant (ed.), 1982.

5 Manama studied by Fuccaro, 2009, and Jeddah by Freitag, 2011.

6 Elsheshtawy, 2004 and 2010.

7 Davis and Monk, 2008.

8 Sassen, 2011.

9 Schmid, 2009.

10 Al Nakib, 2011; Henderson and Rajakumar, 2010.

11 Al‑Shihābī, 2012.

12 Burt, 2012; Al‑Ansari 2009.

13 Marchal, 2001; El Ghoul, 2003.

14 Singerman and Amar, 2006.

15 Davis and Monk, 2008.

16 Stadnicki, 2012.

17 Al Nakib, 2014.

18 Kanna, 2011.

19 Mueller, 1963.

20 Elsheshtawy, 2010.

21 Vora, 2013.

22 Gardner, 2010.

23 Thiollet, 2010; Vora, 2013; Dumortier (ed.), 2012

24 On Ryadh, Ménoret, 2010 and 2014; Le Renard, 2011 and 2014.

25 Beaugrand, 2011 and 2014.

26 Le Renard, 2011.

27 Longva, 1997; Le Renard, 2012; Mahdavi, 2011; Vora, 2013.

28 See for example Davis, 2007.

29 Mahdavi, 2011. For a critical review of this work, see Grüntz, 2013.

30 Stadnicki, 2009.

31 Ménoret, 2009; Le Renard, 2011.

32 Beaugrand, 2011.

33 Al Nakib, 2014; Matthiesen, 2013. Note that the autumn 2014 issue of Arabian Humanities, coordinated by Laurent Bonnefoy and Laurence Louër, is devoted entirely to this question.

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Claire Beaugrand, Amélie Le Renard et Roman Stadnicki, « Beyond the Skyline: Cities in Transformation in the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2013, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Beaugrand

Institut Français du Proche‑Orient, Jérusalem

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Amélie Le Renard

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

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Roman Stadnicki

Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales, Le Caire

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