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Imaginer les villes du Golfe : du modèle à la fabrique urbaine

Urban Images and Imaginaries: Gulf cities through their representations

Laure Assaf et Clémence Montagne

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  • 1 Visit Dubai, “City of Dubai, Spirit of Dubai 2015 – Visit Dubai”, Sep. 23, 2015, 1’00, https://www (...)
  • 2 Visit Abu Dhabi, “Abu Dhabi – Your Extraordinary Story”, Nov. 1, 2016, 1’31, (...)

1A falcon lands graciously on a man’s arm in the desert, and the video fades into a bird’s eye view of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. A white sail then occupies the screen, flickering in the wind; the camera zooms out to a glimpse of a man navigating a dhow; another zoom‑out, and in the background appears Burj Al‑Arab, the Dubai luxury hotel whose architectural shape, designed by renowned international firm W. S. Atkins, is meant to echo the sail of a ship.1 Different video, similar snapshot: here a woman walks barefoot in a palm grove. As she washes her face with the fresh water running through the aflāj, the traditional irrigation network used in the oases of the Arabian Peninsula, the palm foliage makes way for the intricate designs of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s dome.2

2These images are familiar to anyone who has seen the promotional videos elaborated by the tourism departments of Arab Gulf cities. If the content sometimes varies, the images themselves are recurrent, as are the narratives they express. The continuities they draw between past and present, between heritage sites and vanguard architectures, underline the rapidity of urban change in the region since the second half of the 20th century. The maritime history of Gulf cities is merged with a point of view on their impressive skylines; today’s airport hubs are presented as the heirs of ancient trade caravans; and the pearls that once constituted the main commodity exported from the region are re‑inscribed as a luxury item exhibited in five‑star hotels.

3Describing the city, as linguist Lorenza Mondada puts it, “is not a neutral, transparent activity separate from the reality to which it pretends to refer; it is a structuring activity which constructs its objects of discourse by organizing them, categorizing them, situating them in relation to others, and attributing them to marginal or authorized voices” (Mondada 2000, 1). This constitutive dimension of urban images is a particularly relevant topic to explore in the case of the Gulf metropolises. While the images designed for city‑branding tend to saturate urban landscapes, they are far from being the only ones. From urbanistic plans to social media posts, and from billboards to artworks, images of these cities are so omnipresent that they have become integral to the experiences of their inhabitants. They also span much of the scholarly literature on the region, with many authors aiming to deconstruct official images and to present alternative portrayals of Gulf cities.

Urban images as research objects

4The present issue of Arabian Humanities takes these various images of Gulf cities as its main objects. By urban images, we mean both discursive and / or visual assemblages which vehiculate specific representations of a given city. Because they are collectively constructed and appropriated, urban images participate in forming imaginaries – which stand sometimes at odds with what their authors intended to project. They also have a very concrete effect on the city itself. The articles gathered in this issue use these images both as object and method, seeking to explore what urban images do to contemporary Gulf cities. They are organized along two axes: the first one deals with the relationship between urban imagery and the city as a physical space, and the second focuses on cinema as a vehicle for urban imaginaries.

5While our call for papers encompassed the cities of the Arabian Peninsula, the articles received focus exclusively on the Arab Gulf, with a majority on the United Arab Emirates. This reflects the great imbalance of urban imagery in the region, where Dubai has come to concentrate the archetypal representations of the “Gulf city” – while paradoxically being less reliant on oil revenues than many of its neighbors. This has not always been the case: until the 1980s, this role was occupied by Kuwait. In addition to many historical factors, the turn towards economic diversification, inscribed in the economic plans of all GCC countries for the next decade or so, has certainly contributed to bring the Dubai model of development to the forefront – and with it, specific representations of the city.

6Focusing on urban images raises three main sets of questions. The first one, transversal to all the articles, revolves around who produces these images. Looking at the logics of production forces us to question the social and political projects which preside over the creation of these images and are conveyed by them – whether they are produced by “authorized voices”, like the institutional and professional actors in charge of depicting, projecting and marketing the city; or by more “marginal” voices such as the artists, writers and ordinary city‑dwellers who produce their own versions, memories and narratives of urban space.

7The second set of questions concerns the way urban images shape the city itself. Our purpose here is not to revive the old debate between the artificiality or authenticity of Gulf urban landscapes, nor to try and measure the distance between image and reality. On the contrary, by making them the main object of analysis, we acknowledge that urban images are performative – they serve as a tool to guide the shaping and development of urban territories (Monnet 2001). How can we understand their relationship to the city? The first part of this issue, “Urbanity and its images in the making”, addresses the various forms taken by this relationship: while Roman Stadnicki explores how urban advertising in Kuwait increasingly occupies urban space, to the point of substituting itself to the city, Yasser Elsheshtawy focuses on the bayt sha‘bī (social housing) in the United Arab Emirates – an example of a state project at odds with the more spectacular architectures of Emirati cities. As for Thibaut Klinger, he analyses the reciprocal relationship between nation-branding and spatial planning in Oman, showing how both play a crucial role in the state's legitimacy as well as its economic project.

  • 3 This conceptualization detracts from the “society of the spectacle” famously described by Guy Debo (...)

8Finally, the focus on images should not be understood as a move away from the exploration of social dynamics. Anthropologists and art historians have long underlined how images, as social artifacts, hold a certain efficacy: beyond their aesthetic value, they have an action on the social world which can first be measured through people’s responses to them (Freedberg 1989). Urban images do not detract from this rule: city‑branding influences the ways urban dwellers experience the city, even for those who do not necessarily have access to the spaces advertised. This may be particularly true today, in the “aesthetic stage of consumption” theorized by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy (2013). For these authors, while fostering economic inequalities, capitalism and mass consumption have not led to an impoverishment of aesthetic sensibilities; on the contrary, consumption is today inseparable from its aesthetical components, which constitute “an important vector for individuals’ identity affirmation” (Lipovetsky and Serroy 2013, 29).3 Cities, as brands and consumption goods marketed through a constant flow of images, constitute a major dimension of this “economy of fascination” (Schmid 2009). In the case of Gulf cities, images also notably contribute to shaping, as well as being shaped by, migratory imaginaries. How do urban images participate in imaginaries which influence migrants’ aspirations and city‑dwellers’ interactions with the city? The last three articles of this issue look at cinematographic representations of the Gulf. While Némésis Srour examines how the transformation of these representations by a major cinematographic industry – Bollywood – are dependent both on Indian national politics and the specific relationship between Dubai and the Bombay cinema industry, Alia Yunis looks at how the images of Emirati landscapes in local cinema are received by young adults who have grown up alongside nation‑building discourses. As for Thomas Richard, he explores how different types of cinema (produced by local Gulf directors, by Western ones, or in countries of emigration to the Gulf) have both appropriated and challenged the official images of these cities.

9In order to situate the contributions within the broader academic landscape, this introduction presents a state of the art of urban studies in the Gulf read through the prism of urban images and imaginaries. Looking at some of the most widespread images of the region, we will analyze the various ways in which they have been questioned or challenged – in academic literature as well as in media commentaries and artistic works. The images examined here do not, of course, constitute an exhaustive collection; but they have become focus points for some of the major debates on the cities of the region, and in the process reveal themselves as productive objects of research.

Cities of spectacle: A dominant dichotomy

10Academic scholarship produces its own versions of urban images. Widespread images of Gulf cities in urban studies have focused on the alleged artificiality of their urban landscapes, with recurrent references to the urban “spectacle” and, as a corollary, the denunciation of what happens “behind the scenes”. This pervasive dichotomy culminates in American urban theorist Mike Davis’ notorious description of Dubai as a nightmarish space where “Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby” (Davis 2006, 68). The fortune of this oft‑cited phrase is certainly due to the imaginaries it convenes in a few words: while the reference to Albert Speer, the Third Reich architect, evokes both an aesthetic form (monumental architecture) and a totalitarian regime, that to Disney is a comment on the “theme park” urbanism theorized by scholars of the postmodern city (Sorkin 1992). The phrase is also an echo of William Gibson’s description of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty” (Gibson 1993). It thus constructs a vision of Gulf cities as divided between, on the one hand, the urban spectacle with its artificial decors; and, on the other, the reality of heavily controlled and repressive spaces.

  • 4 The movie’s voice‑over states, for example: “From far away, Dubai seems to be a city. On site, it’ (...)
  • 5 The World is the name given to a series of artificial islands along the Dubai coastline which repr (...)

11Interestingly, these representations often accomplish the very gesture they attempt to criticize – that is, a confusion between decor and reality. Davis’ essay relies on media articles boasting about the latest sensational developments projected for Dubai – many of which, twelve years later, have never been implemented. Similarly, Dutch filmmaker Christian Von Borries justifies the definite article in the title of his film, The Dubai in Me, by the idea that Dubai has become a concept rather than a city.4 Presented as a documentary, the movie juxtaposes shots of labor camps and construction workers waiting in line for their bus with commercial clips advertising The World islands5 and sequences taken from the video game Second Life. Outside of the reality of labor exploitation, the rest of the city is thus curiously reduced to urban marketing, as if it were an accurate representation of it – or rather, as if the city itself was as virtual as these video clips.

12Rather than widening our understanding of Gulf cities, however, these works are telling of certain tropes of the Western critique of these cities. In an essay following the French translation of Davis’ text, philosopher François Cusset summarizes these tropes when he argues that Dubai is nothing else than a “distorting mirror” of Western society – but a mirror pushed to such an extreme that it relegates the latter to “a suburb of the world” (Cusset 2007). The idea that Gulf cities would be a dystopian version of “our” neoliberal capitalism and its excesses is indeed a pervasive one. The “Disney fatwa” (Koolhaas 2007) can thus be analyzed as a particular type of exoticizing gaze – towards an “other” who, for once, is not considered as a past version of Western societies, but as their nightmarish future. This exoticism is in large part derived from images: as Shumon Basar rightfully notes, “much of the critical dismissal is based on aesthetics”, and in particular on a perceived aesthetical “unoriginality” (Basar 2007).

Gulf models: imports, exports, and vernacular urban landscapes

Regional imaginaries

13The question of what exactly Gulf cities represent takes a slightly different connotation when addressed by local scholars, as in a debate held in the online journal Al Monitor in October 2013. In an initial article, Emirati columnist and researcher Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi argues that Gulf cities can now be considered the “new centers” of the Arab world (Al‑Qassemi 2013). The axis composed by Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Doha would have replaced, through the dynamism of its cultural and economic activities, the ancient urban centers of Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut and Damascus. Contesting this assertion, journalist Abbas al‑Lawati contends that these cities cannot become centers of the Arab world as long as they borrow their models from Western urbanism and fail to “indigenize” their foreign workers; until then, they remain little more than a “luxurious transit station” for Arab intellectuals, artists, and businessmen (Al‑Lawati 2013). In a third article, Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla suggests that a measure of this centrality is the influence exerted by Gulf cities on the rest of the Arab world –both a “hard” and a “soft” power that has today become greater than the reverse, bearing witness to a process of “Khaleejization” of the region (Abdulla 2013).

14The urban imagery mobilized in this debate is particularly significant. Al Lawati’s article is evocative of another powerful image of Gulf cities: novelist Abdelrahman Munif’s “Cities of Salt”, the eponymous title of his famous pentalogy (Munif 1984). The expression reflects Munif’s conviction that oil resources were being used improperly by Gulf regimes to foster an unsustainable urban growth: just like salt dissolves at the contact of water, the impressive skylines of Gulf cities appeared as frail mirages, doomed to disappear. This misuse of the oil wealth had turned it, for Munif, from an Arab miracle into an “oil curse”.

  • 6 As Arang Keshavarzian notes, some of the port cities of the early 20th century became more precise (...)

15The current global centrality of Gulf cities is in itself little disputed by all three authors: if many coastal towns were already centers for long‑distance trade in the pre‑oil era, the fast‑paced development allowed by the oil wealth brought about a change of scale (Keshavarzian 2016). While some of the old urban centers were marginalized, the capitals of the new Gulf states underwent unprecedented growth throughout the second half of the 20th century.6 The important role played by European urban planners, architects and consultants in remodeling these cities is now well‑documented, from Doxiadis in Riyadh to Minoprio and Buchanan in Kuwait, Harris in Dubai or Llewelyn‑Davies in Doha (Ménoret 2014; Al‑Nakib 2016; Elsheshtawy 2010; Adham 2008). Most authors underline how the “modern” urban models these planners brought to the Gulf had almost already become obsolete in Europe at the time (Ménoret 2014). The history of urban development in the region, however, is more complex and less linear than a simple importation of Western models: as Nelida Fuccaro notes, “a number of Arab architects and town planners [have] consistently attempted to indigenize urban forms in tune with the Arab‑Islamic tradition” (Fuccaro 2001). The work of Abdulrahman Makhlouf in 1970s Abu Dhabi, for example, illustrated the will of its ruler, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, to create a capital that would be both modern and Arab (Elsheshtawy 2008; Reisz 2013). If most of Makhlouf’s realizations have then been destroyed through the constant remodeling of the city, other buildings remain that are symptomatic of this mix between modernist models and an Arab‑Islamic element, and this distinctive architecture has come to characterize the Emirati capital (Ménoret 2015). In Oman, rather conservative urban policies had limited until the 1990s the transformation of the urban landscape; paradoxically, it is the reinterpretation of heritage and the branding of Omani traditions for tourism that led to the creation of larger-scale projects (Klinger, this issue).

16In this sense, the debate between the three journalists echoes earlier works – from the 1980s and early 1990s – questioning how oil‑led development affected the “Arab identity” of Gulf cities (Bourgey 1986, 1991; Bonine 1986). Bourgey (1991) argues for example that the import of Western models of urbanism, and of a foreign workforce, has led to a loss of the “Arabness” of these cities, which could only be found in smaller, secondary towns (excluding the newly‑created oil company towns). It is then not surprising that a debate on the regional centrality of Gulf cities would take the form of a comparison with the old imperial centers charged with rich cultural imaginaries and sources of an intense nostalgia in the Arab world (Elsheshtawy 2013). Similarly, pre‑oil port cities are often idealized as images of a cosmopolitan past: historian Farah Al Nakib thus describes pre‑oil Kuwait as the place of an active public life, where an ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse urban population met in the city center – while oil development would be responsible for a “de‑urbanization” of the city (Al‑Nakib 2016). Other local voices are more critical of such representations: Emirati sociologist Rana AlMutawa interprets the vocabulary of “authenticity” as a mode of social distinction for a local “creative class” (AlMutawa 2018). Interestingly, these regional images are now equally mobilized by Gulf rulers themselves: when Dubai’s ruler Mohammed Al Maktum evokes his ambition of turning the city into a “new Cordoba”, he inscribes it in a regional imaginary and reactivates nostalgia for a perceived historical cosmopolitanism supposedly lost in the contemporary Arab world.

Rethinking Gulf models

17The urban phenomenon has been the main lens through which the idea of an exceptionality of the Arab Gulf states was elaborated in academic scholarship – all the more so given that municipalities themselves play on the alleged uniqueness and exceptionalism of their urban landscapes to attract international tourists and real estate investments. However, the urban images produced through these plans also underline the asymmetry of urban development in the Gulf: the urban sprawl of Muscat indeed represents a very different “aesthetic regime” (von Richthofen 2016) from its Qatari or Emirati counterparts. But while it seems to reproduce the suburban landscapes typical of the region without the spectacular skylines, the capital is still perceived by Omanis themselves as a place of openness and diversity, clearly distinct from the Dakhiliyya, the interior region (Breteau 2019); a diversity which has now become part of the state's nation-branding rhetoric (Klinger, this issue). On the other end of the spectrum, and although they similarly make use of the diversity rhetoric, the discourses surrounding the development of Dubai or Doha – despite the current conflict between the two states – paint them as cities that have exceeded the Western modernity they first tried to replicate, and are now “creating” the after-oil future (Assaf 2018).

  • 7 Michel de Certeau beautifully describes heritage as a way to “exorcise” the spirits of a place, an (...)

18A certain number of common orientations can indeed be identified at the regional scale. In terms of urban policies, they include the top‑down nature of urban planning as a result of both high oil incomes and the foundation or consolidation of state apparatuses; the role, already mentioned, played by Western planners and consultants in drafting “Masterplans”; or the land acquisition and distribution schemes through which ruling families built allegiances and engineered the remodeling of old city centers and the displacement of national populations to the suburbs. These policies have resulted in comparable landscapes: the urban morphology of Gulf cities today can be characterized by a scattered and discontinuous development where cars are the dominant mode of mobility (Ménoret 2014; Montagne 2016). In many ways, it is a landscape of enclaves: from the labor camp to the gated community and luxury hotel, urban societies are spatially and socially segregated along the lines of ethnicity and social class (Gardner 2010; Bruslé 2012; Assaf and Montagne 2014). Within the city, these distinctions are often inscribed more subtly in architecture: the villa still remains the most valued type of habitat for nationals – although many young couples now prefer to settle in apartments in the more anonymous city centers – while foreigners live for the most part in rented apartments (Dresch 2006; Khalaf 2006). In parallel, the discontinuity of this urbanism has created “interstitial spaces”, these undeveloped, empty plots separating the built compounds (Gardner 2013). In turn, these interstitial spaces can constitute the basis for “informal encounters” (Elsheshtawy 2011), while more formal commercial and leisure spaces can also give way to various public uses (Le Renard 2011; Assaf 2013, 2017a). Another distinctive feature of Gulf cities is the tendency to commodify remnants of the urban past into “heritage” .7 More recently, this process has taken the form of a “regeneration” of the old city centers, seeking less to bring back nationals to the city than to remove poorer foreign residents, as happened in Doha with the destruction of the popular district of Wadi Mushayrib remodeled into the upscale neighborhood of “Dohaland” (Stadnicki and Benchetrit 2014).

  • 8 Franck Mermier (2015) underlines how the trope of the “ruralization of the city” has become widesp (...)

19Indeed, many major Gulf cities have been witness to a process of “suburbanization” of their national populations, encouraged to leave the city center and relocate to its peripheries (Al‑Nakib 2016; Ménoret 2014; Adham 2008). This move is in part associated with the redistribution of the oil wealth from the state to middle‑class families, through providing them with land or spacious accommodation and various amenities – even if this has also meant the disappearance of traditional neighborhoods and the spatial dispersal of extended family networks (Al‑Nakib 2016). In Kuwait or Riyadh, the move to the suburbs has also been associated with the relegation of Bedouin communities to the outskirts of the city, in remote compounds. They were indeed seen as a threat to the very urbanity of the capitals, bringing about a “ruralization of the city” (Mermier 2015).8 In Kuwait, where the national imaginary is tightly superposed on the autochthonous residents of the historical city defined by its protective wall, Bedouins have been perceived as a threat to national identity itself (Beaugrand 2017). While the same suburbanization process can be identified in the UAE, it takes on a different meaning in a place where the Bedouin heritage has been constructed, on the contrary, as a valued dimension of national identity. In his study of the bayt sha‘bī, Yasser Elsheshtawy (this issue) shows how this form of housing was instrumental in ensuring the legitimacy of the new UAE state, and in portraying Sheikh Zayed as a benevolent figure – both the head of a modern state and a leader displaying the qualities expected of a tribal ruler. He also underlines how, while still claiming to modernize and “civilize” the Bedouins, the design of the bayt sha‘bī took into account “cultural considerations”: in this sense, the scattered location of these housing projects is at least partly a result of the dispersion of pre‑existing Bedouin settlements. The ambivalence of the Emirati bayt sha‘bī exemplifies how similar trends at the regional scale interact differently with local social structures. Without denying the importance of oil urbanism, looking more closely at such trends allows us to conceptualize the vernacular landscapes of the urban Gulf from the ground up, thus restoring their complexity.

Exporting urban images

20While the proliferation of urban images in Gulf countries follows the “visual turn” identified around the globe, Nadia Mounajjed notes that images have historically played only a limited role in cultural representations in the region (Mounajjed 2016). Conversely, contemporary urban policies are mainly formulated through images, with the “visions” of Gulf rulers becoming performative tools for urban planning. Looking closely at urban marketing and advertising in Kuwait, Roman Stadnicki (this issue) shows how their physical omnipresence, through billboards scattered all over the city, echoes the increasingly central role they play in selling urban projects – at times even before the first stone has been laid. The graphic designer thus seems to emerge as a substitute for the architect, whose role is sometimes reduced to trying to turn these images into a concrete, feasible building.

  • 9 It should be noted that, in the case of the UAE, the federal dimension of the state is reflected i (...)

21If this trend is common to the region, so is the rhetoric of planning, which has adopted similar time horizons: Vision 2040 for Oman, 2030 for the UAE,9 Saudi Arabia and Qatar, 2035 for Kuwait... However, the urban images produced through these plans also underline the asymmetry of urban development in the Gulf: the urban sprawl of Muscat indeed represents a very different “aesthetic regime” (von Richthofen 2016) from its Qatari or Emirati counterparts. But while it seems to reproduce the suburban landscapes typical of the region without the spectacular skylines, the capital is still perceived by Omanis themselves as a place of openness and diversity, clearly distinct from the Dakhiliyya, the interior region (Breteau 2019). On the other end of the spectrum, the rhetoric surrounding the development of Dubai or Doha – despite the current conflict between the two states – paints them as cities that have exceeded the Western modernity they first tried to replicate, and are now “creating” the after‑oil future (Assaf 2018). This image is reinforced by a number of Western urbanists and architects who describe Gulf cities as urban “laboratories” and blank slates lending themselves to experimentation (Koolhaas, Bouman, and Wigley 2007; Katodrytis 2005). Here the lexicon of the city as “fantasy” – which in Mike Davis’ terms was a dystopian one – is claimed as part of its urban identity and attraction. For architect George Katodrytis, the design studio, where new developments are digitally and physically modeled, allows one to go beyond the “site” – “and, in most cases, it can ‘make’ the site, if the site has nothing to offer” (Katodrytis 2014).

  • 10 Even though many of these architectures were already replicas of buildings found elsewhere, especi (...)

22The idea that Gulf cities now make their own models and urban futures finds its most concrete realization in the production and exportation of urban images. Here, the influence of Dubai is certainly most striking in the way the term “Dubaization”, coined by Yasser Elsheshtawy to describe the influence of the Dubai paradigm on other cities, has now passed into common usage. The term is often used to denounce forms of urbanism dominated by private interests and characterized by spectacular real estate developments: in Ramallah, Beirut or Cairo, the process of Dubaization describes increasing economic inequalities and the destruction of existing urban fabric to make way for Gulf‑inspired developments (Barthe 2011; Chaker and Gonçalves 2013; Abaza 2011). More directly, the term refers to both the export of capital – through investments and developments carried out abroad by UAE-based real estate firms – and the export of certain architectural forms that have made a success of Dubai.10 Many of the developments conducted by Emirati promoters abroad, such as in Egypt or Lebanon, are intended for a Khaliji audience – as summer residences for Gulf families – or as homes for emigrants returning from the Gulf (Sinno 2015; Adham 2014). Elsewhere, what is exported is a model of development based on finance and international tourism – as when the Kazakhstan capital Astana is marketed as the “Dubai of central Asia”. In the case of Nouakchott or Khartoum, Armelle Choplin and Alice Franck show how the image of a successful Arab oil city seems to be the driving force behind their aspiration to “Dubaization”, after Mauritania and Sudan respectively became oil producers – although it remains for now an aspiration rather than a reality (Choplin and Franck 2014). Interestingly, Thibaut Klinger (this issue) shows how, while based on the specificity of Omani landscapes and “culture”, Oman’s branding towards international tourists has given way to developments close to the ones found in Dubai.

23This exportation of urban images at the level of the physical space of the city finds its counterpart not only in advertising spots, but also in another medium heavily invested by Gulf states in the past two decades: cinema. Thomas Richard, Némésis Srour and Alia Yunis (this issue) all underline how Gulf countries today tightly control their representations abroad, by generously funding blockbuster Hollywood and Bollywood movies which will feature their urban landscapes in a positive light.

Counter‑images, from the margins to the midān

24When Abdelrahman Munif wrote Cities of Salt in the 1980s, he had in mind to tell the “unwritten history” of the Arabian Peninsula (al‑tārīkh ghayr al‑maktūb), as opposed to the official history (al‑tārīkh al‑rasmī) which he considered already written and completed (Al Mawzānī 2014). This purpose finds an echo in much of the academic literature on the region, which has been built against certain dominant images of Gulf cities, producing “counter‑narratives” (Al‑Rasheed and Vitalis 2004) to those elaborated by the states, the oil companies, or the “instant experts” (Okruhlik 1997, 36) that have long dominated the field. The first movement of this literature has been to challenge national narratives surrounding the foundation and/or development of these cities – narratives of urban progress, which, in the Gulf, have played a great role in building the states’ legitimacy (Al‑Rasheed 2010). These narratives have notably been challenged by underlining the long‑standing transnational connections pervading urban societies (Al‑Rasheed 2010; Wippel 2013; Potter 2014), as well as by restituting subaltern or competing versions of urban history, underlining the many conflicts which accompanied the fast‑paced transformations brought about by the oil wealth – from the colonial underpinnings of many developments to attempts by the municipalities to erase from urban space the social, religious, and ethnic diversity of the pre‑oil era (Vitalis 2006; Fuccaro 2009).

The Gulf city through its margins

25One main lens through which scholars have produced “counter‑images” of Gulf capitals is by looking at these cities from the margins. This focus is theorized by Claire Beaugrand in her study of the Bidūn, the stateless populations in Kuwait who represent both a social margin – as they are kept from accessing citizenship; and a spatial one – as they live in remote, slum‑like areas characterized by “urban decay” (Beaugrand 2014, 2017). Drawing a parallel with the Bahraini “villages” which have been sidelined by oil urbanization, she shows how these urban margins can become a place of mobilization and contestation of state power. Similarly, the young disenfranchised Saudi men studied by Pascal Ménoret live in and occupy a margin. Often of rural Bedouin origin, having grown up in the remote suburbs of Riyadh, they represent a category of the population left out of the benefits brought by the oil wealth. In turn, they appropriate these margins – in this case, the large, empty, tentacular road networks extending from Riyadh – and turn them into a transgressive site of “violence and fun” by drifting and wrecking stolen cars (Ménoret 2014). The forms of diversion and resistance that emerge from the margins are sometimes to be found within the city itself, in the interstices already described. Yasser Elsheshtawy thus sees in the way lower classes appropriate street corners, shaded squares, and the surroundings of metro stations in Dubai the formation of an “informal urbanism” (Elsheshtawy 2019). He analyses this informality as a form of resistance, in the sense that these uses are unplanned and take place despite the intentions of urban policies and official developments. The same can be said of the inhabitants of the buyūt sha‘biyya who creatively transform and adapt the standardized architectural model proposed by the state – sometimes facing in the process the reluctance of authorities to accept these alterations (Elsheshtawy, this issue).

26Indeed, in all the works cited, the margin is partly defined by the attempts made by the states to repress or confine it. The moments of outburst, marked by new claims made on the city space and by their repression, have sometimes been interpreted as the expression of a “right to the city” by those who have been relegated to its confines (Lefebvre 1972; Al‑Nakib 2016). In parallel, studies of informal practices and everyday transgressions suggest that a certain level of appropriation of urban space is permitted in the interstices, and is even allowed by urban segregation itself: the ability of young adults in Abu Dhabi to bypass social hierarchies and engage in transgressive encounters, for example, is in part a result of the scattered urban landscapes and the forms of anonymity they produce (Assaf 2017b). At the same time, several authors underline how the segregated Gulf city allows the constitution of communitarian, “diasporic” or “transnational” spaces that are not necessarily subaltern but can also exist among economic elites (Vora 2013; Moghadam 2013) and can even constitute spaces of privilege (Le Renard 2019).

27In this issue, Alia Yunis and Thomas Richard examine how several Gulf filmmakers have used state funding – made available to build a “national” cinema – to picture, precisely, these margins. Thomas Richard notes that British and American science‑fiction movies have now integrated the Dubai skyline among the “visual culture” of hypermodern urban hubs. On the contrary, local Gulf cinema tends to showcase secondary cities and rural areas, or to juxtapose the urban spectacle with the more run‑down neighborhoods – Nawaf al Janahi’s Sea Shadow set in Ras al Khaimah, or Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah in Jeddah prominently picture popular housing and evoke a nostalgia for the simpler lifestyles to which they refer. Such juxtapositions display, between the lines, a feeling of alienation, a loss of urbanity and neighborhood life – in this sense, Gulf filmmakers’ visual discourse on urban development is close to the criticism elaborated by intellectuals and academics from the region (Al‑Nakib 2016). However, this criticism does not necessarily indict the images themselves: Bahraini sociologist Bāqir Al Najjār, for example, highlights the gap between the “postmodern” aspect of urban forms in the Gulf and what constitutes, for him, “a traditional system of values and culture” (Al‑Najjār 1999, 151) remaining among their inhabitants: in this case, the hierarchies pervading urban society are held responsible for this gap.

28Finally, far from the technical focus of the oil city model, several recent works have anatomized official images of the city by examining the intricacies of urban projects and of the different actors who conceive, implement, and use them (Günel 2019). In a similar manner, a focus on infrastructures, beyond the question of the sustainability of Gulf urban models, has allowed the exploration of the materiality of the city and of its daily operations, its relationships with its natural environments, and even its sensoriality (Jones 2010; Doherty 2017).

Boomerang images

29At times, city‑branding images can also backfire. As Roman Stadnicki (this issue) rightfully notes, images of urban decay are part of the daily experience of Gulf city‑dwellers. Urban landscapes are scattered with projects that have been stopped or abandoned, or that remain half‑built, and the large billboards which once announced their future splendor can act as a painful reminder of their obsolescence – or even take part in the images of decay. Manuel Benchetrit’s photographs, accompanying Roman Stadnicki’s article, display the carcasses of some of these boards strewn along the roads or lying in empty plots, at times appropriated by city‑dwellers as a bus stop, a spot of shade or a temporary shelter, thus “spontaneously creating margins within the city”.

30One particularly striking example of how urban images can escape their planned meanings and take on new, contradictory significations is the duwār al‑lu’lu’, the pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain. Built in 1982 to commemorate the 3rd GCC meeting, the monument standing at the center of the roundabout was a symbol of the pearl trade which fueled Manama’s prosperity in the early 20th century (Fuccaro 2009). The roundabout also crystallized two aspects of 1980s urbanism in the Gulf: the tendency to adorn the urban landscape with elements of the folklore (Fuccaro 2001), and the construction of large urban spaces that facilitated surveillance and attempted to hamper potential mobilizations (Khalaf 2013). During this 3rd GCC meeting was celebrated the then‑ongoing construction of the King Fahd causeway, the road linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Ironically, the same meeting saw the creation of the Peninsula Shield Force, the GCC common military force which, in 2011, would use the causeway to send troops to Bahrain and quell the protests.

  • 11 Amal Khalaf develops a fascinating analysis of this act as a practice of damnatio memoriae, de fac (...)

31In February 2011, the duwār al‑lu’lu’ became the pearl “square”, midān al‑lu’lu’ – first for the foreign press and then for Bahraini protesters as well (Khalaf 2013, 10), thus inscribing the roundabout among the iconic public spaces of the series of uprisings known as the Arab spring. After a month of protests and violent repression, the troops of the Peninsula Shield Force entered Bahrain, and bulldozers were soon sent to destroy the pearl monument. The roundabout was barricaded and turned into an empty junction, while the government tried to erase the pearl monument from the touristic and nationalist objects on which it had once been featured as a symbol of the country.11 However, the physical erasure of the monument from urban space had the opposite effect: Amal Khalaf shows how its destruction precisely allowed the online multiplication of its images, made all the more so powerful as they were all that was left of the roundabout. The video documenting the demolition of the pearl monument thus circulated widely. Its image started appearing on the walls of Manama as a graffiti, turned into an icon of the political opposition that the authorities could only paint over again and again. In turn, digital images and 3D renditions of the roundabout started working as “memorials” of the uprising and of the violence with which it was met (Khalaf 2013, 17). The pearl roundabout thus works as a reminder that not only do urban images sometimes escape their planned meanings; their power can also never be entirely controlled, as they constantly lend themselves to appropriations, reformulations and parodies which can threaten the very power that produced them.

Ordinary imaginaries

32The case of the pearl roundabout illustrates the complex connections between, in the terms of Henri Lefebvre, “spatial practice” – the space as produced through the daily routines of its users – and “representational space” – the various theories, ideals, and imaginaries of space these users mobilize (Lefebvre 1974). These two poles are distinct from what constitutes, for Lefebvre, the dominant mode of production of space in a capitalist society: the “representations of space” produced by the state, but also by private developers, planners or engineers. Interestingly, in the past decades the spatial practice of Gulf cities has been translated into the representational space through a growing body of artistic and literary productions addressing everyday life in these urban environments. Novels, short stories, films, and poems authored by citizens as well as foreign residents prominently feature Gulf cities.

33Among the precursors of these artistic expressions are the narratives of social change expressed through nabaī poetry or through the genre of the memoir – especially those written by the generations who came of age with the discovery of oil (Holes and Abu Athera 2011; Al‑Gurg 1998; Al‑Fahim 1998; Abd Al‑Malik 2001). Most of these narratives express both wonder at the new urban landscapes and commodities made available through the oil wealth, and a form of nostalgia for the times preceding this discovery. In the UAE, this contrast is often evoked through a comparison between the Northern Emirates and the major cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai: the figure of the provincial inhabitant visiting the big city and being puzzled by its riches and its strange codes of behavior is not without recalling certain characters of Balzac or Maupassant (Ahmed 2009; Al‑Janāhī 2011).

  • 12 See for example Benyamin’s Goat Days whose narrator is a Keralite migrant deceived by his sponsor, (...)

34In parallel, many representations of Gulf cities are produced by what Thomas Richard (this issue) names the “diasporic cinema”, i.e. films produced in countries of massive emigration to the Gulf, which contribute to shape migratory imaginaries. In her analysis of the images of the Gulf in Bollywood movies, Némésis Srour (this issue) shows how these images have transformed from studio‑produced orientalist fantasies, representing an undefined Arabia as an “Islamicate” universe before the 1960s, to films shot in natural decors in Dubai, which crystallizes the representations of the Gulf city. This redefinition of Bollywood’s Gulf imaginary follows the new phase of South Asian migration to the Gulf after the oil booms of the 1970s, and more recently the growing integration between the Bombay film industry and the Gulf economy – with Gulf countries representing one of the largest markets for Bollywood. Némésis Srour thus contends that, while the mafia movies of the 1980s featured some realistic depictions of the working conditions of South Asian emigrants in the Gulf, they have now given way to “postcard” representations of Dubai integrated in the city’s touristic rhetoric. In turn, however, these postcard representations are appropriated by at least some of Dubai’s foreign residents: Neha Vora’s work highlights the forms of “consumer citizenship” through which Indian middle classes in Dubai appropriate the spectacular cityscape (Vora 2013). Her description of Dubai as a South Asian city finds an echo in Bollywood’s representations, which rarely feature other categories of the population (Richard, Srour, this issue). However, Thomas Richard underlines how the “El Dorado” imaginary is always an ambivalent one. Diasporic cultural productions also evoke the Gulf’s urban spectacle as an elusive or even treacherous ideal, bringing to light the disappointments, the bitterness and the harsh living conditions awaiting foreign workers.12

  • 13 The novel Ougarit, by French‑Lebanese writer Camille Ammoun who lived ten years in Dubai, was publ (...)

35The last decade has seen the emergence of a different type of artistic expression on Gulf cities; one that focuses on ordinary lives in these diverse urban societies, picturing both cosmopolitan encounters and violent hierarchies. Here, the decor disappears behind those who inhabit and occupy it. Literary works like Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, Sa‘ūd Al San‘ūsī’s The Bamboo Stick or Ziyād ‘Abdallah’s Burr Dubayy highlight spaces respectively in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Dubai that are mainly absent from dominant images of these cities, such as the workplace or the domestic space (Unnikrishnan 2017; Al‑San‘ūsī 2012; ‘Abdallah 2018) .13 The latter is often shared with people of diverse nationalities, if not in the same flat then in the same building: the multilingual reality of Gulf urban spaces features prominently in these narratives, with the quid pro quos, misunderstandings but also the forms of sharing and the pidgins it brings about. They also evoke the more transgressive realities of Gulf cities, in which places of prostitution and alcohol consumption are certainly the ones gathering the most cosmopolitan communities (Naffis‑Sahely 2018; ‘Abdallah 2018). More importantly perhaps, these works raise the question of belonging in countries where more than half of the population does not have access to formal citizenship or to permanent residence. By depicting Gulf cities from below, and by bringing attention to the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of their urban communities, they produce a powerful alternative urban imaginary. Interestingly, this imaginary resonates with local writers and artists’ nostalgia for lost urban spaces. It brings to light a shared urban memory which culminates in mobilizations to save certain buildings, or at least to acknowledge and regret their planned destruction – like the cultural foundation in Abu Dhabi, the Satwa neighborhood in Dubai (Elsheshtawy 2010) or the Sawaber complex and the ice skating rink in Kuwait. This shows the potential of these ordinary urban imaginaries to generate forms of community beyond the usual hierarchies that permeate Gulf urban societies.


36Since the last special issue of Arabian Humanities on the cities of the Arabian Peninsula was released in 2013 (Beaugrand, Le Renard, and Stadnicki 2013), scholarship on the subject has made a considerable leap forward, providing deeper and richer insights on the cities of the region. While most of these works have set out to deconstruct official images of Gulf cities in order to restore alternative and more complex visions of their urban landscapes, the present issue offers to take images themselves as research objects.

37This focus allows to bring forward new perspectives on Gulf cities: if the spectacular skylines have been abundantly commented on, praised and criticized, the popular housing analyzed by Yasser Elsheshtawy or the billboards examined by Roman Stadnicki provide original angles through which to look at the transformations of urban space. Situated at the two poles of these transformations, they illustrate the tensions at play through urban images – between marketing the city abroad and catering to local populations, between images imposed from above and city‑dwellers literally taking their housing conditions into their own hands. In the same vein, Thibaut Klinger's focus on tourism-led development in Oman emphasizes how branding the national territory always poses the risk of disappointing local populations.

38Similarly, the three articles exploring cinematographic representations of Gulf cities put forth a fascinating panorama of images, divided along logics of production and funding, transnational connections, representations of locality, and migratory trajectories. The variety of imaginaries thus produced shows how cultural and artistic productions constitute a vibrant and manifold outlook on Gulf societies, reflecting the many voices of their inhabitants, on which academic reflections can and should productively build.

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1 Visit Dubai, “City of Dubai, Spirit of Dubai 2015 – Visit Dubai”, Sep. 23, 2015, 1’00,

2 Visit Abu Dhabi, “Abu Dhabi – Your Extraordinary Story”, Nov. 1, 2016, 1’31,

3 This conceptualization detracts from the “society of the spectacle” famously described by Guy Debord, for whom the advent of the “spectacle” means the degradation of social interactions and the uniformization of aesthetic sensibilities (Debord 1996).

4 The movie’s voice‑over states, for example: “From far away, Dubai seems to be a city. On site, it’s an effigy, the glow of a town” (von Borries 2007).

5 The World is the name given to a series of artificial islands along the Dubai coastline which reproduce the world map. This development, started in 2003, caused a stir both because of the heavy advertising surrounding its launch, and because construction was stopped in 2008–2009, turning it into one of the symbols of the financial crisis in Dubai.

6 As Arang Keshavarzian notes, some of the port cities of the early 20th century became more precisely “city‑states with ports (e.g. Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai, etc.)” while others were relegated to “provincial cities with ports (e.g. Bandar Abbas, Dammam, Basra)”. He also remarks how, for the former, trade exchanges shifted from the regional scale of the Gulf to transoceanic trade (Keshavarzian 2016).

7 Michel de Certeau beautifully describes heritage as a way to “exorcise” the spirits of a place, and to turn their “strangeness” into “legitimacy” (De Certeau 1990, 190).

8 Franck Mermier (2015) underlines how the trope of the “ruralization of the city” has become widespread in the discourse of many Arab intellectuals across the Arab world. For Riyadh, see also (Bonnenfant 1982).

9 It should be noted that, in the case of the UAE, the federal dimension of the state is reflected in different timelines for each emirate and/or municipality. While the “Vision 2030” was implemented by the Abu Dhabi government, Dubai has had successively a “Vision 2021”, and today a “Vision 2071”.

10 Even though many of these architectures were already replicas of buildings found elsewhere, especially in South Asian cities like Singapore that served as models to Dubai.

11 Amal Khalaf develops a fascinating analysis of this act as a practice of damnatio memoriae, de facto turning the pearl roundabout from a national icon into an “enemy of the state” (Khalaf 2013).

12 See for example Benyamin’s Goat Days whose narrator is a Keralite migrant deceived by his sponsor, who ends up on a goat farm in the Saudi Arabian desert (Benyamin 2012), the Egyptian movies and novels analyzed by Lucile Gruntz (Gruntz 2013) or Yemeni novels such as Aḥmad Zayn’s Taṣḥī Waa‘ [Rectification of the Situation] (Zayn 2004). We thank Laurent Bonnefoy for this last reference.

13 The novel Ougarit, by French‑Lebanese writer Camille Ammoun who lived ten years in Dubai, was published too recently to be included in this introduction, but belongs to this trend as well (Ammoun 2019). See also (Naffis‑Sahely 2017).

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Laure Assaf et Clémence Montagne, « Urban Images and Imaginaries: Gulf cities through their representations », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 11 | 2019, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2019, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laure Assaf


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Clémence Montagne


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