The Evolution of Gulf Global Cities Working Group I

On October 5–6, 2013, CIRS held a two-day working group under the research initiative “The Evolution of Gulf Global Cities.” Scholars from various multi-disciplinary backgrounds as well as urban practitioners and architects examined historical, social, economic and political aspects of urban transformations in the Persian Gulf.

During the working group, group discussion bridged past and present conditions of Gulf societies in order to understand the evolution of urban centers across the region. Before the advent of the oil economy, Gulf port cities were considered “cosmopolitan,” with fluid borders and territories that deemed them as centers of cultural and economic exchange. While these cities are contemporarily integrated into global networks and continue to host large populations of foreign migrants from around the world, the diversity and hybridity of the city has eroded into what participants characterized as “hyper- segregated and divided” spaces.

Aspects of these modern urban developments and features may be understood in relation to historical modes of globalization. Oil has served as a vital globalizing factor, as its discovery brought an influx of international oil companies to the Gulf and led to the localization of global forces of international capitalism. This was clearly manifested in the development of company towns across the region, which also provided new modes of institution building and urban planning. Many of these company towns—such as Kuwait Oil Company’s Ahmadi town in Kuwait—enforced socio-spatial segregation amongst its residents based on ethnicity, occupational standing and socio-economic status. Dubbed by some participants as “neo-colonial capital enterprises implanted in space”, these company towns resemble the segregated urban fabric of many Gulf cities today—underscoring the need to understand how the Gulf region has been and continues to be shaped by imperial and colonial legacies.

The contrast between the rigidity present in today’s cities compared with the mobility that Gulf port cities historically exemplified may be paralleled to ramifications of planned cities versus naturally created urban spaces. With the advent of state centralization, master urban plans were introduced, and increasingly the state managed the inflow of migrants through socio-spatial engineering. Of growing interest and importance is assessing the political economy of governance and its impact on the urban fabric. Various stakeholders, including the ruling regimes, governmental and political institutions, the business community, foreign consultants and local urban practitioners collectively affect the urban landscape. National strategies, such as Qatar’s 2030, envision a transition from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, and have resulted in the development of large scale projects that aim to increasingly incorporate the city into global knowledge-economy networks. These state-driven transitions manifest in uneven spatial and social development at the city level, where different spaces exhibit varying levels of global integration and where gentrification benefits an increasingly mobile capitalist class.

Diversification from the oil-based economy has also led many GCC states to focus on developing the tourism sector. Cities such as Dubai and Doha have exhibited rapid commodification of their space, heritage industry, and environment in order to build venues tailored for tourism consumption. Particularly problematic is the limited version of regional and local history and identity presented by the emerging heritage industry, as epitomized by the narrow representations of indigenous religious and ethnic minorities within national museums of contemporary Gulf cities.

Unplanned spaces were also discussed by the participants. In Iran’s bustling port of Bandar Abbas, informal settlements have spread on the city’s periphery. While Bandar Abbas appears to be an affluent port due to trade and revenues generated from illicit trading activities, inequality and poverty are manifested in its urban slums and informal settlements. Periodical city plans however, seek to upgrade and formalize these informal settlements by incorporating them within the city’s boundaries. This formalization process however, does not provide avenues for community participation as urban planning continues to be developed by the central state. As agreed by the participants, community participation in urban planning is vital for the social sustainability of the built environment. In contrast to today’s Gulf cities, the built environment of traditional Middle Eastern cities was shaped by the end user and proved to be more “organic.” With the zonal segregation of today’s planned cities however, residents have gradually lost the ability to have regular encounters and confrontations with each other—namely, they’ve lost the urban sense of the city. As such, only a social force as opposed to a top-down agenda can create social sustainability in these already planned cities. Around the Gulf, civic groups have started to emerge that are attempting to restore urban fluidity and their right to the city. These grassroots attempts, along with recent protests around the region, depict a politicization of urban space where the city has become both a site and stake of political contestation.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Ala Al-Hamarneh, University of Mainz
  • Nadia Al-Khater, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Farah Al-Nakib, American University of Kuwait
  • Pooya Alaedini, University of Tehran
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Samer Bagaeen, University of Brighton
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nelida Fuccaro, University of London
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ahmed Kanna, University of the Pacific
  • Arang Keshavarzian, New York University
  • Catherine Lechicki, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Stephen J. Ramos, University of Georgia
  • Mohammad Reza Farzanegan, Philipps-University of Marburg
  • Ashraf M. Salama, Qatar University
  • Marcus Stephenson, Middlesex University Dubai
  • Florian Wiedmann, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS