Over the last several decades, and particularly after upheavals in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, much of the urban center of gravity of the Middle East has shifted to the Gulf. To understand this trend and its consequences, MERIP editorial committee member Jillian Schwedler interviewed Yasser Elsheshtawy in Philadelphia on June 4, 2018. Dr. Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at United Arab Emirates University from 1997 to 2017, is currently adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University. Considered an authority on urbanism in the region, Elsheshtawy focuses on urbanization in developing societies, informal urbanism, urban history and environment-behavior studies, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities.


Should Gulf cities like Dubai be dismissed as inauthentic and artificial?

Dubai is very much a work in progress. Its urbanization began in earnest in the 1960s, building within the historic core and then branching out to the east and west. This rapid development has left a lot of empty spaces that have not been built yet, so it does give a feeling of a fragmented city. Parts of the city are spectacular and very modern, and other parts are more lived-in with a higher density. There are definitely multiple Dubais.

People from Russia, Iran and India flock to Gulf cities to buy as a form of investment and rent to expats. But even in Dubai, half of the high-rise buildings are empty. There is not a significant population that lives there permanently, so if there is any trouble—a war breaks out with Iran, for example—people will just leave. During the 2008 financial crisis, people were driving out to the airport, leaving their cars there and escaping the city. You could feel the city getting emptier, the roads less crowded, and that’s a very recent memory. Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif named his novel Cities of Salt because these glass cities, as he called them, are as if they were built from salt: When the water comes—that is, with any sign of trouble—they will dissolve away. At least some significant portion of the population can and might easily leave, so these cities are precarious in terms of their permanence.

That most visible part of the city—the spectacular city with high-rises, skyscrapers and new communities—is photographed and talked about in terms of transience and artificiality, a different kind of temporality. But there is this other part, the working-class neighborhoods with higher population density, that has a stronger sense of permanence. These people try to set down roots even if they know they will leave. In the older parts, where service workers and the migrant populations are concentrated, residents personalize spaces like their balconies, celebrating with outdoor festivals and gathering in public spaces for all kinds of social interactions. They are trying to establish some permanence in a city that was basically designed and planned to be temporary.

Do those communities cluster around areas of origin, for example, with North Africans in one area and Filipinos in another?

Some areas in the city are certainly associated with certain ethnic groups. Little Manila, for example, is basically one street in the district of Satwa that is the focus of Philippine businesses, restaurants and social gatherings. Other places are closely associated with South Asian migrant communities, particularly around Bur Dubai, where there is a Hindu temple. These communities are very visible and alive, particularly during the Diwali festival. Dubai also has a large African population and, more recently, Chinese. The latter are concentrated in a main area of the city called Nasser Square (the official name is Baniyas) where there is a Little China nearby. It’s not as big as you see in North American cities, but there are lots of Chinese stores, streets with lanterns and Chinese restaurants. I did some behavioral mapping in that square and found a section dominated by Chinese women who come with their children and hang out in their own world.

But I wouldn’t say that you can clearly differentiate between, for example, an African neighborhood and a Chinese neighborhood. The city is more segregated along class lines and social-economic status is the dominant marker of neighborhoods. The central or historic area is populated by lower/middle-class South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Africans and Egyptians. Expatriates who have a higher status and income, whether they are Western or Arabs, also live in gated communities. Many Emiratis live in their own neighborhoods far from the city, and this is where you have segregation based on ethnicity.

Does the historic area hold some meaning in the regime’s own telling of its heritage or roots in the area?

When we talk about the historic part of Dubai, we talk about the areas near the creek that divides the city into two parts. The east part is called Deira and the west is Bur Dubai. The only historic marker that remains from the nineteenth century is a little fort that dates to 1820 that had been largely demolished and then reconstructed in the twentieth century. The historic district of Bastakiya also dates to the early twentieth century and has been reconstructed. The old morphology—meaning the street layout with narrow alleyways—is still there, but the buildings are mostly from the 1960s and 1970s.

Is that historic area preserved as a tourist site?

Yes, the Dubai Museum is there, and the site is part of the historical itinerary when people come to visit the city. But it has been heavily reconstructed and bears little resemblance to what existed in the past: a ramshackle arrangement of temporary buildings occupied by poor people, in addition to more permanent structures occupied by wealthier merchants from Iran. But the city’s oldest historical core has taken on a new meaning from that past.

The story about how the area came to be reconstructed is actually really interesting. In the 1970s, the city was modernizing with new buildings, port infrastructure and so on. They were looking at these places not as historical sites to be preserved, but as places to dismantle so they could build there. The oldest part of the city was largely occupied by squatters, so they were actively demolishing older buildings to displace them. There’s a story that Britain’s Prince Charles came to visit the city in the 1980s and saw them demolishing this historical district, and he asked, “Why are you getting rid of that? You should keep it!” And they said, “OK, sure,” and then they literally stopped the demolition!

That very small area has been emptied of its residents and reconstructed with museums, shops, fancy galleries and some heritage areas; it’s basically a place for foreign tourists. Some Emiratis might visit, and the government is trying to bring people back with the annual art fair. But the area mostly caters to expatriates and tourists who want to experience the “old” Dubai. None of that is really authentic. The authentic part is when you go to the suq and the market, which is nearby, because there you find that many of the old trades continue. And there is something else authentic: If you want to cross from one side of the creek to the other, you take these small wooden boats. That process of crossing dates back to the early twentieth century and continues until this day, mostly by South Asians who need to move back and forth for work. This is really where you can experience the authentic city.

Can you say more about the nostalgia for ancient cities, juxtaposed to the modern cities? Does nostalgia work differently across class lines?

Nostalgia is definitely part of the urban discourse, but I think it is more recent. It makes sense to think about how nostalgia varies across the region. In a place like Doha, Qatar, they re-created Souq Waqif in the middle of the city to replace an old market that used to exist there. But the new market doesn’t reflect the structures that used to exist because those shops dated only to the 1960s and 1970s. The new market is quite large with open spaces and outdoor shops, but it also aims to create a market based on certain visions of what an Arab market should look like. It has been in operation for 12 years and is very successful, even with local Qataris, as well as expats and foreigners. The new market is a response to a certain nostalgic longing for a past, for a sense of history. The South Asian workers who used to frequent the old market, of course, are now excluded because the kinds of activities that they would engage in—congregating in large numbers—is not really possible.

In Kuwait, they also maintain some aspects of their past, particularly some reconstructed markets. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, city officials who were previously engaged in dismantling the past now realize the value of these historical reconstructions.

By value, do you mean for tourism, for creating profits or for creating an official narrative of the past?

A bit of each. They hold heritage festivals in these spaces. In Abu Dhabi, an annual festival in the middle of the city, near its historic fort, brings in women engaged in handicrafts where people can interact and sample “traditional” foods. Those festivals are mostly for the local population, but expats and tourists also come. These are all state initiatives, forums for the ruling family to legitimize its presence and show that it is maintaining traditions and protecting the people from the incursion of Western influence. But these are temporary events that do not have any permanent influence on the way the city is planned or built.

You haven’t mentioned Saudi Arabia. What is its relationship to heritage and the past?

In many ways Saudi Arabia is an extreme case. In cities like Riyadh and Mecca, the historic core no longer exists. But Jidda is a bit different. It’s on the west coast and traditionally has been a very different kind of society. Because of trade it has always been more cosmopolitan and open, with people coming in from very different parts of the world. Residents in Jidda will tell you, “We’re not really Saudis, we are different.” As a result, the old part of the city still exists, albeit in neglect, but there are attempts to revitalize and preserve the buildings because they are very beautiful. Some parts remind you of the older parts of Cairo. But as you go further east and inland, that sense of history isn’t there. One reason—and this is true across the Gulf—is that the past still tends to be associated with poverty and deprivation. Some residents would tell you that they want to revive the past in terms of social customs, but they don’t really have anything that is worth preserving in terms of physical objects or buildings. As Bedouin, they roamed the deserts and lived in temporary residences, so the past as a physical presence doesn’t hold the same value as it does in Cairo, Beirut or Damascus. In Mecca recently, the Saudis completely destroyed the Ottoman architecture and built new luxury high-rises in their place. Imagine, this is the most holy site in Islam, and they don’t have any attachment to its historical or heritage value.

Is that in part because the Ottomans were seen as outsiders?

The government authorities, and perhaps even a large chunk of the population, just do not care. It’s part of what you might call the Wahhabi ideology, a belief system that looks with suspicion at the reverence of objects and people. According to that mindset, preserving old buildings is a way of adding sacred value to an object, and that is counter to their ideology. To them old buildings are just something that existed; they don’t mean anything and can be easily removed.

Look at what is happening in Yemen. The Saudi coalition is actively engaged in destroying large parts of the Yemeni heritage, just bombing indiscriminately. They don’t care. It’s the same ideology or principles as used by the Taliban when they destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. They want to destroy anything ancient. And the Saudis are now actively destroying a significant part of the Yemeni heritage, as if they want that heritage to not exist.

In thinking about the destruction of certain cities or parts of them, what broader issues come to mind?

When you look at notions of destruction and loss, clearly in cases like Sanaa, Cairo, Damascus or Aleppo, loss acquires an historical connotation, for example, as in an historical district. In the Gulf, people have lived in a place for a couple of decades and have formed attachments within these neighborhoods, but those attachments aren’t considered historically relevant. Yet it does have relevance because those people have memories; these were places where whole communities lived for a long time. Across the region, whole neighborhoods are sadly being dismantled and replaced with mixed-use, high-end buildings.

There is a neighborhood right near the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings in the world. That tower was built in what was a former military base, but now it is surrounded by a super fancy and expensive neighborhood. Across from it and past a major highway used to be a neighborhood built in the 1970s called Shabiyat al-Shurta, the police neighborhood; the area itself is called al-Wasl. That neighborhood was planned and built for government employees who were not rich and the state provided them with housing. The houses were standardized one-story units but over the years they acquired a very interesting character as they became more lived-in. There was a humanity to them that you don’t see in other parts of the city because people individualized them. A few years ago, the government decided to build a high-end development in that area because it is prime real estate overlooking the Burj Khalifa. Phase 1 began with a shopping mall, then by Phase 3 the residents were uprooted and the neighborhood demolished.

Were they relocated?

It depends. They were Emirati, but there are different degrees of Emirati. If you are a full citizen, they give you another house somewhere in the suburbs or outskirts of the city. But some citizens are not full Emirati. They have a paper that gives them citizenship, but they don’t have what they call a family book which allows you to get all the benefits of the state: housing, a job, education. It is not known how many there are, but unofficial estimates put them in the thousands. They did not acquire full citizenship status when the state was formed in the 1970s for numerous reasons. Some were just too lazy to apply or illegals who came and decided to stay. Others were Emirati women who married foreigners and thus could not transfer citizenship to their kids (that law was changed recently). But there is discrimination, and most of those ineligible for another house were just given monetary compensation.

I visited the neighborhood prior to its demolition. Some residents said they were looking forward to moving to bigger houses but still there was this sense of loss, particularly among the elderly. One guy told us about his mother, who lived with her extended family in one of these houses. Around the house was this garden that pretty much covered the whole structure; it was really quite fascinating. He told us that his mother waters this garden every day, and the neighbors would tell her, “You are leaving here soon. Why are you doing that?” And she would say, “I’ve lived here my entire life. I want to keep nurturing my garden.”

A few months later they left and the neighborhood was destroyed. It is now being built over by these super-exclusive mixed housing units. This kind of neoliberal urbanization is happening in many parts of the world. But when you start doing it in a place like Dubai where there are not that many neighborhoods with history, you are pretty much getting rid of any connection to your past, even if that connection is tenuous and that past is not an extended past like you have in other cities. It’s a central loss. And it’s happening in the Gulf and in other parts of Dubai. I think this should be an important area for research—why this is being done, why there is no resistance against that. The developer who is doing this project, Meraas, is a private company. But it is owned by Dubai’s ruling family, so they are basically operating as a private developer but with access to all that land.

Are there conversations among architects there about responsible development or about the cost on the lives of people being displaced?

Not really because in the Gulf the question of citizenship is very different. Emiratis are only 15 to 20 percent of the population and there is an implicit agreement between the local population and the ruling family that the ruling family will take care of them, provide housing, education and healthcare. But in return, don’t question what we do. There is no debate, no back-and-forth, no participatory dimension of planning, no community groups coming together even voicing disagreement let alone actively protesting. Even voicing disagreement would be viewed as a serious form of subversion. The large expat and migrant population living in these areas, of course, don’t have rights at all. If you object, you can be subjected to various punitive measures. It is not a democracy where as a taxpayer you have certain rights, and nobody has any illusions about that.

There is only one interesting case of organized opposition to a development project. While I was working on my book on Dubai around 2006, I encountered a public housing project that had been in operation since the 1970s. It was occupied by Arabs and South Asians, a mix of lower-class and even a few middle-class residents. It was public housing like you would see anywhere; repetitive buildings for several blocks near the airport, called the Rashid Colony. The government decided to demolish this project and replace it with other uses. But the people who lived there knew that if they moved out they would not be able to afford to rent in the city. So they protested and went to the municipality. It was so unusual. Their protests were heavily documented in the media, showing Sudanese, Egyptians and Indians coming together. I went to visit the colony while this was going on and I saw graffiti on one of the buildings that said, “We won’t leave.” It was remarkable that something like that existed in Dubai. But the overall sentiment was that the demolition would go on as planned.

But then for a while we didn’t hear much about the project, and it wasn’t demolished. In fact, they even upgraded some of the buildings, cleaned up the area a little bit and opened a metro station nearby! I visited just before I left, and it is as vibrant as ever. As an illustration of how much the neighborhood had become integrated into the city’s economy, last year an acquaintance of mine—an Iranian PhD student in Milan—was doing fieldwork in the city and stayed with an Indian family renting a room there through Airbnb.

In the end, I think the residents of the project reached an agreement that rent would be raised a little. But the neighborhood remains intact, a rare example of people coming together to object to a project and not really being subjected to any severe measure for doing so. I believe it happened around the time of the financial crisis when a lot of construction projects were put on hold. As of now the project is still there but it could be demolished when someone decides they want it for another project.

Has urban planning in the Gulf had an impact on urban planning elsewhere in the Middle East?

Yes, the Gulf has had a major impact on the region. In Cairo, for example, this Gulf-based urbanity—especially Dubai as a model—is exerting a wholesale hold on people’s imaginations. Its impact on urban space within Egypt manifests itself in different ways. First, Gulf-based developers are working in Cairo, so projects that you might find in Dubai or Abu Dhabi are now replicated in Egypt. Just recently, the Mall of Egypt opened with a ski slope built by the Dubai-based developer that built the Mall of Dubai, which also has a ski slope. It’s basically a copy of that model inserted into a Cairo context, and people just love it. Cairo Festival City is the same thing. Even New Cairo is an attempt to recreate an urbanization model influenced by the Gulf. Of course, the Gulf didn’t invent gated communities. But because Dubai is in the region it exerts a very strong influence on the urban imagination.

Second, the desire for a Gulf urbanity is also coming strongly from within other countries. New Cairo, Egypt’s new capital, has been described as a “new Dubai” in Egypt. At an event organized a few months ago by Bir Zeit University and the Cultural Center in Orléans, France, people were talking about the dream of creating the Palestinian state. I was asked to speak about Gulf urbanism and how that might be something they should consider. They told me that in the West Bank, a Qatari–based developer in partnership with a Palestinian businessman is building a gated, mixed-use community, called Rawabi. They are not even sure who will live there! Similar projects are happening in Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. Gulf involvement is not necessarily direct—although it sometimes is—but often the projects are an emulation of Dubai and Gulf cities as the desired model, instigated by local decision makers.

I find it interesting that the Gulf is the model today, whereas urban development projects in the region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—in Cairo, Tunis, Beirut and elsewhere—often referenced Paris as the model: “The Paris of…” this or that.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Now it’s all “the Dubai of…” this or that, and it is not just happening in the region. I was just reading about Grozny, the Chechen city destroyed by Russia. They are rebuilding it with the highest tower in Europe and they are literally calling it the Dubai of the North Caucasus. I think that emulating the Gulf is currently the biggest threat to cities. In Dubai, projects are basically operating in a context-free environment; a tabula rasa. But when you build a high-end gated community next to one of the biggest informal settlements in Cairo, for example, the impact is very different. On top of Muqattam mountain is a community called Uptown Cairo, which overlooks the settlement of Manshiyat Nasser, a huge squatter community. Uptown Cairo was built by a Dubai-based developer, Emaar, as a copy of Dubai’s gated communities. But that stark juxtaposition of street-based poverty and luxury—which you don’t have in Dubai—can create severe social tensions. Projects that might work in the Gulf are much more problematic in places like Egypt, Algeria or Tunisia.

Last year in Cairo I went to an iftar at al-Azhar Park, a beautiful green space with sculptures, waterfalls, fountains, trees, even a small river. It was built right next to a poor area of Darb al-Ahmar but, at least I was told, the park was designed to be accessible to the lower classes.

I visited it during construction in the 1990s when one of my friends was working on it with the Aga Khan Foundation. They turned what was literally a mountain of garbage accumulated over millennia into a vast garden next to the City of the Dead! As they were cleaning it ups they uncovered part of the old Cairo wall.

The way the project was designed is that on one side of the park is a highway and the other overlooks a poor community in Darb al-Ahmar. The park was designed to have two entrances: Those entering from the highway would pay full price, but those entering from the poor area would pay just a nominal fee. They do hold fancy events in the park’s expensive restaurant—where you had iftar—but anyone can walk around the park. It really is quite beautiful, and you can see a real mix of people. The park is a rare example of inclusivity, and part of the project included upgrading the Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood. I think the effort was really sincere.

By comparison, the few remaining public spaces in Dubai are being privatized. The Corniche, for example—a walkway by the creek open to lower income residents—has been taken over by the developer that demolished the neighborhood I mentioned near Burj Khalifa. It is being turned into outdoor retail spaces with crafts and coffee shops. I think that part of the reason, besides economics, is to discourage lower-class people coming together and to minimize the possibility for protests. In fact, all public space, if we can call it that, is heavily controlled to prevent resistance. The city is blanketed with CCTV cameras, and one news article said that the feed goes to control rooms equipped with software that can detect “abnormal behavior.” It’s a very dystopian situation.

Are people in Dubai happy that everyone wants to be Dubai?

[Laughing] Yes, it’s a source of great pride. There is a controversial notion that Dubai and the Gulf are the center of the Arab world in terms of culture, urbanism and architecture, while the rest of the Middle East lies in ruins. The real danger now is that Gulf urbanity is dominating discourse in the older cities, moving them toward a neoliberal model of urban development. Cases like Al-Azhar Park, which is not about commerce but about bringing people together, are rare. That kind of thinking just isn’t part of the paradigm of Gulf urbanity. They would probably look at the park as a place for gated communities or a Mall of Old Cairo!

I wrote a piece called “Tribes with Cities” in 2013 in response to the Gulf–based commentator, Sultan al-Qasimi. He was heavily attacked for writing that the Gulf was the center of culture in the region. People said you cannot have culture in a place like the Gulf. I responded from an urban-architectural perspective, arguing that, yes, the urban model today—the model everyone aspires to—is not Cairo or Beirut, but the Gulf. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good model, or one that we should emulate.

How to cite this article:

Yasser Elsheshtawy "“The Dubai of…”," Middle East Report 287 (Summer 2018).

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