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Villes et dynamiques urbaines en péninsule Arabique

Preface: Urban Studies in the Arabian Peninsula: 6 Thoughts on the Field

Préface : Les études urbaines en péninsule Arabique
Nelida Fuccaro

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1Pensée 1 - The Older Cities of Oil and Development

2A few years before the 1973 oil boom, French sociologist Henri Lefevbre wrote that urbanisation was replacing industrialisation as the drive for modern capitalism. While Lefevbre was primarily concerned with the urban worlds of the West, for specialists of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf states his controversial statement still evokes the urban exceptionalism of the region in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, apart from Yemen, the growth of capital cities in the region was driven by the increasing revenue generated by the oil industry. Furthermore, modern capitalism was developing in the peculiar guise of the rentier state, a state that was almost entirely empowered by oil income. In light of this, it is understandable that the oil industry and rentierism framed the study of modern city-making in the region for quite some time after 1973. Drawing on fashionable development theories, the phenomenon of urbanisation was mainly explored with reference to the enlargement of the industrial and employment base of the oil economies. Thus, by the mid‑1980s much of the literature on modern or modernising cities tended to explain their ‘primacy’ in relation to the concentration of population, economic activities and services. In other words, emerging modern urban milieus were defined in terms of their role as expanding regional and national development hubs. ‘Patterns’ and ‘problems’ of urbanisation ranked high in the academic agenda. So did the necessity to define urban typologies and taxonomies for development, and to offer more or less optimistic predictions for the future.

3Pensée 2 - A new Emphasis on Place

4In the last few years the cities of the region have slowly — but surely — acquired agency in their own right, and a new lease of academic and public life through writings, debates, internet forums and TV coverage. No longer construed and represented as somewhat empty shells framing developmental processes — filled in by anonymous crowds of technocrats, emerging middle classes, foreign workers and urbanised Bedouins — they are increasingly portrayed and studied as living entities, composed of many different ‘fragments’ that make up the complex architecture of urban life. Although some urban theorists increasingly urge us to look at contemporary urbanism through the lens of urban networks and connective links, the city as a place still matters. In the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, extraordinarily fast urbanisation has made place even more salient, as large urban centres have in some sense become gateways into the future, veritable stage sets where expectations and aspirations can be lived, measured and discussed. Dramatic urban growth also make us confront (and contrast) the physicality of hypermodern urban ‘spectacles’ versus shabby workers’ camps, and note the symbolic value assumed by public spaces — such as squares, landmark buildings and shopping malls — as a constitutive part of processes of political contestation and cooptation. Most tellingly, recent protests in the heart of Manama, Dubai and Sohar (Ṣuḥār) have awakened the image of the city as the site of civil society and political effervescence, an idea nurtured by theorists of the European metropolis as the paradigmatic modern city of the early 20th century.

5Pensée 3 - Producing and Studying the ‘Urban’

6In order to unpack the complexity and variety of the contemporary city in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf states, it is essential to explore the different processes and agents that have underscored the production of the ‘urban’ as a site of political, social and economic action. This production is not only the result of spatial, mechanical and inorganic growth, driven merely by numbers and informed by notions of regional and national development. It is a dynamic process that needs to be measured in terms of critical concepts of space, place, human agency, culture and power. And it is reassuring to note that regional and urban specialists are increasingly deploying these critical concepts in different disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts from anthropology, politics and history to urban studies and geography.

7Pensée 4 - The Politics of Composing and Re‑Composing Urban Space

8Alongside place, the idea of transfer seems to be central to our understanding of productive processes of city formation and transformation. Take for instance the role played by architects and urban planners in passing on technical and technological knowledge to the contemporary city. Also consider how a critical approach to urban planning and architectural design can bring together analytical concepts of space, agency and power. While urban and economic planning overlaps in the form of private and public investment projects, architects and planners are today shaping the capital cities of the region in the guise of different ‘glocal’ (that is, a mix of global and local) architectural and urban styles. As emblematic ‘experts’ whose works are commissioned by governments and public investors, they can be seen as being in the service of particular technologies of rule, discipline and control. In other words, their work can be suggestive of how urbanism and political and financial power might collude. Take for instance the international architectural competition for the redesign of the Bāb al-Baḥrayn area in central Manama as a ‘viable’ public space. Launched by the renowned architecture magazine Domus and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, this competition has raised controversy as a government-sponsored project after the bulldozing of the Pearl Roundabout square, the stage for the large scale protests of February 2011. This type of contention has brought to the fore what seems to be a phenomenon on the rise throughout the region’s urban world: the intensification of the political, social and ideological competition over the control of key urban spaces. This is to say that urban landscapes are indeed in the process of being re‑composed as new public/national narratives.

9Pensée 5 – Hinge Cities

10In discussing trajectories of transfer we need to recognise that there has also been a two‑way process of exchange. Not only have some post‑1973 capital cities acted as recipients of imported models of urban development but they have also influenced urbanisation and urbanism throughout the Middle East. In the 1980s Egyptian architects returning from the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf developed a distinctive traditional/vernacular style in some of Cairo’s modern residential buildings. Most famously, some cities like Dubai have provided models for the reconstruction of post-war Beirut, and popularised those ‘empires of consumption’, the shopping malls. In this respect, the capital cities of the region are increasingly serving as ‘hinge’ cities — to use Richard Sennet’s characterisation of Istanbul — as they connect disparate places and spaces through a shared visual and experiential practice of urban life. More concretely, these connectivity and ‘hinge’ functions become apparent when considering migrations as the key human mechanism of production and reproduction of urban lives, cultures and landscapes. The transnational character of urban societies, particularly along the shores of the Arabian Peninsula, is nothing new, and constitutes a well-established field of academic research for the period before and after oil. What is relatively new is the attention devoted to the intricate ways in which the legal, economic and cultural divisions between foreigners and nationals along with the structural inequalities of labour markets reflect upon ideas of citizenship, both in the literal sense of ‘affiliation with the city’ and in the common connotation of ‘identification with the nation’.

11Pensée 6 - What about the urban every day?

12Undoubtedly, capital cities such as Kuwait, Dubai and Riyadh tend to take centre stage in the discussion of contemporary urban landscapes in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. These landscapes are increasingly integrated into a larger narrative of urbanisation that gives precedence to modes of urban governance and management, and to the effects of new forms of global capitalism across the world. Yet what gives texture to the kaleidoscope of urban life is the micro-politics of urban management and experience, and the physical and social spaces that underpin them at the local urban scale. It is indeed the study of the urban everyday — not only in large urban agglomerations but equally crucially in small centres — that helps to raise the crucial issue of who has rights to the city, who controls these rights and who is excluded from enjoying them. For instance, while keeping in mind national, transnational and global connections, micro-studies of people, communities and urban spaces help us to understand the increasingly diversified forms assumed by urban marginality and poverty across the region and how these forms intersect with different modes of suburbanisation: from decrepit old city centres and purpose-built work camps populated by Asian labourers to the neighbourhoods and informal compounds housing poor nationals that have mushroomed around hyper-modern central conurbations. As elsewhere, in an increasing urbanised world, Arabian Peninsula and Gulf cities belong to their majorities, and especially more so to those who face struggle and hardship every day.

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Nelida Fuccaro, « Preface: Urban Studies in the Arabian Peninsula: 6 Thoughts on the Field », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 11 novembre 2013, consulté le 23 juin 2017. URL : http://cy.revues.org/2530 ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2530

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Nelida Fuccaro

History Department, SOAS, University of London

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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