Cities of the Arab East
Urban Crossroads#5

The Arab East is a region of great historical cities. These include some of the world's earliest human settlements, as well as some of the most prominent political, cultural, and commercial urban centers of the Middle Ages. The fortunes of the cities of the region have changed considerably through the ages. I would like to provide a quick overview of their development over the past half-century.

During the 1950s, the position of urban prominence in the region clearly went to Cairo. Its physical composition and its institutions provided models to be emulated. Beirut also was of importance as a cosmopolitan center that linked the region to various parts of the world. Of course, there also were Damascus and Baghdad, both capitals of newly independent countries that were asserting themselves as centers of urban life. With the exception of Beirut, which only began to emerge as an important urban center during the mid-nineteenth century, these cities served as capitals of great states during the Middle Ages. Damascus was the capital of the Umayyads, Baghdad of the ‘Abbasids, and Cairo of the Fatimids, and later the Ayyubids and Mamluks.

The fortunes of these cities have changed considerably during the past half a century. The 1970s provide an important turning point. Cairo, for example, lost much of its prominence during this period. This partly has been a result of the tremendous demographic pressures to which it has been subjected. These pressures have put considerable strain on the city and its resources, and have made it increasingly difficult for Cairo to serve as a model to be followed. Beirut was effectively marginalized as a regional center as a result of the Lebanese civil war, which extended from 1975 to 1990. Baghdad and Damascus also lost a good deal of regional prominence, partly because of governmental policies in their respective countries that restricted interaction between those countries and the outside world.

The cities of the oil-rich Gulf region gradually have taken a more prominent position in the area since the 1970s, specially with the dramatic rise of oil prices that took place then. These cities have emerged as very important economic and financial centers that have been supported by generous governmental spending and by the strong consumption patterns of their local populations as well as the expatriates that have come to them from abroad in search of better job opportunities. Of these cities, the performance of Dubai has been exceptional during the past decade, and it has emerged as the major financial and commercial center of the Arab East.

Although the traditional urban centers of the region have lost some of their cultural weight, the emerging cities of the Gulf have not yet been able to fill the resulting cultural vacuums. The establishment of cultural institutions is a long-term and accumulative process that takes decades at least to realize.

In most countries of the region, the domination of the capital is unchallenged. In fact, a number of the region's important historical urban centers have been undermined as a result of policies of political, economic, and cultural centralization that have poured resources disproportionately into the capitals. This is evident in the case of Alexandria in Egypt, Aleppo in Syria, and Basra and Mosul in Iraq. However, there also are examples where more than one prominent urban center has emerged in a single country. This is especially visible in Saudi Arabia, where in spite of the tremendous growth of the capital Riyadh, other cities such as Jeddah, Dammam, Ta'if, Mecca, and Medina are vigorous cities. Another example is the United Arab Emirates, where the political capital is Abu-Dhabi, but the commercial one is Dubai.

It is worth mentioning that the movement of people between the countries of the region is often restricted. For example, we Jordanians need entry visas to visit the majority of its countries. Obviously, such obstacles to the freedom of movement of people greatly hinder any efforts at achieving higher levels of cooperation and integration in the region. It also limits any forms of serious interaction between the region's various urban centers.

Where does Amman fit in within the region? In the 1950s, it was not much more than a large town. Its inhabitants looked up to the more established urban centers of the region as urban models. For example, since Jordan did not get its first university until the early 1960s, a good number of Jordanians before then primarily went to Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad for their higher education. However, Amman gradually grew and so did its various political, economic, and cultural institutions. For one thing, it became a sort of "lung" that has provided much needed breathing space for populations in the region suffering from political turmoil and displacement: the Palestinians since 1948, the Lebanese during the early years of the Lebanese civil war, and the Iraqis since the 1990 Gulf War. Although Amman may not have achieved the position of prominence that Cairo or Beirut enjoyed during the 1950s and 1960s, or that Dubai currently holds, it definitely has been able to hold its own as an urban center. In fact, it is playing an increasingly important role in the life of the region, as a place for business, a host of regional institutions and meetings, a tourist destination, a place for medical treatment, and an educational center.

How the urban map of the region will evolve over the coming decade is unclear. Beirut is regaining some of its pre-war prominence, and serious attempts are being made at transforming a city such as Doha into a major regional urban player. Clearly, there is increasing competition between the cities of the region to attract businesses, establish educational and cultural institutions, and to bring in tourists. A good doze of healthy competition is always a good thing.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 20, 2004