Deen Sharp
Last updated: 11 July, 2012

The state of Arab cities 2012: Challenges of urban transition

"The absence of detail on Alexandria despite its population of over 5 million is extenuated by the extensive detail given on Beirut," writes our columnist Deen Sharp.

Arab cities are vastly contrasting in character. Beyond the shared ethnic and religious threads that tie such cities as Casablanca (Morocco) and Doha (Qatar) together, it is not evident what else connects the cities of the Arab. It is for this reason that the first UN-Habitat report, The State of Arab Cities 2012, is an important benchmark publication. The report enables the numerous threads to emerge between cities in the Arab world beyond identity.

In offering a regional morphology of the urban environment The State of Arab Cities highlights the common challenges that cities in the Arab region face: highly centralized governance systems; lack of accountability; preservation of architectural heritage; the impact of climate change; crisis in infrastructure, including transport, sewage, water supply, and electrical grids; food security; and the speculation of land.

Subsequently, the report also highlights the importance of citizens and governments across the Arab world to cooperate and facilitate knowledge sharing in attempts to solve the multiple urban challenges. A system of collaboration between states, or even cities, in the region is conspicuous by its absence. For example, to solve the regional water crisis, as well as policies directed at users of fresh water within cities, regional cooperation and assessments between states is vital. Arab cities are facing a multitude of crises and the ability to work together to find solutions will be increasingly important. The future for Arab cities illustrated in the report is a challenging one.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Cities have been the sites of transformative socio-political change since the start of the Arab uprisings and are the centre for economic growth. Cities, and the continued urbanization of the region, provide simultaneously the greatest obstacle and opportunity for an improved future.

Urban social movements, the rise of which is not documented in the report, have been critical to social change in the region. Beyond official civil society groups, urban social movements, such as loosely organised groups of urban poor and youth, have been at the forefront of pushing for meaningful policy change from below. It is hoped that in future reports urban social movement across the region will be documented and analysed to assist those actors that are able to support such groups, as they will no doubt be critical to achieving solutions to urban crises.

Indeed, the failure to document urban social movement points to the central failure of the report: a lack of focus on cities. The production of this report by a UN agency has meant that it has been unable to drop the framework of the nation-state. The result is a report that lacks detail on important urban centres away from capital cities and an imbalance on cities that are examined.

Alexandria (Egypt), for example, the Arab world’s fifth largest city and the largest city directly on the Mediterranean, is not examined in any detail. Any mention of Alexandria is only discussed in relation to Cairo. However, Alexandria is an important node for the entire Delta region and has been pivotal to the uprising in Egypt.      

The absence of detail on Alexandria despite its population of over 5 million is extenuated by the extensive detail given on Beirut. The capital of Lebanon, Beirut, which is inhabited by one million people, is subject to extensive analysis, maps and statistics in the report. Future reports would benefit greatly from a correction of this imbalance and a more direct focus and comparison of cities in the region.

Nevertheless, the report is a hugely welcomed and important addition to the literature. There is a huge knowledge gap on Arab cities and this effort is a first step to filling it. The future of the region is increasingly urban and an urban framework and understanding is needed.