Is Dubai the future of cities?

Posted December 1st, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.


Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani moved to Dubai for the same reasons that have attracted millions of other expatriates to the glitzy emirate. In 2009, after decades in the storied and mercurial Arab capital cities of Damascus and Beirut and a sojourn in New York, she wanted to live somewhere stable and cosmopolitan where she also could earn a living.

Five years later, she’s won a devoted following for the Poeticians, a Dubai spoken-word literary performance collective she founded. The group has created a vibrant subculture of writers, all of them expats.

To its critics—and even many of its fans—“culture” and “Dubai” barely belong in the same sentence. The city is perhaps the world’s most extreme example of a business-first, built-from-the-sand boomtown. But Shoufani and her fellow Poeticians have become a prime exhibit in a debate that has broken out with renewed vigor in the Arab world and among urban theorists worldwide: whether the gleaming boomtowns of the Gulf are finally establishing themselves as true cities with a sustainable economy and an authentic culture, and, in the process, creating a genuine new path for the Middle East.

Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower


Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower.


This is a question of both economic interest and huge sentimental importance. The Arab world is already home to a series of capitals whose greatness reaches deep into antiquity. The urban fabric and dense ancient quarters of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut have long nourished Arab culture and politics. But, racked by insurrection, unemployment, and fading fortunes, they have also begun to seem, to many observers, more mired in the past than a template for the future.

The Dubai debate broke out again in October when Sultan Al Qassemi, a widely read gadfly and member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling families, wrote a provocative essay arguing that the new Gulf cities, Dubai most notable among them, had once and for all eclipsed the ancient capitals as the “new centers of the Arab world.” A flurry ofwithering essaysnewspaper articles, and denunciations followed. “I touched a sensitive nerve,” Al Qassemi said in an interview.

His critics object that Dubai is hardly a model—as they point out, 95 percent of the city’s population is not even naturalized, but made up of expatriates with limited rights. And there’s another problem as well. Every one of the Gulf boomtowns—besides Dubai, they include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Manama, and Kuwait City—has been underwritten, directly or indirectly, by windfall oil profits that won’t last forever.

A mosque in Cairo.


A mosque in Cairo.


In her seminal work “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” Jane Jacobs argued that cities that were a “monoculture” last only as long as the boom that created them, whether it involved bauxite, rubber plants, or oil. To thrive in the long term, cities need adaptable, productive economies with diverse, high-quality workers and enough capitalist free-for-all so that unsuccessful businesses fail and new ones spring up. Otherwise they risk the fate of single-industry cities like New Bedford, Detroit, or the completely abandoned onetime mining city at Hashima Island in Japan.

Can Dubai and its peers successfully make that transition? Started as the kind of monocultures that Jacobs argued are doomed to fail, they are now trying to harness their money and top-down management to create a broader web of interconnected industries in the cities and their surrounds.

Dubai is the cutting edge of this experiment. With its reserves depleted, its growth comes from a diverse, post-oil economy, although it still receives significant financial support from other Emirates that are still pumping petrochemicals. Its rulers are determined to make their city a center for culture and education, building museums and institutes, sponsoringfestivals and conferences, with the expectation that they can successfully promote an artistic ecosystem through the same methods that attracted new business. What happens next stands to tell us a lot about whether an artificial urban economy can be molded into one that is complex and sustainable. If it can, that may matter not just for the Middle East, but for cities everywhere.


JACOBS, A PIONEERING WRITER on cities and urban economics who died in 2006, is perhaps best known for “The Death and Life of the Great American City,” her paean to Greenwich Village and small-scale urban planning. But in her 1984 follow-up about the economies of cities and their surrounding hinterlands, Jacobs showed a harder nose for business. To be wealthy and dynamic, she argued, cities needed not to depend on military contracts or to be hampered by having to subsidize other, poorer territories—pitfalls that have driven the decline of many a capital city. In her book, she touted Boston and Tokyo as creative, diversified economic engines. But many of the world’s storied capital cities, like Istanbul and Paris, she wrote, were fatally bound to declining industries and poor, dependent provinces.

Today, that description perfectly encapsulates the burden carried by the Arab world’s great cities. Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo historically hosted multiple vibrant economic sectors: finance, research, manufacturing, design, and architecture. Eventually, though, they were hollowed out. Oil money, aid, and trade eliminated local industry, and the profits of these cities were siphoned away to support the poverty-stricken rural areas around them.

As these cities fell behind, a very different new urban model was rising nearby, along the Persian Gulf. As the caricature of the Gulf states goes, nomadic tribes unchanged for millennia suddenly found themselves enriched beyond belief when oil was discovered. The nouveaux riches cities of the Gulf were born of this encounter between the Bedouin and the global oil market.

The reality is more nuanced and interesting. The small emirates along the Gulf coast had long been trade entrepôts, and Dubai was among the most active. Its residents were renowned smugglers, with connections to Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. When oil came, the Emirates already had a flourishing economy. And because their reserves were relatively small, they moved quickly to invest the petro-profits into other sectors that could keep them wealthy when the oil and gas ran out. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah (all in the Emirates) pioneered this model, with neighboring Manama, Qatar, and Kuwait City following it closely.

Skeptics have decried the new Gulf cities, often vociferously, ever since the oil sheikhs announced their grand ambitions to build them in the 1970s. In his 1984 classic “Cities of Salt,” the great novelist Abdelrahman Munif chronicled the rise of the Arab monarchs in the Gulf. He explained the title to Tariq Ali in an interview: “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence,” Munif said. “When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.”

And yet, despite the apparent contempt of cultural elites, when civil war swept Lebanon, the Arab world’s financial center moved to the Gulf. Soon other sectors blossomed: light manufacturing, tourism, technology, eventually music and television production.

Dubai led the way. It built the infrastructure for business, and business quickly came. Over the decades, investment and workers flowed to a desert city of malls and gated communities, which had a huge airport, well-maintained streets, and clear rules of the road. Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Doha followed suit, although they took it more slowly; with continuing oil and gas revenue, they didn’t need to take the risk of growth as explosive as Dubai’s. Unlike the austere cities of Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf’s coastal trading cities had a tradition of a kind of tolerance. Other religions were welcome, and so were foreigners, so long as they didn’t question the absolute authority of the ruling family.

In the last four decades of the oil era, that model has evolved into the peculiar institution of a city-state dependent on a short-term foreign labor pool from top to bottom. The most extreme case is Dubai, where less than 5 percent of the 2 million people are citizens. Citizens form a minority in all the other Gulf cities as well. Wages for expatriates—especially workers in construction and service sectors like the airlines—are kept low, and foreign laborers are isolated from better-off city residents in labor camps. Construction workers who complain or try to unionize have been deported. White-collar residents who have criticized Emirati rulers or who have supported movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have had their contracts canceled or their residencies not renewed.

The economic crash of 2008 wiped out some of Dubai’s more excessive projects (although the signature underwater hotel finally opened this year). The real estate bubble burst; expats abandoned their fancy cars at the airport. “There was this glee that the city was over. But it was resilient,” said Yaser Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at the UAE University. The Gulf cities bounced back. Millions of new workers, from Asia, Europe, as well as the Arab world, have migrated to the Gulf since then.

“The Dubai model might be good, it might be bad, but it deserves to be looked at with respect,” Elsheshtawy said. Egyptian by birth, Elsheshtawy has lived on three continents, and he’s grown tired of having to defend his choice to work in the Emirates. After he read dozens of ripostes to Al Qassemi’s polemic, including many that he felt smacked of cultural snobbery toward anyone who lived in the “superficial” Gulf cities, Elsheshtawy penned an eloquent defense of Dubai called “Tribes with Cities” on his blog Dubaization. He doesn’t like everything about the Gulf, but Elsheshtawy believes that Dubai and the other booming Gulf cities, “unburdened by ancient history” and blessed by a mix of cultures, can provide the world “the blueprint for our urban future.”


DUBAI AND ABU DHABI, the showcase cities of the Emirates, often seem like a they’re run by a sci-fi chamber of commerce. They’ve got the world’s tallest building, the biggest new art collections in starchitect-designed museums, the busiest airports, and growing populations. Beneath that surface, though, lies a structure that worries even many supporters: Freedoms are tightly constrained, and most of the population is made of explicitly second-class noncitizens. Other growing cities chafe under censorship or political restrictions—Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore spring to mind. But there’s a difference between those places, where citizen-stakeholders live out their entire lifetimes, and a city where almost everyone is fundamentally a visitor.

Even Al Qassemi, the Emirati who believes the new cities have pioneered a better economic model, has argued that the citizenship restriction will hurt Dubai and cities that follow its model. “Without naturalization, all the Arabs who move here and are creating these cities will see them only as stepping stones to greener pastures,” Al Qassemi said. “People make money and they leave.”

There’s a glaring moral problem with a city ruled by a tiny clan where most of the workers have no rights. But the last few decades suggest that citizenship and political freedom aren’t prerequisites for GDP growth. Jacobs wrote a lot about what cities need, but the only kind of freedom she wrote about was the freedom to innovate and create wealth. The new Gulf cities have carefully provided a state-of-the-art, fairly enforced body of regulations for corporations—precisely the kind of rule of law they actively deny to foreign workers.

In treating businesses more solicitously than individuals, the Gulf city model may depend on a twist that Jacobs never foresaw: They don’t care whether people stick around. In fact, these new cities assume they will be able to innovate precisely because they won’t be encumbered by citizens whose skills are no longer needed. If Dubai needs fewer construction and more service workers, or fewer film producers and more computer programmers, it simply lets its existing contracts lapse and hires the people it needs on the global market. The churn isn’t a flaw in the model; it’s part of its foundation.

That may explain why even Dubai’s defenders are not planning to stick around. Shoufani, the poet, says she cherishes the secure space to create that Dubai has given her, but she still plans to move on in a few years. So does Elsheshtawy, the architecture professor whose academic studies of urban space have helped counter the narrative of Dubai as a joyless, dystopian city interested only in the pursuit of money. He plans to retire somewhere else. It may not matter to Dubai’s fortunes, however, as long as people arrive to take their place.

The next few years will begin to tell how this experiment has turned out. Just as Jane Jacobs said, it doesn’t matter so much how a city was born. It matters how its economy operates. If Dubai and its imitators outlive the oil revenues and regional instability that helped them boom, it will be a lesson for cities everywhere in how to invent a viable urban economy—even if it leads to a kind of city that Jacobs herself might have loathed to live in.

How cities reshape themselves when trust vanishes

Posted April 21st, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Blast barriers in Baghdad, 2008. DONOVAN WYLIE / MAGNUM PHOTOS 

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

BEIRUT — Everything that people love and hate about cities stems from the agglomeration of humanity packed into a tight space: the traffic, the culture, the chance encounters, the anxious bustle. Along with this proximity come certain feelings, a relative sense of security or of fear.

Over the last 13 years I have lived in a magical succession of cities: Boston, Baghdad, New York, and Beirut. They all made lovely and surprising homes—and they all were distorted to varying degrees by fear and threat.

At root, cities depend on constant leaps of faith. You cross paths every hour with people of vastly different backgrounds and trust that you’ll emerge safely. Each act of violence—a mugging, a murder, a bombing—erodes that faith. Over time, especially if there are more attacks, a city will adapt in subtle but profound and insidious ways.

The bombing last week was a shock to Boston, and a violation. As long as it’s isolated, the city will recover. But three people have died, and more than 170 have been wounded, and the scar will remain. As we think about how to respond, it’s worth also considering what happens when cities become driven by fear.


NEW YORK, WASHINGTON, and to a lesser extent the rest of America have exchanged some of the trappings of an open society for extra security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Metal detectors and guards have become fixtures at government buildings and airports, and it’s not unusual to see a SWAT team with machine guns patrolling in Manhattan. Police conduct random searches in subways, and new buildings feature barriers and setbacks that isolate them from the city’s pedestrian life.

Baghdad and Beirut, however, are reminders of the far greater changes wrought by wars and ubiquitous random violence. A city of about 7 million, low-slung Baghdad sprawls along the banks of the Tigris River. It’s the kind of place where almost everyone has a car, and it blends into expansive suburbs on its fringes. When I first arrived in 2003, the city was reeling from the shock-and-awe bombing and the US invasion. But it was the year that followed that slowly and inexorably transformed the way people lived. First, the US military closed roads and erected checkpoints. Then, militants started ambushing American troops and planting roadside bombs; the ensuing shootouts often engulfed passersby. Finally, extremists and sectarian militias began indiscriminately targeting Iraqi civilians and government personnel—in queues at public buildings, at markets, in mosques, virtually everywhere. Order crumbled.

Baghdad became a city of walls. Wealthy homeowners blocked their own streets with piles of gravel. Jersey barriers sprang up around every ministry, office, and hotel. As the conflict widened, entire neighborhoods were sealed off. People adjusted their commutes to avoid tedious checkpoints and areas with frequent car bombings. Drive times doubled or tripled. Long lines, with invasive searches, became an everyday fact of life. The geography of the city changed. Markets moved, even the old-fashioned outdoor kind where merchants sell livestock or vegetables. Entire sub-cities sprang up to serve Shia and Sunni Baghdadis who no longer could travel through each other’s areas.

Simple civic pleasures atrophied almost overnight. No one wanted to get blown up because they insisted on going out for ice cream. The famed riverfront restaurants went dormant; no more live carp hammered with a mallet and grilled before our eyes. The water-pipe joints in the parks went out of business. Most of the social spaces that defined the city shut down. Booksellers fled Mutanabe Street, the intellectual center of the city with its antique cafes. The amusement park at the Martyrs Monument shut its gates. Hotel bar pianists emigrated. Dust settled over the playgrounds and fountains at the strip of grassy family restaurants near Baghdad University.

In Beirut, where I moved with my family earlier this year, a generation-long conflict has Balkanized the city’s population. Here, most groups no longer trust each other at all. From 1975 to 1991 the city was split by civil war, and people moved where they felt safest. A cosmopolitan city fragmented into enclaves. Christians flocked to East Beirut, spawning a dozen new commercial hubs. Shiites squatted in the village orchards south of Beirut, and within a decade had built a city-within-a-city almost a million strong—the Dahieh, or “the Suburb.” The original downtown became a demilitarized zone, its Arabesque arcades reduced to rubble, and today has been rebuilt as a sterile, Disney-like tourist and office sector. Ras Beirut, my neighborhood, deteriorated from proudly diverse (and secular) to “Sunni West Beirut,” although it still boasts pockets of stubborn coexistence. In today’s Beirut, my block, where a Druze warlord lives across the street from a church and subsidizes the parking fees of his Shia, Sunni, and Christian neighbors, is a stark exception.

Mixing takes place, but tentatively, and because of frequent outbreaks of violence over the years, Beirutis have internalized the reflexes to fight, defend, and isolate. The result is a city alight with street life, cafes, and boutiques but which can instantaneously shift to war footing. One friend ran into his bartender on a night off at a checkpoint with bandoliers of bullets strapped to his chest. Even when the city appears calm, most people have laid in supplies in case an armed flare-up forces them to stay in their homes for a week. My friend’s teenage daughter keeps a change of clothes in her schoolbag in case she can’t return to her house. Uniformed private guards are everywhere, in every park, on every promenade, at every mall.


WITHIN A FEW weeks of our move to Beirut this year, my 5-year-old son traded his old fantasy, in which he played the doctor and assigned us roles as patients and nurses, for a new one: security guard. While we were setting up for a yard party, he arranged a few plastic chairs by the door. “I’ll check people here,” he declared. He also asked me a lot of questions about the heavily armed soldiers who stand watch on our street: “Will the army shoot me if I make a mistake?”

This is not the childhood he would have in Boston, even after this week. War-molded cities are nightmare reflections of failed states, places where government has gone into free fall, police don’t or can’t do their jobs, and normal life feels out of reach. Beirut is a kind of warning: Physically it appears normal on most days. But trust is gone. The public sphere feels wobbly and impermanent.

Boston is still lucky, with assets that Beirut lost generations ago; it has functional institutions, old communities with tangled but shared histories, and unifying cultural traditions. Boston has police that can get a job done and a baseball team that ties together otherwise divided corners of the city. One lesson of the city I live in now is that circumstances can sever these lifelines faster than we expect. Our connections require continued, perhaps redoubled, care. Without trust, a city can still be a magnificent place to live. Until all at once, it isn’t.