[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.
This Essential Readings installment is part of a larger series exploring questions of urbanism and spatial production across the region. Encompassing a broad range of entry points to researching and teaching about the urban, the series allows authors to define the specific parameters of emphasis in their installment.]
The Arab world is undoubtedly an urban one: Lebanon can be understood as a completely urbanized nation; the Nile a seemingly never-ending linear city; and the Gulf countries have produced spectacular new urban regions that have extended their urbanization into the ocean. From the river to the sea, the subterranean to the heavens, the intensification and extension of urbanization has been a common feature across the region, despite the vastly differentiated socio-economic, political, and demographic contexts. How can we explain and understand this intensification of the urbanization process?
The Arab world has not urbanized in isolation. There is a vast literature that has tried to come to grips with the planetary scale of urbanization over the past fifty years within the field of urban studies. This work led by critical urban studies scholars Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and more recently Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, has been central to outlining the planetary urbanization thesis. There is a ferocious debate within urban studies around the extent to which urbanization now exists on a planetary scale. It is a discussion that I will not cover in this short, annotated list. Here I focus on Essential Readings in the growing vibrant sub-field of Middle East urban studies. I offer a few highlights from this scholarship through three distinct but intersecting categories: (1) Neoliberalism to Financialization, (2) Politics and Urbanization, and the (3) Urbanization of Violence and Conflict.
In many respects, it is the best of times for research on the Arab urban. An expanding group of scholars and activists are trying to get to grips with such questions as: who and what is driving urbanization within and across the region; what is the social impact of it; is there a distinctive Arab urbanization process? Indeed, there has been a blossoming of urban-focused research initiatives, such as Arab Urbanism, the Beirut Urban Lab, Tadamon, Jadaliyya’s Cities Page, and the Arab Centre for Architecture, to name just a few. I, with Noura Wahby, have also launched the first Middle East Urban Studies book series with the American University in Cairo Press.
It is the worst of times, however, for far too many urban contexts throughout the region. From the systematic destruction of the contemporary and historical urban fabric to the collapse of basic urban services, such as water and electricity: an Arab urbanization that fulfills the needs, wants, and desires of its users is unravelling before us. The region features some of the most extreme examples of urban inequality, injustice, and failing urban services. The climate crisis is bringing increasing challenges in the form of extreme heat, increased precipitation and flooding, sea level rises, and dust storms that are leading some to question the human viability of many urban settlements across the region. Critical urban research has never been so urgent.
Neoliberalism to Financialization
Neoliberalism has become an important explanatory framework in Middle East urban studies to elucidate the vast contemporary urbanization and the integral role that real estate has taken on in organizing many of the region’s economies in recent years. Neoliberalism, understood simply as market-led urbanization, has been identified as the central vector that has driven the region-wide proliferation of urban mega and infrastructure projects, gated communities, shopping malls, and the like. One of the earliest and most significant interventions on the importance of neoliberalism to the shape of urbanization in the region is Timothy Mitchell’s (Review of African Political Economy, 1999) essay, “No Factories, No Problems: The Logic of Neo-Liberalism in Egypt.” Mitchell writes that neoliberalism took the form of state-imposed fiscal discipline and monetary control that helped produce “the most phenomenal real estate explosion Egypt had ever seen.” Neoliberalism resulted in the private developers (often backed by the state) building luxury gated communities, shopping malls, theme parks, golf courses, and polo grounds. Since Mitchell’s article, there have been many other scholars who have also documented the role of neoliberalism and the production of “new” urban spaces in Egypt and across the region.
The city-state of Dubai is often seen as the poster child for neoliberal urbanization, and indeed, is featured on the front cover of Mike Davis and Daniel Monk’s (The New Press, 2008) edited volume, Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism: Evil Paradises. Mike Davis in his own contribution penned a furious takedown of neoliberal Dubai entitled: “Sand, Fear and Money in Dubai.” For a more grounded and sober account of neoliberalism in this city-state, readers should direct themselves to Ahmed Kanna’s (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) Dubai: The City as Corporation. Kanna details what he identifies as Maktoum-led neoliberalism and notes how Dubai’s ruling family aligned “free-market” values with “local” cultural attitudes and dispositions – detailing that the urban form and architecture has been critical to achieving this. I should stress that there are notable scholarly accounts of Dubai that have sought to read the city from outside the prism of neoliberalism, such as Yasser Elsheshtawy’s (Routledge, 2010) Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle and the more recent contribution by Todd Reisz (Stanford University Press, 2020) Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai.
There is now a voluminous country-specific scholarship on the intersection of neoliberalism and urbanization in the Arab region. While the scholarship is too large to list here, some notable monographs include: Koenraad Bogaert’s (University of Minnesota, 2018) account of Globalized Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco; Hannes Baumann’s (Hurst Publishers, 2011) Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neo-Liberal Reconstruction; and Kareem Rabie’s (Duke University Press, 2021) Palestine is Throwing a Party and the Whole World is Invited: Capital and State Building in the West Bank that focuses on the case study of Rawabi, the West Bank’s “first planned city.”
In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2007/2008 critical scholars increasingly placed a focus not just on the relationship between neoliberalism and urbanization but to the more specific idea of the financialization of the built environment. Financialization as a type of market-led urbanization, is an analytical framework that points towards, for instance, private equity groups and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) creating new political economies of urbanization. In the Middle East, in particular the Gulf, while still relatively small, REITs are rapidly making their presence felt. The work of Adam Hanieh has been critical in examining the financialization of the Arab region that, as he notes, has otherwise been absent (despite its central role in global financialization) in the wider financial literature. Hanieh’s (Antipode, 2016) article, “Absent Regions: Spaces of Financialisation in the Arab World,” notes that financialization has important implications for process of class and state formation in the region. It also has significant impacts of the built environment that are only just starting to be explored. Özlem Celik (Housing Studies, 2021), for instance, has written on, “The roles of the state in the financialisation of housing in Turkey,” and it is hoped that further scholarly attention is brought to bear across the region on this topic.
Politics and Urbanization: The Right to the City
The scholarship of neoliberal urbanization often intersects with analysis of urban social movements. At this intersection, the thinking of Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), has been an important influence on both urban scholarship and activism in the Arab region. Lefebvre, as noted above, has been central to the planetary urbanization thesis, he also coined the idea of the “right to the city.” Lefebvre was a prolific and undisciplined scholar, who is notoriously difficult for readers to engage with. Stuart Elden has provided this useful guide on “Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre?” to help navigate both Lefebvre’s writings directly and the numerous scholarly introductions to his work.
What Lefebvre meant by the “right to the city” is the subject of extensive debate that has only intensified as the concept has been widely taken up in activist and policy circles across the world. In the context of the Arab uprisings, Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city” has been important both within and beyond the confines of the academic, with several activists groups across the region taking up the term. In the scholarly literature, Lefebvrian inspired work of Asef Bayat has been influential. He has written powerfully about the spatial implications of “neoliberal cities” in the Arab region regarding the urban poor’s “right to the city”. In Bayat’s (Stanford University Press, 2009) book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, he details how neoliberalism pushed the urban poor out literally onto the streets, to a certain extent forcing them to claim their “right to the city” as an act of survival. Mona Fawaz, however, in her work on the right to the city has presented are far less empowering analysis of the consequences of neoliberalism on the urban poor. In “Neoliberal Urbanity and the Right to the City: A View from Beirut’s Periphery,” (Development and Change, 2009) Fawaz argues that while informal settlements have historically given the new urban poor a right to the city, the neoliberal era had resulted in a marked erosion of the informal dwellers ability to claim this right and resulted in an exacerbation of injustice.
The right to the city continues to be a powerful conceptual framework for the struggle for urban justice in the Arab region. It is an idea that is not only hotly debated within academia but also in activists and policy circles. The struggle for the right to the city is, as Lefebvre put it, a cry and demand. One that has resonated across a wide and diverse array of groups in the Arab world and beyond. It is a cry and demand, however, that has been all too frequently drowned out in the context of large-scale urban warfare.
The Urbanization of Violence and Conflict
The violent counter-revolutionary forces that have attempted to quash the Arab uprisings has made urban injustice and violence a critical area of research in relation to the urban question. My own work has focused on many different aspects of the urbanization of violence and conflict. This has included the conflation of urban informality with security threats, in the article: “Haphazard urbanisation: Urban informality, politics and power in Egypt” (Urban Studies, 2022), and the concept of “urbicide” in the chapter, “Urbicide and the Arrangement of Violence in Syria” in my co-edited volume Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings (Urban Research, 2016). I have also examined the role of concrete and cement in warfare in the article, “Concretising conflict” (The Journal of Architecture, 2022). A central argument in this work is that we must be attentive to the construction and planning of the built environment as part of conflict – as much as to spectacular acts of destruction.
The writings of Eyal Weizman and Stephen Graham have been particularly important to considerations of the urbanization of violence and conflict. Weizman (Verso, 2007) wrote the seminal work Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation that expertly illuminated the active role of the urban context in conflict. The chapter “Walking through Walls”, for example, details the way in which the IDF did not move through open streets, roads, or through external doors that make up the order of the city but blasted their way through party walls, ceilings and floors – across the sold fabric of the city. Stephen Graham’s (Verso, 2011) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism is the culmination of decades of work on the urbanization of violence and conflict. Graham charts the shift of conflict from open fields to everyday urban sites. Graham also writes about “Lessons in Urbicide” detailing how Israel utilized the D-9 armoured Caterpillar bulldozer to “plough through built-up Palestinian areas with impunity.”
There is now a firmly established literature within Middle East studies on urban conflict. In addition to Palestine/Israel, Lebanon has become a prominent case study in relation to the urbanization of conflict. Notable recent contributions include Sara Fregonese’s (Bloomsbury, 2019) War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon that examines how the Lebanese Civil War transformed the urban landscape of Beirut, focusing on the initial phase of the war (1975-1976). And Hiba Bou Akar’s (Stanford University Press, 2018) For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers who examines how Beirut’s urban fabric is actively planned—through zoning, planning regulations, real estate—for conflict.
This is a small selection of Essential Readings in relation to the increasing urgent urban question(s) in the Arab region. There is a rich Arab urban studies scholarship on infrastructure, displacement, urban informality, housing, gentrification, basic urban services, urban public goods, logistics, graffiti, materiality, reconstruction, and more recently climate urbanism, to name a few, that I have not been able to touch upon. It is hoped that growing depth and sophistication of the critical Arab urban studies research can make its impact on the actually existing urban fabric in the region toward more beautiful, just, and equitable cities.
 This essay, or a close variation of it, has also been published in Mitchell’s book The Rule of Experts under the title “Dreamland”.