Why big cities are the future of the Arab world
A century ago, only 10 percent of us lived in cities. According to the UN, 55 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, a figure projected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. What does that mean for cities in the Arab world, and political and economic life in the future?
In the past, discussions on urbanization were often peppered with negative images of grossly overpopulated cities, endless grids of steel, concrete and glass, polluted, crime-infested and claustrophobic. This hysteria was not far-fetched given the dangerous levels of smog and pollution in New Delhi, Cairo and Beijing, some of the densely populated cities projected to keep growing well into 2050. Fortunately, for other countries experiencing population growth and expanding urban areas elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, such outcomes can be avoided. With careful planning and sustained efforts at curbing pollution, growing urban areas can be a positive and generous contributor to economic wealth.
The march of time and progress, even our massive lurch toward an information-orientated world at the start of the 21st century, has meant that, increasingly, rural dwellers are drawn in by the trappings of urban centers. Rural areas rely mostly on agriculture and extractive industries such as mining, logging and fisheries. When these industries die or move elsewhere, stable incomes and job opportunities in urban areas become attractive. Time and technology have widened this gap, resulting in an “emptying” of rural lands in favor of sprawling urban areas. It is unwise to propose a reversal in the dynamics of internal migration. Rural areas simply cannot sustain the level of jobs, income and opportunities for most people to earn a living.
The growth of urban areas is even more apparent in the Middle East and North Africa, where rural living is nearly impossible in arid land that can barely support subsistence agriculture. In 2017, 17 of 22 Arab League countries had more than half their populations living in urban areas. With the UN’s 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects report predicting further increases in Asian and African populations, it is paramount for Arab countries to implement policies to reap the benefits of urban growth.
First, most Arab countries have “developing” or “emerging economy” status, with vast arid spaces, meaning that while conditions continue to improve, there is little funding for infrastructure projects that would benefit rural areas. Clean drinking water, electricity, sanitation, and dependable telecommunications and transport networks are fundamental to a country’s development and contribute significantly to the wellbeing of inhabitants. Unfortunately, they cost a lot of money, and work best where population densities are high.
With careful planning and sustained efforts at curbing pollution, growing urban areas can be a positive and generous contributor to economic wealth.
A report by the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank has found that while the benefits of rural electrification are great on paper, in reality the picture is different. In fact, it has required a rethink in the best ways to develop rural areas and deploy scarce financial resources. Looking at it another way, much of the Arab world’s inhabitants live in cities anyway, so it may be better for governments to expand urban areas, with an eye on inevitable population growth. It is also better to do so over larger land areas, which is more effective at curbing the overcrowding, pollution, deteriorating housing and poor sanitation that come with concentrating too many in too little space.
Secondly, increasing populations also means larger markets and growth in demand for goods and services. Economic and political reform aimed at expanding private sectors to generate employment opportunities should also take into account such rapid population growth. After all, with over 100 million people aged 15 to 29, more than half of them unemployed, it is imperative that Arab governments not only solve the youth unemployment crisis now, but also account for future population growth.
Fortunately, the Arab world has taken some notice of the problem of growing populations and rapid expansion of urban areas. A few countries have developed strategies aimed at organizing and directing this growth. Egypt’s strategy for population growth and expanding urban areas is mostly reliant on the Nile River, with a 2050 Plan for roads, water and city expansion. Lebanon and Morocco have similar plans that focus on turning established towns and cities into “engines for growth,” or, in the case of Morocco, building entirely new urban areas that can fulfill similar roles.
Other Arab countries should formulate their own development plans accordingly. For mostly deserted regions, it may be better and more cost-effective to attract rural dwellers into urban areas that already have clean drinking water, electricity, sanitation and access to telecommunications and transport. For other countries that have scattered populations, the growth of secondary cities to attract growth away from established urban centers may be a better alternative.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell