Middle East can thrive by recapturing its cities’ past glories

Middle East can thrive by recapturing its cities’ past glories

A general view of banks, hotels, office and residential buildings in the center of Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)

If you are looking for something new in the grand sweep of human history, look no further than the city. A defining feature of our age is mass urbanization, particularly in the developing world. From Latin America to Africa, broader Asia to the Middle East, the world is urbanizing at a rapid pace, with dramatic implications for politics, business, society, and economics. Simply put, the city is changing the world.
According to the UN, 55 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas — 4.2 billion people. Back in 1950, some 750 million people worldwide lived in urban areas, accounting for 30 percent of the world’s population. That is about 3.5 billion new urban-dwellers since 1950 and the pace is only set to pick up. By the year 2050, according to the UN, we are heading for an urban population that will encompass 68 percent of the world.
In so many ways, cities have defined our human progress and posed our greatest challenges. The early “cities” that began cropping up between and around mighty rivers in the ancient world, from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley and Egypt, formed the first building blocks of world civilization. More recently, the key contours of our globalized, modern world have been shaped by the great and consequential cities of the last half-millennium.
Overwhelmingly, cities serve as the settings for history-making events: Revolutions in politics, business, economics, and societal norms. Today, cities account for the vast majority of economic growth and more than 80 percent of global wealth, according to the World Bank.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has also been a part of this trend. In 1950, only 20 percent of the region’s population lived in urban areas. Today, that number has tripled to some 60 percent. The region’s five most populous cities — Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul, Baghdad and Riyadh — also fit a familiar 21st-century urban pattern: They are vital to their national economies, accounting for the largest share of national gross domestic product and most robust retail consumption.
Rapid urbanization can be a boon. After all, large urban conglomerations create economies of scale beneficial to the private sector and critical masses that attract the most talented professionals. Rapid urbanization, however, has a downside when governments fail to provide adequate infrastructure services and basic goods and large numbers of young men go unemployed or underemployed.

Cities serve as the settings for history-making events: Revolutions in politics, business, economics, and societal norms.

Afshin Molavi

In many ways, the city played a leading role in the Arab uprisings. Major urban centers from Damascus to Cairo, Tunis to Tripoli and Sanaa, were failing their populations to varying degrees. All faced a cocktail of similar challenges: Housing shortages, unemployed youth, crumbling infrastructure, poor municipal services, and predatory local officials.
Meanwhile, the city provided the critical masses that allowed protest leaders to organize and challenge their respective governments. Today, many of those same problems remain even as populations grow and more young Arabs move to bigger cities in search of jobs. If the future of our world will be driven by cities, it is crucial that regional cities become vitalized.
Three items should be prioritized: Infrastructure, education and jobs. Few can quibble with the importance of these three and, yet, many cities are still failing to meet the challenge of providing adequate infrastructure, education, housing and jobs for their populations. There is no shortage of capital for infrastructure or education in the MENA region, nor is there any shortage of ideas or institutions ready to provide technical assistance. The region also represents a large consumer market with a growing middle class — precisely the kind of market that can support a dynamic private sector and foreign direct investment.
The urban theorists Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres note that the Middle East’s past shows that the region already possesses the DNA of what is needed to create great cities. “At a time when Christianity largely disparaged enterprise,” they wrote, in reference to the Middle Ages, “Islam embraced commerce and attempted to build a more equitable culture within it.” They also refer to the great capitals of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as vital forces in the global economy before the rise of the West and key centers of globalization. “Before there ever was a London, Paris or New York, there were Samarkand, Aleppo and Mosul,” they wrote.
In order for the region to thrive, it must recapture the commercial dynamism of its past, centered on great cities. True, there are some regional urban success stories, but if you want to see a better future for the region more broadly, look no further than the city.

  • Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor.
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