How the coronavirus crisis has shifted priorities for Arab cities

The Saudi capital has been rapidly growing its infrastructure. (AFP)
The Saudi capital has been rapidly growing its infrastructure. (AFP)
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Updated 29 December 2020

How the coronavirus crisis has shifted priorities for Arab cities

How the coronavirus crisis has shifted priorities for Arab cities
  • Those that failed to deliver during the pandemic must embrace the three I’s: investment, infrastructure and innovation
  • Cities are vital to our well-being as centers of innovation and job-creation, generating some 80 percent of global GDP

WASHINGTON, DC: If you are looking for something new in human history, look no further than mass urbanization. Large, bustling, urban metropolises with millions of residents have become such a common feature of our world today that it’s easy to forget how new they are.

To wit: in the year 1800, roughly 3 percent of the world lived in cities and, by 1900, that number had risen to only 15 percent.

Today, some 55 percent of humans on our planet live in cities, and we are headed for two out of three people on earth as urban dwellers within a generation.

Cities are vital to our well-being. They are centers of innovation and job-creation, and generate some 80 percent of global GDP. It is no exaggeration to say that our global economy is a collection of city economies.




Arab region’s cities have fared poorly compared with their counterparts in East Asia, but have kept pace with other cities in the developing world. (AFP)

According to some estimates, over the past three decades, some 2 billion people have moved from countryside to city.

If one were to paint an iconic image of our times, it should involve a newly arrived migrant to a city, preferably an Asian city with a dramatic skyline, airplanes in the sky, high-speed trains in the distance, the drumbeat of globalization in the background.

Most of the world’s rapid urbanization over this time has taken place in Africa and Asia, including, of course the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the MENA region in the 1960s, roughly 35 percent of the population lived in cities.

Today, almost two out of three people from the region live in cities — higher than the global average. If we can point to one defining long-term trend over the past four decades in the MENA region, it should be rapid urbanization.

Now, the city itself, of course, is not new. In fact, the first agglomeration of peoples that came together in what we might call cities grew in the fertile crescent region of Iraq some 7,000 years ago.

Middle Eastern cities take their place among the ancient and medieval worlds as great civilizational centers: Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Istanbul, Isfahan.

Recent archaeological evidence also shows that several Arabian Peninsula coastal cities from Aden to Dubai played a vital role in Silk Road trade routes, and advanced civilizational networks.

But what of the Arab world city today? How has the region fared in this historic trend of mass urbanization, and how have the region’s cities handled the COVID-19 pandemic?

Broadly speaking, with a few exceptions in the GCC states, the Arab region’s cities have fared poorly compared with their counterparts in East Asia, but have kept pace with other cities in the developing world.

Let’s take a look at the biggest city first: Cairo. With a metro area population of more than 20 million, Cairo is the Arab world’s only megacity, defined as an urban agglomeration of 10 million or more people.

There are some 33 million megacities in the world today, mostly in East and South Asia.

Megacities are centers of growth and innovation, prosperity and knowledge, but they also present myriad challenges from pollution and congestion to income inequality and massive infrastructure needs.




Cairo “has continuously failed to capitalize on the agglomeration benefits afforded by its population size.” — Karim Elgendy and Natasha Abaza. (AFP)

Cairo’s population is roughly the same size as Beijing, but its GDP is roughly a quarter of the Chinese capital, according to a McKinsey study.

Cities with large populations might benefit from a demographic gift or be weighed down by a demographic burden.

In Cairo’s case, according to a study of regional cities by Karim Elgendy and Natasha Abaza, the city “has continuously failed to capitalize on the agglomeration benefits afforded by its population size.”

Egypt’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been poor. In a dispatch from Cairo by Declan Walsh of the New York Times, he writes that as patients came streaming through hospitals, “resources were alarmingly scarce. Doctors lacked protective equipment, often making do with a single mask for a 24-hour shift. Testing kits were in short supply.”

National testing has been extremely low in Egypt, far behind Iraq, Jordan or even war-torn Libya. Still, anyone who has visited Cairo will understand one basic fact: its people have often been ingenious, inventive, and remarkably entrepreneurial in difficult conditions.

Rather than giving the “Person of the Year” honor to a predictable choice like President-elect Joe Biden, Time magazine should have honored the frontline medical worker in developing countries from Cairo to Karachi who have battled this deadly disease with little national government support.




The recent Kearney Global Cities Report and Index — a comprehensive study that ranks cities across 29 metrics of global connectivity — ranks Dubai 27th globally, the only regional city to make the top 30. (AFP)

What of other MENA cities? How have they fared in the pandemic and, more broadly how have they fared in our contemporary world.

It has become axiomatic to point to Dubai and Abu Dhabi as leaders. The recent Kearney Global Cities Report and Index — a comprehensive study that ranks cities across 29 metrics of global connectivity — ranks Dubai 27th globally, the only regional city to make the top 30.

Of particular note this year has been the meteoric rise of Abu Dhabi. The UAE capital ranked seventh this year in Kearney’s Global City Outlook Index, ahead of major cities like Amsterdam, San Francisco, Berlin and New York.

The Outlook report focuses on “cities on the rise” and Abu Dhabi’s leap from number 20 to 7 within a year has been “driven by long-term investments in economic performance and diversification.”

The UAE has been a leader worldwide in handling the coronavirus pandemic through its comprehensive national testing programs, contact tracing, and healthcare infrastructure response. The Australia-based Global Response to Infectious Disease Index ranked the UAE among the top 10 countries worldwide in its response to COVID-19, on par with the likes of New Zealand, Singapore, Norway, Japan and Taiwan.

A key lesson to Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s success has been the relentless building of infrastructure. According to AT Kearney, the two UAE cities topped the world in the infrastructure metric. Riyadh also deserves mention here. The Saudi capital has been rapidly growing its infrastructure.

Riyadh’s first metro lines are on course to open in 2021, and major infrastructure projects to decongest roads and grow the airport suggest a transport-oriented urban policy that will serve the capital well over the long term.




Riyadh ranks as one of the top five largest cities in the region, while Jeddah metropolitan area makes the top 10. (AFP)

With a metro area population of roughly 7.2 million, Riyadh ranks as one of the top five largest cities in the region, while Jeddah metropolitan area makes the top 10. Both cities would benefit from a simultaneous drive of decongestion (of roads) and expansion (of global trade networks).

A recent report by Euromonitor International points out that the next regional megacity could be Baghdad. Unfortunately, Baghdad, like other historically rich and cosmopolitan cities like Beirut or pre-war Damascus, has largely lagged in its provision of services and infrastructure for its people.

Like Egypt, however, these countries are rich in human resources that can — if allowed to grow — can unleash tremendous innovation.

Following infrastructure, this leads us to the second “I” word — innovation. Any city of the future must be relentlessly innovative.

The global geostrategist Parag Khanna told me: “Even at the height of the pandemic, it’s become clear that several cities — notably those in the Gulf — have the resources and strategic willpower to invest in their future infrastructure and areas of innovation. There are very few such places in the world today.




Some 55 percent of humans on our planet live in cities, and we are headed for two out of three people on earth as urban dwellers within a generation. (AFP)

Cities of the future must embrace the three “I”s — investment, infrastructure and innovation. Cities need to invest in education, healthcare, human resources, capacity, technology and a whole host of other sectors to build resiliency.

Perhaps most importantly, cities must invest and target infrastructure and innovation. Large-scale infrastructure projects are costly, but when planned well, they reap benefits for generations.

As for innovation, regional cities should create the right mix of regulatory policies that would allow the region’s natural entrepreneurs to flourish.

In fact, author and geo-economic strategist Michael O’Sullivan told me that the MENA region should ride the wave of the growing e-commerce economy fueled by the pandemic by investing more in fintech and medtech, and other e-commerce industries.

This is sound advice, one rooted in history. After all, the great cities of the region have historically been on the cutting edge of trade and innovation networks.

There is really no “secret sauce” to building more vibrant, prosperous, resilient cities.

The difference today will be between those who can execute their plans, and those who, for reasons of inertia or mismanagement or corruption, fail to deliver for their people.

Twitter: @AfshinMolavi
 


Egypt sends medical aid to Libya

Following President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s decision to send medical aid to Libya, two Egyptian military transport planes have delivered two tons of medical aid to the stricken country. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Following President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s decision to send medical aid to Libya, two Egyptian military transport planes have delivered two tons of medical aid to the stricken country. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Updated 17 min 48 sec ago

Egypt sends medical aid to Libya

Following President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s decision to send medical aid to Libya, two Egyptian military transport planes have delivered two tons of medical aid to the stricken country. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • Libyan authorities praised Egypt for standing by Libya during times of crises

CAIRO: Following President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s decision to send medical aid to Libya, two Egyptian military transport planes have delivered two tons of medical aid to the stricken country.

This came as part of Egypt’s support and show of solidarity with the Libyan people. It showed the depth of the ties between the two nations, said Tamer Al-Rifai, Egyptian armed forces spokesman.

Libyan authorities praised Egypt for standing by Libya during times of crises, emphasizing the importance of such aid for the Libyan health sector, which is facing challenges, especially the coronavirus pandemic.

The Libyan Moral Guidance Department said that it had received the aid, which had been sent following a meeting between the leader of the Libyan armed forces and El-Sisi. During the meeting, it was planned that Egypt would help Libya fight the pandemic.


Palestinian voters’ attitudes impacted by ‘16 years of failure’

Palestinian voters’ attitudes impacted by ‘16 years of failure’
Updated 34 min 23 sec ago

Palestinian voters’ attitudes impacted by ‘16 years of failure’

Palestinian voters’ attitudes impacted by ‘16 years of failure’
  • Palestinians, by virtue of the Israeli occupation, are traditionally affiliated to parties or large segments of them with political tendencies that often decide their choice at the ballot box
  • In election 2021, independent lists are betting on a change in voters’ moods due to what they call ‘years of wandering and political failure’

GAZA CITY: In the last legislative elections, Muhammad Al-Astal voted for Muhammad Dahlan, a Fatah candidate in the city of Khan Yunis in the south of the Gaza Strip, against his own relative Yunus Al-Astal, a candidate for Hamas.

This time, Muhammad will again vote for Fatah in the elections scheduled for May 22, despite the presence of his relatives standing for other factions.

Now, long since the last elections in early 2006, 36 lists — seven party lists and the rest independents — are standing this time, but voters are exhausted by years of internal division.

Palestinians, by virtue of the Israeli occupation, are traditionally affiliated to parties or large segments of them with political tendencies that often decide their choice at the ballot box. 

However, independent lists are betting on a change in voters’ moods due to what they call “years of wandering and political failure.”

Muhammad is one of those. He inherited an affiliation to Fatah from his father and brothers, and he believes that the party is “the most capable of leading the Palestinian people.” 

The internal differences in Fatah, with the presence of three lists competing in the legislative elections, did not affect his position. He supports the official Fatah list formed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We should not be distracted, either in voting for candidates based on kinship, or for other lists. We need Fatah unity to complete the march of struggle and liberation from occupation,” Muhammad told Arab News.

With the factions at the Cairo Dialogue agreeing to adopt full proportional representation in the upcoming elections, instead of a mixed system (lists and individuals), a candidate’s personality is no longer a central factor in attracting voters.

Experts call voters such as Muhammad the “solid bloc,” which is made up of those who belong to political parties and whose votes are settled in favor of their party lists, and are not influenced by their tribe or geographical region. They do not pay attention to the electoral campaign.

Muhammad did not heed, in the last elections, any criticism of Dahlan, who has been leading the democratic reform movement since the decision to dismiss him from Fatah in 2018. This time, he has formed an independent electoral list, but Muhammad will not vote for him.

The Vision Center for Political Development polled experts and academics about voter priorities for a particular list, asking how do social upbringing, and the factors of belonging to social spaces such as family and tribe, or geographical space such as city and village, affect attitudes. 

The poll concluded that “tribalism will not matter in these elections, and the priority will not be for the political program.” The decisive factor will be party affiliation, in addition to a list’s chances to provide on an economic level.

Samer Najm Al-Din, law professor at Hebron University in the West Bank, said: “Political affiliation will be the most prominent player in guiding the voter, and there is no Palestinian who is not intellectually framed.

“Unfortunately, the detailed electoral programs of the candidate blocs will not have a major role in influencing the voter. What may affect the voter’s orientation is the clear or broad headings of the electoral program, such as the adoption of resistance or economic prosperity, without paying attention to details. The electoral program that is based on clear, simplified ideas, appealing to the Palestinian with bright headlines, is the program that attracts the general electorate.”

Sania Al-Husseini, professor of political science and international relations at the Arab American University in Ramallah, said: “There is no doubt that the Palestinian scene is complex, especially at the current stage, and its priorities in voting for a list differ, depending on the economic and social situation, and so on.”

Regarding the conditions of social upbringing, and the factors of belonging to a family or tribe, Al-Husseini believes both will have an impact on the attitudes of voters, but the nature of the existing system limits these effects, because of the proportional voting system.

Political development researcher Thamer Sabaana believes that, based on opinion polls, factionalism will continue to play a key role in the results.

Hussam Al-Dajani, professor of political science at the Ummah University in Gaza, agreed that “belonging to the party is stronger than belonging to a tribe or geographical region,” but added that 

“16 years of failure and political wandering will have a clear impact on the attitudes of the voters.”


UN has inspected Iran's Natanz plant after explosion: Nuclear watchdog

UN has inspected Iran's Natanz plant after explosion: Nuclear watchdog
Updated 19 min 42 sec ago

UN has inspected Iran's Natanz plant after explosion: Nuclear watchdog

UN has inspected Iran's Natanz plant after explosion: Nuclear watchdog

VIENNA: Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have visited the Natanz plant in Iran, where an explosion took place on Sunday, the nuclear watchdog said Wednesday.
"IAEA inspectors are continuing their verification and monitoring activities in Iran, and today have been at the Natanz enrichment site," the UN agency said in a statement sent to AFP.


US urges Lebanese leaders to break political impasse

US urges Lebanese leaders to break political impasse
Updated 14 April 2021

US urges Lebanese leaders to break political impasse

US urges Lebanese leaders to break political impasse
  • U.S. official said America and the international community can do nothing meaningful without a Lebanese partner
  • Current crisis was the culmination of decades of mismanagement, corruption and leaders’ failure to put the country’s interests first, said Hale

BEIRUT: A senior US official on Wednesday berated Lebanese politicians for fighting over the formation of a new government for months while millions endure mounting economic hardship.
David Hale, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, said America and the international community are ready to help, “but we can do nothing meaningful without a Lebanese partner.”
Hale spoke on a two-day visit to Lebanon amid a months-long political deadlock and dangerous rift between the president and prime minister-designate. The split has prevented the formation of a new Cabinet tasked with halting the country’s rapid economic collapse.
The outgoing government resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people, injured more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital.
The blast hastened the country’s economic and financial decline, which began in late 2019 and has emerged as the gravest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
The local currency has been in free fall since late 2019, losing around 90 percent of its value. The government defaulted on its foreign debt last year and nearly half the population has been pushed into poverty and unemployment.
“America and its international partners are gravely concerned with the failure here to advance the critical reform agenda long demanded by the Lebanese people,” Hale told reporters Wednesday after meeting Lebanon’s longtime Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri.
The current crisis, he said, was the culmination of decades of mismanagement, corruption and the failure of Lebanese leaders to put the interests of the country first.
“It is time now to call on Lebanese leaders to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that is willing and capable of true and fundamental reform,” Hale added, calling it the only path out of this crisis.
“It’s also only a first step. Sustained cooperation will be needed if we’re going to see transparent reforms adopted and implemented.”


Saudi Arabia: Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons

Saudi Arabia: Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons
Updated 14 April 2021

Saudi Arabia: Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons

Saudi Arabia: Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons
  • Saudi Arabia said it was following with concern the current developments of the Iranian nuclear program

DUBAI: The international community must take measure to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned on Wednesday.

Iran’s increase of uranium enrichment to 60 percent cannot be considered as part of a peaceful program, the ministry said in a statement reported by state TV Al-Ekhbariya.

The world should take into account the concerns of the countries in the region about the escalation of Iran, the statement said.

The international community must reach an agreement with Iran, the statement added, urging for “stronger parameters of a longer duration.”

Saudi Arabia said it was following with concern the current developments of the Iranian nuclear program and called on Iran to avoid escalation and not to expose the security and stability of the region to further tension.

The kingdom also called on Iran to seriously engage in the negotiations currently underway.

Meanwhile, the European powers party to the Iran nuclear deal told Tehran on Wednesday that its decision to enrich uranium at 60 percent purity and install a further 1,000 centrifuges at its Natanz site were contrary to efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
Talks between world powers, Iran and the United States are due to resume in Vienna on Thursday, but in a joint statement Britain, France and Germany said Tehran’s decision to enrich at 60 percent was not based on credible civilian reasons and constituted an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.
“Iran’s announcements are particularly regrettable given they come at a time when all JCPoA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) participants and the United States have started substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a rapid diplomatic solution to revitalise and restore the JCPoA,” the three countries said.
“Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions.”
Tehran has said its decisions came after arch-foe Israel sabotaged its key Natanz nuclear site on Sunday.
“In light of recent developments, we reject all escalatory measures by any actor, and we call upon Iran not to further complicate the diplomatic process,” the E3 said.

Iran's president said his country’s decision to dramatically increase its uranium enrichment after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site “an answer to your evilness,” saying Israel hoped to derail ongoing talks aimed at reviving Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers.
This weekend's sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility appears to be part of an escalating shadow war between the two countries. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack, but are widely suspected of having carried it out.