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
 


UAE confirms 3,407 new COVID-19 cases, 7 additional deaths

UAE confirms 3,407 new COVID-19 cases, 7 additional deaths
Updated 40 min 40 sec ago

UAE confirms 3,407 new COVID-19 cases, 7 additional deaths

UAE confirms 3,407 new COVID-19 cases, 7 additional deaths
  • Daily total of cases hits record high for 4th day, recent rises attributed to ‘intensified investigation and increase in testing’
  • Kuwait records 530 cases and 1 death, Bahrain reports 209 cases and 1 death

DUBAI: The UAE recorded 3,407 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the fourth day in a row that the daily total has hit a new high. An additional seven people have died of virus-related causes.
Officials from the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) said the total number of cases has reached 246,376, and the death toll stands at 733. A further 3,168 people recovered from the virus in the preceding 24 hours, bringing the total number of recoveries to 218,988.
The ministry attributed the sharp rise in the number of cases over the past few days to “intensified investigation and examination procedures and an increase in testing at the state level.”
Officials said that more than 138,000 people were vaccinated in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number that has received the first of the two doses that are required to about 1.66 million. Authorities in the UAE have said that they plan to vaccinate 50 percent of the population by April, with priority given to those over the age of 60 or suffering from chronic diseases.

The Department of Social Services, in cooperation with Sharjah Medical District, said it has received 800,700 applications for the COVID-19 vaccine from senior citizens and individuals with disabilities and mental illnesses, and their families. The vaccinations will be administered in their homes in Sharjah.
Afaf Al-Marri, the head of the department, said officials have been working to launch a number of initiatives designed to protect the health and safety of senior citizens since the pandemic began. He added that the launch of the home-vaccination service is one of the most important initiatives, designed to help some of the most vulnerable people.
During daily inspection tours, Dubai Economy issued fines to nine commercial establishments for failing to adhere to COVID-19 precautions. Inspection teams found 732 businesses to be compliant.
Abu Dhabi Media Office has released guidelines and a video explaining coronavirus precautions that should be taken when camping in the desert.

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) said it aims to support efforts to overcome the exceptional global effects of the pandemic by “uniting and supporting all segments of society, adopting common humanitarian values and strengthening cooperation with various local and international entities to accelerate the process of digital transformation and automate procedures for customers and employees alike.”

The authority said it is using all of its capabilities and resources to support national efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Its efforts include providing logistical support to the health and community sectors in the emirate, and a large number of employees have volunteered to support those who provide the first line of defense against the disease.
Saeed Mohammed Al-Tayer, DEWA’s managing director and CEO, said the “contribution of the authority’s employees embodies the highest forms of effective popular participation, cooperation, solidarity and community cohesion that characterizes the UAE.”
Elsewhere, Kuwait reported 530 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 156,964. The death toll rose to 947, with one additional death was reported in the previous 24 hours.

In Bahrain, one death was reported, raising the death toll to 357, while 209 new infected cases were confirmed.