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
 


Police: Israeli stabbed in Jerusalem, suspect flees on foot

Police: Israeli stabbed in Jerusalem, suspect flees on foot
Updated 5 sec ago

Police: Israeli stabbed in Jerusalem, suspect flees on foot

Police: Israeli stabbed in Jerusalem, suspect flees on foot
  • The stabbing took place in Sheikh Jarrah, where several Palestinian extended families are at risk of being evicted by Jewish settlers
  • The attack came days after a Palestinian stabbed and wounded an Israeli man
JERUSALEM: An Israeli woman was stabbed and lightly wounded in a tense neighborhood in east Jerusalem on Wednesday, and the suspect fled, Israeli police and medics said.
The woman was evacuated to the trauma unit of the nearby Hadassah Mt. Scopus Hospital, which said the 26-year-old was conscious and in stable condition. Emergency medics had earlier given her age as 30 and said she was seriously wounded.
The stabbing took place in Sheikh Jarrah, where several Palestinian extended families are at risk of being evicted by Jewish settlers amid a decades-long legal battle. Protests and clashes with police there last spring helped ignite the 11-day Gaza war.
Sirens could be heard echoing across the neighborhood as traffic was heavy with morning commuters.
The attack came days after a Palestinian stabbed and wounded an Israeli man and tried to stab a member of the paramilitary Border Police just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Sheikh Jarrah. The Border Police shot and killed the attacker.
Last month, a Hamas militant opened fire in Jerusalem’s Old City, killing one Israeli and wounding four others before being fatally shot by police.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, including the Old City and major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It considers the entire city its unified capital.
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. The city’s fate was one of the thorniest issues in peace talks that ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

Renewed Iran nuclear talks seen Thursday, but France believes Tehran playing for time

Renewed Iran nuclear talks seen Thursday, but France believes Tehran playing for time
Updated 4 min 35 sec ago

Renewed Iran nuclear talks seen Thursday, but France believes Tehran playing for time

Renewed Iran nuclear talks seen Thursday, but France believes Tehran playing for time

DOHA: Talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are expected to resume on Thursday, France’s foreign minister said, although he added that he feared Iran was playing for time.

“The elements... are not very encouraging,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a French parliament committee, referring to the seventh round of nuclear talks between Iran and major powers that began on Nov. 29 and paused on Friday.

“We have the feeling the Iranians want to make it last and the longer the talks last, the more they go back on their commitments ... and get closer to capacity to get a nuclear weapon,” Le Drian said.

Under the 2015 deal struck by Tehran and six major powers, Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from US, European Union and UN sanctions.

Then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh US sanctions, and Iran began violating the nuclear restrictions a year later.

While Le Drian and Iranian media reports said talks were expected to resume Thursday, a senior US State Department official said Washington did not yet have a confirmed date.

The indirect US-Iranian talks in Vienna, in which other diplomats shuttle between them because Tehran refuses direct talks with Washington, aim to get both sides to resume compliance with the deal.

However, last week’s discussions broke off with European and US officials voicing dismay at sweeping demands by Iran’s new, hard-line government under anti-Western President Ebrahim Raisi, whose June election caused a five-month pause in the talks.

A senior US official on Saturday said Iran abandoned any compromises it had made in the previous six rounds of talks, pocketed those made by others, and demanded more last week.

Each side appears to be trying to blame the other for the lack of progress.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the presidents of the United States and Russia — two of the six major powers in the deal along with Britain, China, France, and Germany — had a “productive” discussion about Iran on Tuesday.

“The more Iran demonstrates a lack of seriousness at the negotiating table, the more unity there is among the P5+1 and the more they will be exposed as the isolated party in this negotiation,” he told reporters, referring to the six powers.

Speaking on Monday, Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns said the agency does not believe Iran’s supreme leader has decided to take steps to “weaponize” a nuclear device but noted that it has made advances in its ability to enrich uranium, one pathway to the fissile material for a bomb.

Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, saying it only wants to master nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

“We don’t see any evidence as an agency right now that Iran’s supreme leader has made a decision to move to weaponize,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit.

Burns described Iran’s challenge as “a three-legged race” to obtain fissile material, to “weaponize” by placing such material into a device designed to cause a nuclear explosion, and to mate it to a delivery system such as a ballistic missile.

On weaponization, Burns said “the Iranians still have a lot of work to do there as far as we judge it.”


Kuwaiti people look forward to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit

Kuwaiti people look forward to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit
Updated 08 December 2021

Kuwaiti people look forward to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit

Kuwaiti people look forward to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit
  • Al-Mohammad clarified that the visit will be an addition to the strong bilateral ties between both nations

DUBAI: Kuwaiti people are looking forward to the scheduled visit of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, due to take place on Wednesday.

The crown prince will hold talks with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah as well as Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah during his visit, a report from state news agency KUNA said quoting Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Ahmad Naser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah.

Al-Mohammad clarified that the visit will be an addition to the strong bilateral ties between both nations. 

On Tuesday evening, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in the UAE for the second leg of his official tour of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. 

He was welcomed by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, marking his first visit to the UAE since November 2019. 

This came after Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s overnight visit in Muscat earlier, where he met with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, the ruler of Oman, as well as other senior Omani officials.


US thwarts smuggling attempt of Iranian arms in Arabian Sea bound for Yemen’s Houthis

US thwarts smuggling attempt of Iranian arms in Arabian Sea bound for Yemen’s Houthis
Updated 10 min 26 sec ago

US thwarts smuggling attempt of Iranian arms in Arabian Sea bound for Yemen’s Houthis

US thwarts smuggling attempt of Iranian arms in Arabian Sea bound for Yemen’s Houthis
  • The operation represents the US ‘government’s largest-ever forfeitures of fuel and weapons shipments from Iran’

DUBAI: The US seized two large caches of Iranian arms, including 171 surface-to-air missiles and eight anti-tank missiles, intended for the Houthi militia in Yemen. 
The US justice department on Tuesday said navy troops seized the weapons from two vessels in the Arabian Sea while conducting routine maritime security operations. 
“Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organization, orchestrated the arms shipments, which were destined for Houthi militants in Yemen,” the statement added. 
Approximately 1.1 million barrels of Iranian petroleum products were also seized from four foreign-flagged tankers in or around the Arabian Sea while en route to Venezuela, the justice department said. 
“The actions of the United States in these two cases strike a resounding blow to the Government of Iran and to the criminal networks supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
The seized petroleum products were sold for over $26 million, pursuant to a court order, with the proceeds directed, “in whole or in part, to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.” 
The operation represents the US “government’s largest-ever forfeitures of fuel and weapons shipments from Iran,” the statement noted.


French ambassador to Lebanon’s Aoun: Implement Jeddah Agreement

French ambassador to Lebanon’s Aoun: Implement Jeddah Agreement
Updated 08 December 2021

French ambassador to Lebanon’s Aoun: Implement Jeddah Agreement

French ambassador to Lebanon’s Aoun: Implement Jeddah Agreement
  • Judiciary challenges political pressures, returns Beirut blast file to judicial investigator

BEIRUT: On Tuesday, at the request of President Emmanuel Macron, French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Griot briefed Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Macron’s Gulf tour, especially his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which “expressed its commitment to helping Lebanon, pointing out the need to implement the commitments that have been undertaken,” as stated by the media office of the Lebanese presidency.

During the meeting, Griot stressed that “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are ready to undertake the required steps, and that for its part, Lebanon should undertake what is required from it and prove its credibility in its commitment to reforms, especially the structural reforms that require new work tools to confront the deep crisis.”

The meeting held last Saturday in Jeddah between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Macron saw the issuing of a statement concerning Lebanon, in which the pair stressed the “need (for) the Lebanese government to undertake comprehensive reforms.”

The two sides also stressed the “need to limit possession of arms to legitimate state institutions,” and that “Lebanon should not serve as a base for terrorist acts that destabilize the security and stability of the region, or a base for drug trafficking,” further stressing “the importance of strengthening the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining the security and stability of Lebanon.”

The pair had made a joint phone call during the meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

During her talks with Aoun, Griot stressed the importance placed by the international community and France in the legislative, municipal, and presidential elections due next year.

In response to the Saudi-French statement, on behalf of Hezbollah, former minister Mohammed Fneish said on Tuesday that the group “will not … substitute the symbol of our dignity and freedom with bare essentials of living conditions.

“The attempts to make us relinquish the resistance and its arms in return of resolving the economic crisis is something unacceptable to us,” he added.

BACKGROUND

The meeting held last Saturday in Jeddah between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Macron saw the issuing of a statement concerning Lebanon, in which the pair stressed the ‘need (for) the Lebanese government to undertake comprehensive reforms.’

Cabinet sessions have been suspended since Oct. 12 over Hezbollah’s stubbornness over the  investigation into the Port of Beirut explosion. Judicial investigator Tariq Bitar is accused by the group of being biased against it, according to its chief, Hassan Nasrallah.

On Tuesday, the Civil Court of Appeal of Beirut, headed by Judge Randa Harrouq, rejected a lawsuit submitted by former minister Youssef Fenianos against Bitar “for lack of qualitative jurisdiction.”

Harrouq decided to “fine the plaintiff an amount of 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($530) and inform Judge Bitar of the content of the decision, which entails that he continues his investigations related to the file of the Port of Beirut explosion.”

A judicial source told Arab News that the defendants have exhausted all the steps that could be undertaken at the Court of Appeal, and that they might resort to the Court of Cassation to obstruct the interrogation of 4 former ministers in addition to former Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

Bitar has not yet undertaken any indictments despite the fact that nearly 16 months have passed since the disaster.

According to another judicial source, Bitar has rejected all attempts to remove the brief from him and to refer the ministers and the prime minister to a court that would be formed by Parliament to try presidents and ministers, a request made by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.