Global attention and capital has been captivated by the rise and stumble of the city-states in the Persian Gulf. In 1961, the city-state of Dubai in the U.A.E. inaugurated its first power plant built to connect many of its 100,000 inhabitants to electricity for the first time; half a century later Dubai has a burgeoning population of two million who consume more energy than any other place on the planet. Similar stories have been repeated throughout the Gulf city-states of the U.A.E., Doha in Qatar, al-Manamah in Bahrain and Kuwait City in Kuwait.
It is hard however, not to be dispirited by the urban environment of the Gulf. These are cities built without reference to context or sensitive to the culture and climate of their place. The ubiquitous glass and steel towers have created a sleek looking city but this obfuscates the monumental waste that this environment produces.
A more accurate reflection of these Gulf city-states is to look at their inhabitants inside the streamlined exteriors. Over one thousand people needed hospital treatment in Qatar after over eating on Eid al-Adha, the feast of the Sacrifice. Doctors noted that excessive eating of fat mutton and the tendency to eat fast resulted in people arriving in the emergency room.
The Gulf city-states are the archenemy of sustainability. Change, despite the dramatic and rapid transformation of the built environment, can be creakingly slow. The move to more sustainable forms of urbanism and life in the city-states has been indicated but the policy largely remains verbal. No doubt the hospitals will be packed again following this year’s Eid al-Adha celebrations. Growth, jobs and edacity are the principals that these cities have been built on.
An estimated 20 million foreign workers are employed in the Gulf region. Immigrants from all over the developing world flock to Dubai to achieve their dream of financial freedom and provide for their families back home. The realities they face in the Gulf city-states is not the ‘City of Gold’ they dreamt of but too often a Dickensian City of Horrors.
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It is of note that these Gulf city-states have produced millions of jobs but among its own nationals unemployment remains high. Indeed, the elites of the Gulf city-states face their greatest challenge in the form of the Arab uprisings and this is in part due to the failure to create jobs in the region.
The rise of the city-states is particularly fascinating in the context of the Arab uprisings. Overall the Gulf monarchies are fearful of the aspirations for democracy and good governance. However, the rise of Al-Jazeera in Doha funded by the Qatari royal family was critical in the production of the Arab uprising.
In the city-states themselves the large non-Arab population puts them in a strange position in being part of the united Arab space that emerged following the self-immolation of Muhammed Bouaziz in Tunisia and precipitated the uprising. The uprising in Bahrain and Yemen has caused nerves to jitter across the Gulf, however.
The Saudi Arabian and Bahraini monarchies’ brutal counter-revolution to the uprising in Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain was a clear message to all those in the Gulf that seek to use the spaces of the city as a space for dissent and social change. The Gulf monarchies implementation of the planning and architecture of their city-states has been deliberate in the formation of public spaces of consumption. Public spaces in the Gulf are largely restricted to shopping malls and the various spaces within these shopping malls. The resilience of these designs are going to be tested in the coming months.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.