Beyond Dubai: Urban Development Trends in The Middle East

Al-Manakh is a magazine and book series that focuses on urban planning, sustainability, architecture and the future of cities in GCC countries.

Todd Reisz is part of the Al Manakh team focused on urban development in the Gulf region. The publication aims to look beyond the easy cliches of cities like Dubai to reveal how they are confronting the shifting global economic landscape. As editor of the recently release Al Manakh 2 Gulf Continued, Todd is an architect and writer focusing on cities in the Gulf region and his publication.

What is Al Manakh? What is your project dealing with?

Al Manakh is a project as well as a series of books that focus on the ongoing changes facing the cities of the Gulf, namely Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Manama and Riyadh. The books are schedule on a two-to-three-year schedule. So we likely won’t have a publication before 2012. However, the project is still alive. We are working to organize a conference in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah and Riyadh, in 2011 about continuing the work we’ve started in Saudi cities. We’ve of course also been keeping our website active. Rory Hyde, a contributor to Al Manakh 2, and I have been maintaining a blog on the Huffington Post, which has increased our readership, especially in the United States. The Al Manakh project has captured more attention in Europe and the Middle East, and the Huffington Post has allowed us to introduce issues confronting cities in the Gulf region to a new audience.

What measures are being taken to revitalize cultural heritage amidst all the urban developments taking place?

It’s not about revitalization; that suggests that something died and it has to be brought back to life; Al Manakh 2 covers this question in detail. Cultural heritage is something cities in the Gulf have had since their inception. If you want to get a sense of what different cities have been confronting over the last few years, Al Manakh 2 has an index of them. Of course, there are the museums and new cultural programs in Abu Dhabi, but those need little coverage at this point. An interview with Mohammed Ali in Doha about his work on the Souk Waqif provides an alternative to the way preservation / reconstruction happens. The project has been nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and deserves the attention. It is a clear example of how government can pursue a cultural project.

Culture isn’t just a governmental oversight. In her article for Al Manakh 2, Antonia Carver gives some terrific insight in the development of a ‘laissez-faire’ arts scene in Dubai. the accounts of recent history suggest not only ways forward for Dubai, but also remind us that culture cannot be a top-down project. Ingenuity and creativity from an individual basis are as much required as a multi-million dollar art spaces.

What role does political and economic power play today in shaping the urban fabric of the gulf region? The cities are devoid of residents and then government is planning to attract people to occupy these cities.

It seems that that manner of building is coming to a slow-down at least. It characterized Dubai’s development over the last ten years and it seemed like other cities, Doha and Abu Dhabi, for example, were continuing to take that road. But now there are signs that there is a general sense of caution in building more housing.

There are places that are needing housing. Bahrain has calculated it needs more ‘affordable housing’ for lower- and middle-income Bahrain families. And then at a scale more than ten times that of Bahrain’s shortage, Saudi Arabia faces shortages that would required building about 300,000 new units of housing every year for the next five years. If that need could be met, such a development speed would dwarf that of Dubai’s in the last several years.

If the question is addressing Dubai — the unlit windows one sees in new buildings in the Jumeriah Beach Residence, for instance — yes, it all seems rushed. The financial crisis has suddenly given developers an opportunity to claim the criticism of Dubai’s harshest critics: that cities don’t happen over time. So it follows, these places just need time to become activated. To damn Dubai now for building too much too quickly, would be too short-sighted. It’s a question we’ll have to answer in years to come.

In a recent Huffington Post article, we discussed what kind of outward policy Dubai should provide: how should Dubai sustain itself. Dubai’s advancement in the last decade leant heavily on images provided by architecture. There are dozens of projects one might label “crazy” or “whacky” but for every one of those drawings there are dozens of real built projects. Architecture worked for Dubai, but the question is: by what means will Dubai sell itself next?

There are voices within Dubai, primarily Emiratis, who are saying Dubai needs to amp up its image as a place of entrepreneurship. Make it a place where you can easily set up shop as a business owner. I find this fascinating because it has a ring of Dubai’s yesteryears, when traders and businesses set up shop along the Creek. That’s what created Dubai in the first place. Of course supporting entrepreneurship can’t be the only goal, but it suggests a general direction. More broadly, it suggests a focus on people.

How can pedestrian culture be developed and encouraged in GCC cities, and what’s being done about it?

This is one of the touchiest topics facing Gulf urbanism. And it’s one that will require a new method of approaching problems. In many ways, these cities already have a ‘pedestrian culture’. Each of these cities has a part of town where a walking is the preferred mode of transportation. Commerce in Dubai’s Deira neighborhood still relies on men pushing carts. How do workers get around the Port Rashid area? Bicycles. There’s an ad hoc bike lane painted onto the outer roads’ sidewalks. I would hope that places like these might provide hints of potentially successful systems.

Each city has some kind of master plan for addressing the issue, whether its Dubai’s metro system, Abu Dhabi’s ‘liveability’ vision, or Doha’s redevelopment plans for the city center. But these plans will only go so far. Building details, landscaping and streetscaping will eventually have to come into play (Abu Dhabi is trying to regulate this on an urban scale as well). The irony is that it can seem so simple. Walking from a metro stop to an office building, one can start to imagine what kinds of trees or overhead screens could make the walk bearable. It doesn’t have to be interiorized, air-conditioned walkways.

There are 120-130,000 people who take the Dubai metro daily. A rush hour ride is packed. People are starting to discover the city in a new way, to stick the foot out and find a sidewalk. I would also like to think that progress in this area might be attached to my answer in the previous question; in other words, that the future doesn’t lie in grand architecture or infrastructure, but rather in addressing how, and why, people come to live in theses cities.

What makes you optimistic about the future?

People taking on tough issues facing these cities. That’s what was so humbling about making Al Manakh 2. We worked with over 140 people to make this book; the majority of these people are living and working in the region. It’s very easy to find coverage on these cities provided by outsiders, but we are now beginning to hear from people who know these cities well. I can name two recent examples that post-date Al Manakh 2 of people working with a long-standing relationship with these cities: Bahrain’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale (@Reclaim_Bahrain)  and the #iamhere [@iamhere_ae] phenomenon in Dubai. At this point efforts like Al Manakh are mere words, but a founding belief of the Al Manakh project is in the need to broadcast ideas and to have them debated.

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Thanks to @iamshaima, @halzzz, @saqeram, and Aziz Almutairi, Grad Student at University of Illinois, for their questions.

Thanks Todd!

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