Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

The New Arab Urban: Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress

Harvey Molotch, Davide Ponzini

NYU Press



The New Arab Urban tackles the rapid and ambitious urbanization projects underway in certain cities of the Persian Gulf, particularly Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The editors see these cities as challenging conventional models of development trajectories. Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini claim to be attempting to understand the cities on their own terms, more anthropologically: for instance, acknowledging high inequality but resisting judgement.

This kind of research faces several obstacles, such as the limited amount of scholarship on the UAE that is actually conducted by Emiratis. And in the editors’ conception, cities in the region are marked by a unique kind of cosmopolitanism, or transnational flow, that complicates the imposition of certain urban borders. Thus, while local networks and contexts matter in discussing the grand architectural projects of the Gulf that have captured the world’s imagination, “they also bespeak more concrete common traits: abundant financial resources, strong and monocratic political commitment, weak planning regulation, and great ambition” (page 15).

A chapter by Sarah Moser reports on one means of formulating these kinds of urban policies: the elite Cityquest KAEC Forum, an annual invitation-only meeting in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, that is dedicated to new-cities projects. Amidst the luxurious surroundings, Sarah Moser notes, an agenda is advanced that privileges high-tech, corporation-linked master-planned cities. There is plenty of talk about residents but no mention of citizens, and the discourse at this exclusive meeting makes it clear that “similar to colonial-era cities, current new cities are not being designed to accommodate the poor as much as to earn profit and attract investment” (page 217).

Molotch’s chapter on consumption in Abu Dhabi analyses the “consumer citizenship” that marks relationships between the ruling families of certain oil-rich nations and the citizenries that account for small proportions of these countries’ residents (being dwarfed by the foreign worker population). One icon of this type of citizenship is the massive shopping mall, which has proliferated across Gulf cities in the past few decades. In Molotch’s analysis, shopping and joyriding are intimately linked to recreation for Abu Dhabi’s citizens. These spaces of consumption are carefully demarcated, whether supermarkets place pork products in a space “for non-Muslims”, or alcohol is served only in spaces targeting wealthy expats rather than manual labourers. In this chapter, consumption is a lens for understanding both cultural boundaries and a strategy of encouraging elite consumerism in exchange for political docility.

Though the chapters in The New Arab Urban have varying emphases, collectively they present a vision of Gulf cities marked by consumption, hybridity, resourcefulness and spectacle. The global influence of these cities, which are breeding grounds for innovation, means that they merit much more study.


Further reading:

Bhan, Gautam (2013), “The real lives of urban fantasies”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 26, No 1, pages 232–235, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247813514305.

Osra, Oumr Adnan (2017), “Urban transformation and sociocultural changes in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) 2005-2020: Key research challenges”, Journal of Advances in Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 3, No 3, pages 135–151, available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322753686_URBAN_TRANSFORMATION_....

Reiche, Danyel (2010), “Renewable energy policies in the Gulf countries: a case-study of the carbon-neutral “Masdar City” in Abu Dhabi”, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, available at https://epub.wupperinst.org/frontdoor/deliver/index/docId/3463/file/3463....


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

Search the Book notes database

Our Book notes database contains details and summaries of all the publications included in Book notes since 1993 - with details on how to obtain/download.

Use the search form above, or visit the Book notes landing page for more options and latest content.

For a searchable database for papers in Environment and Urbanization, go to http://eau.sagepub.com/