Tribes with Cities

Yasser Elsheshtawy

UAE University

”Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags.”[1] Thus declared Tahsin Bashir, well-known Egyptian diplomat, asserting the countries’ supremacy. He served in the 1960s under Nasser and subsequently Sadat and Mubarak, yet his view is one that is remarkably still shared by many folks reflecting a sense of superiority and dominance vis-à-vis the rest of the Arab world. Perhaps motivated by a dire present there is a need to constantly remind oneself that Egypt is the only country in the region that matters. In turn it follows that Cairo is the center of the Arab world, its shining light, a beacon of hope and progress in a sea of backwardness (provinciality, artificiality, the list is long). Not surprisingly a popular saying in Egypt “Masr Om Al Dunya” (Cairo — Masr denotes both the country and the city — is the mother of the world) evokes a Cairo-centric worldview that permeates its citizens psyche, or as historian Nasser Rabbat would argue an assertion of Egyptian “cosmo-centrism” (Rabbat, 2005).


Figure 1: Cairo, “Mother of the World.” As it appeared in 1984

And this is not just restricted to Egypt or Cairo. Indeed many observers from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, those ancient centers of Arab/Moslem civilization, have similar views. And they are always, invariably, expressed in relation to the countries/cities in the Gulf region, whose perceived rise and dominance is chalked up to a mere blimp, an aberration because of oil, perpetuated through the rise of a nouveau riche populace lacking class, sophistication and the taste for the finer things in life. It will go away, so it is hoped, and the real centers will re-emerge again.

No one with any awareness of developments taking place within the last few decades would take this seriously. Yet here it is, the debate remerging again after the publication of three successive articles, two of them asserting the shift of the Middle East center to the Gulf region, and the third arguing against this view.[2]  This has prompted a barrage of responses denouncing such “ignorant” pronouncements and stating in clear terms that claiming such a mantle is the prerogative of a few centers in the region, which while undergoing transformative and cataclysmic events, will eventually assert their dominance once again. And those pesky Bedus with their oil money will return to herding sheeps and goats. Their skyscrapers will be enveloped by the desert and the tent will, once again, be their abode. Moreover, the mere mention of any Khaliji city among the urbane classes of Cairo or Beirut illicit responses which typically range from the uninformed (“I do not like it”) to the educated and worldly (“Its artificial”). The margin is narrow.


Figure 2: Dubai Skyline as it appeared in 2007. Since then the camels are gone, replaced by luxurious villas

I have intentionally depicted the debate in rather cartoonish terms to highlight the fallacies upon which this whole discussion is based. It seems to me that casting the discourse as an us vs. them proposition is misguided, yet it is certainly prompted by an attitude that looks down upon these newly emerging centers, prompting defensive reactions which in turn generate further reactions. A never-ending tautology. It veers us away from discussing serious issues to one that is simply about who has the nicer, bigger buildings. More significantly the mere raising of this issue is I believe a reflection of the sorry state we are in as Arabs — no one would in all seriousness argue that London is THE center of Europe, or that Seoul is the new center of Asia (such calls may exist but they do not go beyond simple boasting). Indeed in such regions cities are viewed as complementing each other, with varying modes of influence (“Berlin is poor but sexy” for instance, a well-known characterization indicating the lack of big scale architectural statements; instead there is a bohemian, laid-back lifestyle; or London as a financial center, etc.). In other words what is being questioned is whether the Khaliji city is a model (if one at all) worth examining? Does it offer any lessons? And does it constitute a center of any kind?

What is a Center?

At its core this is a debate that questions the relevance of cities in the Arabian Peninsula but it also seems to be prompted by misunderstandings concerning the meaning of center which is a value-laden term filled with, sometimes, mutually exclusive terms. Thus it is important to disentangle the various issues involved. Specifically I would like to address matters related to context, definition, degrees of differences among Khaliji cities and the existence of a “model”, and global connectivity.

First, being the center of the Arab world may not be something to be necessarily proud of. As I have discussed elsewhere, the entire region is mired in a state of backwardness vis-à-vis the rest of the developing world and it is hard to see how anyone can claim with any sense of pride that they are the center of this distinguished geography or that they are making a substantive contribution to human civilization (Elsheshtawy, 2008). Many would argue that Arabs are hapless recipients of modernity, adopting modes of urbanity that are developed elsewhere. According to poet Adonis Arabs have ceased to exist, not in the sense of a physical presence – but rather as a vital and contributing civilization:

If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world… We have become extinct. We have the quantity. We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world.[3]

The indicators are numerous published in countless UN reports, media accounts, university rankings, rates of research publications, governmental support for research etc. All point to the same sad conclusion: the Arab region as a whole is at the bottom of human progress.[4] Moving away from the whole and adopting a more discerning mode of inquiry one begins to notice however that not all Arab regions and cities are the same. Which is precisely why we need to discuss whether there are any newly emerging centers. Is there a new “Arab Metropolis” that captures the “minds and hearts” of the Arab populace, longing to escape their impoverished and deteriorating lands, ancient civilizations not withstanding, to get a taste, a glimpse, of modernity and to feel perhaps for once that they are part of the developed world? Is there a new “urban imaginary” which seductively appeals to the Arab masses?


Figure 3: Dubai Skyline, Marina District, as seen from the Palm Island. October, 2013. The new Dubai (as opposed to an old one).

This leads me to the second point, namely how do we define “center”? Claiming to be the center of a region requires further specifications: is it geographical, political, economic, or cultural? The articles previously mentioned conflate these types — and they are certainly not all the same. A cultural center is one thing, but being a political heavyweight could be something else entirely. Or if a city claims to be an economic center of sorts, then this does not necessarily translate into becoming a cultural beacon. Indeed the whole notion of ranking cities according to a set of criteria has been an ongoing subject of interest for the world city folks who have adopted the theories of Saskia Sassen (2001), which were based on the work of Jon Friedman & Wolf Goetz (1982), among others, and aimed at ranking cities according to their degree of “global cityness” using primarily economic criteria related to, for instance, the presence of multinational firms within a given city.[5] Subjected to intense criticisms, the rhetoric has been tampered down somewhat by acknowledging local variations — the term globalizing is thus used. A central construct underlying these new developments is the notion of transnational urbanism in which urbanizing processes are examined from ‘below’, looking at the lives of migrants, for example, and the extent to which they moderate globalizing processes (Robinson, 2002; Peter-Smith, 2001). The global city discourse – whereby certain cities are offered as a model to which other cities must aspire to if they are to emerge from ‘off the map” – is essentially in dispute.

Yet putting this aside for a moment and looking at the Arab world we notice that irrespective of any indicators used, cities in the Gulf region consistently rank higher, much higher, than their unfortunate “traditional” counterparts (a fact notably highlighted in Qassemi’s article). Whether it is, education, quality of life, airport traffic, foreign investment, you name it, the Gulf region has made significant strives. Or consider hosting of world events. Many would remember Cairo’s failed bid for the World Cup — the country did not even come close to being a serious contender. In the Gulf on the other hand Qatar will host an upcoming World Cup tournament, and Dubai is on its way to hosting the EXPO 2020 (even if it does not win it is a great achievement that it is, at the moment, the frontrunner).


Figure 4: Dubai, candidate city for Expo 2020

With respect to culture, this is an issue that has caused perhaps the most serious reaction, given the assertion that the Gulf is the new center of culture in one article. For instance the hyperbolic statement: “Culture, what culture” by a North-American based Arab commentator is quite typical claiming that the degree of freedom provided by Beirut and Cairo in the 1960s and 1970s allowed for a productive exchange of ideas, etc.[6] More or less a repeat of the same tired arguments heard by many when it comes to “culture in the Gulf.” Those espousing such views are unfortunately mired in the past, and do not comprehend the changing notion of culture within a globalized world. Indeed within the last decade the Gulf has become a heavyweight in the art scene.[7] The construction of world-class museums is not just about acquiring gleaming buildings, but is a response to contemporary notions pertaining to universal museums and transnationalism. Moreover, accompanying these museums are art programs, events, and a nurturing of local talent that will in time turn the Gulf region not just into a consumer but a producer of culture as well (Elsheshtawy, 2012). For those persisting on their antiquated, fossilized and xenophobic views on culture in the region, they are in for a rude awakening.

In addition to these arguments mentioned above, one issue still needs to be resolved. Is there such a thing as a Khaliji city, in other words do cities in the region have a set of unique characteristics which distinguishes them from their counterparts? Are they all the same? Is there a unique urban model? No doubt a minefield, potentially prompting accusations of orientalising and ignoring of cultural differences. Nevertheless attempts have been made by some to precisely define such a model, most notable by anthropologist Sulayman Khalaf (2006) seeking to establish the Gulf city as a type, outlining a series of common unifying elements (e.g. its multi-ethnic migrant character, or the segregated housing patterns of migrants). The issue is important because it illustrates, irrespective where one stands on this, that the Gulf city may constitute a type that is worth studying in all its deficiencies and potentials. It is thus not some freakish aberration appearing on the Arab urban landscape that could be dismissed offhandedly.

Yet clearly, even if there is such a thing as a Khaliji city, not all cities in the Gulf are the same. Degrees of urbanization differ, with some having an established historic core (Manama, Muscat) and others who emerged on the scene within the last 3 decades (Doha, Abu Dhabi) more or less created from scratch, their mode of urbanity dependent on oil. Most are content with their regional status, not having any ambitions at expanding their range of influence, or becoming a brand. For others there is a clear attempt at regional domination, at becoming a source of influence, a model to be emulated. For that one only needs to look to one city that has dominated the urban discourse for close to two decades: Dubai.

Dubai’s history dates back to the 19th century and it has always been a meeting point, a gateway of sorts, a merchant city relying on trade. It underwent in the 20th century various transformative processes resulting in its current urban form combining both older neighborhoods and brand new centers. While this is obvious to most folks, some surprisingly argue that Dubai is an artificial entity which just seems to have emerged overnight. The city’s rise and influence is indisputable. Indeed I coined a phrase in 2004 that depicts this: Dubaization.[8] My intention at the time was to illustrate the extent of the city’s impact on other urban centers in the region — specifically Cairo, by looking at real estate project and how Dubai based developers are actively engaged in re-shaping the Cairene landscape along the lines of similar developments in Dubai. I have discussed this at length elsewhere (Elsheshtawy, 2006; 2010), but it is important to note that the city’s influence has become so prevalent and pervasive that there has been a backlash of sorts, with many city officials in the region proclaiming “We do not want to become Dubai.” Yet for city inhabitants the word “Dubai” suggests quality, luxury and allure (“City star mall is like Dubai’s malls”) — a disconnect it seems between an ancien regime intelligentsia and the masses.


Figure 5: Dubai in Cairo (1): advertisement for a UAE based telecommunications company, placed along the city’s gritty autostrad highway, alongside semi-formal structures dotting the Cairene urban landscape.


Figure 6: Dubai in Cairo (2): entry to the über-luxurious gated community development, Uptown Cairo, by a Dubai based developer, located on the Muqattam mountain, overlooking the notorious informal settlement of Manshiet Nasser. The road infrastructure has been constructed by the developer.

Lastly, and moving beyond the limiting and limited context of the region, can we argue that a true center needs to be globally integrated and part of a new “post-industrial world order”? Do such cities have a new globalized identity characterized by the emergence of an “unprecedented premier service-industry city typology, a new open city” as was recently announced in a call for papers in a major conference.[9] Much of the criticism directed at the Khaliji city is that it lacks ingenuity, its population is transient, and that it only accommodates a service industry and is thus lacking the authenticity that its elder counterparts have. Such arguments would have been perfectly fine in the 20th century, but in the 21st century a new type of city is emerging — one that is globally connected, and forms part of a network of cities. Within such an emerging paradigm a transformation of cities has occurred dissolving antiquated notions of nations and borders, characterized by seamless connections, fluid borders, indeterminate spaces deftly navigated by worldly travellers. A new global citizen will emerge challenging established formulations of identity and citizenship. And the Gulf city has become a perfect laboratory for experimenting with these new forms of citizenship and place formation.

For example, there is an ongoing robust debate taking place in the region about identity, the nature of citizenry, and the integration of migrants within their respective societies. Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi recently argued for giving citizenship to certain categories of migrants — an unthinkable proposition just a few years ago.[10] This prompted a backlash but there have also been voices of support.[11] Cities in the Gulf, particularly Dubai I would argue, are at the forefront of such forward and advanced thinking. For skeptics watch the movie “Code 46” which brilliantly captures this new world, in all its glory (and horror) (Elsheshtawy, 2011). Indeed the movie alludes to a reality that is already evident in the urban centers of the Gulf —the presence of a unique hybridized culture and populace, a form of transnational urbanism linking migrants to their home countries but also allowing for an assertion of their identity within their respective Khaliji cities. Such forms of expression and nourishing of local vis-à-vis global identities can be found in a street corner in Dubai’s low-income neighborhood, Hor al Anz for example which I recently submitted as an example of multiculturalism to an exhibition on urban trends at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Or consider Rawi, a Pakistani restaurant in the district of Satwa, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai, where on any given night you will find a mix of South Asians, Arabs and Europeans filling its confined space. And there are others, such as Bu Qtair, located along the city’s shoreline affording the pleasures of eating fish alongside a simple shack, or Special Ustadi, one of the city’s oldest Iranian restaurants, where one can experience its quirky interior, and listen to the stories of its shop owner.[12] And then there is Meena Bazaar, a retail district in the heart of Bur Dubai, frequented by South Asian expatriates and locals alike, reminding people of the city’s beginnings and reliance on trade (Elsheshtawy, 2008).

Increasingly researchers have been documenting the cultural richness and diversity in the Gulf. Whether it is through the lives of middle class Indians in Dubai (Vora, 2008), the encounters of South-Asian men in Abu Dhabi’s downtown area (Mohammad & Sidaway, 2012), the stories of Dubai’s camel workers (Khalaf, 2010) or the travails of British expatriates (Walsh, 2006). In a different context Andrew Gardner explored the impact migrants have on their families in their homeland (Gardner, 2011), or Pascal Menoret uncovering the driving culture in Riyadh and its relationship to city spaces (Menoret, forthcoming). There are many others and such scholarship points out that the artificiality of Gulf cities is a myth, only believed by those still living in the past, basking in the glory of a fading and crumbling empire.

Beyond Cities

The notion that there is some sort of original Middle Eastern city that can only be copied and never surpassed is based on false premises as I have tried to show. Yet for residents of cities such conceptualization, debates and arguments may not mean much. Cairenes (and I am one of them) will remain steadfast in their conviction that Cairo is the center of the world because cities are much more than simply repositories for headquarters of multinational companies or a transit point for a global citizen. Ultimately it is not about physical space at all, but a city becomes a backdrop for forming networks and friendships, having sites of memory, a palimpsest of meaning accumulated over time. Interestingly the Khaliji city is criticized precisely because of this — its apparent focus on spectacle at the expense of humane and livable spaces. In response I will offer the following two episodes.

The first concerns Ayamatti, a gardener from Kerala who has been living in Dubai for the last 16 years. He resides in a non-descript studio apartment, wakes every morning at dawn and after finishing his prayers rides his bike, while the city is still dark, to the various villas in the posh district of Jumeirah. There he waters the grass, manicures the lawn and engages in other gardening tasks. All the while Dubai’s “iconic” cityscape appears in the background. He returns home late, eats his lunch and recounts how good the city has been to him. His family at home is extremely proud of the work that he is doing and is grateful for his help. He returns to his loved-ones every two years. On his day off he takes his bike to the public beach near Burj Al Arab. The expression on his face is one of satisfaction and contentment. He is as far removed from the image of the alienated worker as one can imagine. The scene I am describing is an extended version of a clip which appeared in the movie “Life in a Day” released last year. Composed of videos uploaded by users throughout the world depicting life on one particular day in 2010, it is a project that combines these scenes into one coherent narrative. Ayamatti’s story is one of many.   


Figure 7: Scene from the movie “Life in a Day”

The other episode is more personal. I recently visited Dubai’s Aweer Vegetable Market for a photographic exploration in preparation for a lecture. While walking through the market stalls and along its stores, a young worker asked me to take his picture. He was wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Dubai.” He wore the garment with pride, displaying a sense of belonging to the city and a realization perhaps that he contributed, in his own modest way, to its growth. This sense of pride was unmistakable, in his appearance and demeanor.


Figure 8: Al Aweer vegetable market, Dubai 

I would suspect that for Ayamatti the gardener and the worker in Al Aweer vegetable market, the city has provided a safe haven and afforded them an opportunity for a better life. Cities in the Gulf are not an artificial creation that can be dismissed arrogantly. Such are the views of the casual observer, the ones who are removed from its daily life and encounters. Instead, they are places filled with hope and optimism. Contrast this with the mayhem and chaos in cities such as Cairo and, at least for me, I know precisely where I would like the new center of the Middle East to be. Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, unburdened by ancient history, and given their unique cosmopolitan blend of cultures, are in an unprecedented position to provide the blueprint for our urban future – and should thus command our attention. They are neither backward nor artificial but offer an urban vision for the 21st century.


Rabbat, Nasser (2005). “The Medieval Link: Maqrizi’s Khitat and Modern Narratives of Cairo.” In Nezar AlSayyad, Irene Bierman, & Nasser Rabbat, (eds.) Making Cairo Medieval. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2006). “From Dubai to Cairo: Competing Global Cities, Models, and Shifting Centers of Influence?”  In P. Ammar & D. Singermann (eds). Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Space in the New Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press

Elsheshtawy, Y. (2008). “Navigating the Spectacle: Landscapes of Consumption in Dubai.” Architectural Theory Review. 13:2. pp. 164-18

Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2008). “The great divide: struggling and emerging cities in the Arab world.” In Y. Elsheshtawy (ed.). The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, modernity & urban development. pp. 1-21. London: Routledge.

Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2010). Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle. London: Routledge

Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2011). “The Prophecy of Code 46: Afuera in Dubai or our Urban Future.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlement Review. XXII:11, Spring. pp. 19-32.

Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2012). “Producing Culture: Hegemony & Globalization in Abu Dhabi.” In Raj Isar & Helmut Ahnstein (Eds.), Cultural Policy and Governance in a New Metropolitan Age, pp. 133-145. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage.

Friedman, John and Wolff, Goetz (1982) World city formation: an agenda for research and action. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research,6(3), pp. 309–344.

Gardner, Andrew (2011). “Gulf Migration and the Family.” Journal of Arabian Studies. 1.1, June, pp. 3-25

Glass, Charles (1990) Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage through the Chaos of the Middle East. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Khalaf, Sulayman (2006) “The evolution of the Gulf city type, oil and globalization.” In J. Fox, N. Mourtada-Sabbah and M. al-Mutawa (eds.) Globalization and the Gulf, pp. 244-265. London: Routledge

Khalaf, Sulayman (2010). “Dubai Camel Market Transnational Workers: An Ethnographic Portrait.” City & Society. 22:1, pp. 97-118

Menoret, Pascal (forthcoming, 2014). Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mohamad, Rubina & Sidaway, James D (2012). “Spectacular Urbanization amidst Variegated Geographies of Globalization: Learning from Abu Dhabi’s Trajectory through the Lives of South Asian Men.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 36:3, 606-627

Peter-Smith, Michael (2001). Transnational Urbanism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Robinson, Jennifer (2002) Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26(3), pp. 531–554.

Sassen, Saskia (2001) The Global City, 2nd ed.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Vora, Neha (2008). “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in Dubai.” Anthropological Quarterly. 81, pp. 377-406.

Walsh, Katie (2006). “’Dad say’s I’m tied to a shooting star.’ Grounding (research on) British expatriate belonging.” Area. 38:3, pp. 268-278.


[1] (Quoted in Glass, 1990, p. 3)

[2] The original piece was by Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi, followed by responses from Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Emirati political scientists, and Abbas al-Lawati, a Gulf-based journalist. The former celebratory and the latter critical. Al Qassemi, Sultan (2013). “Gulf Cities emerge as new centers of Arab world.” Al Monitor; Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq (2013). “Khaleeji cities are present, future.” Al Monitor; Al-Lawati, Abbas (2013). “Gulf cities have a long way to go before leading Arab world.” 

[3] From an interview with Syrian poet ‘Adonis’, aired on Dubai TV on 11 March 2006. Transcript on MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Special Dispatch Series no. 1121, 21 March.

[4] The Arab Human Development Report concerning “Knowledge” makes for sober reading. Not much has changed since. 

[7] According to a recent Reuters news report (October, 2013): “Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, the daughter of the emir of Qatar was named as the art world’s most powerful figure on Thursday after the tiny Gulf state went on an unprecedented spending spree at auction houses and in private sales around the world to fill its new museums.” 

[8] Also see the following blog, where I am documenting the concept of “dubaization” 

[12] Considered a Dubai institution of sorts

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