Gulf cities have followed similar paths of urbanization and architecture shaped by state planning and commercial development. While local differences exist, all reflect the demands of government and business, with little attention paid to civic requirements and public spaces.
Recent events across the globe, from the Occupy movements to the 2011 Arab uprisings, have brought the role of cities in political life to the forefront. However, with few exceptions, Gulf cities are known more as glittering global consumer capitals than places of civic engagement or political struggle.
With a dynamic younger generation rising in the Gulf, what is the public’s role, especially youth, in the remaking of their cities?
Moderator: Kristin Smith Diwan, Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Farah Al-Nakib, director of the Center for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait
Diane Singerman, associate professor in the Department of Government at American University
Farah Al-Nakib, director of the Center for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait, began the discussion speaking about violent crimes that often occur in shopping malls; public spaces that are thought to be havens of relaxation, presenting a false sense of security to consumers. Malls, like other public spaces in the Gulf, are in fact sites of anti-social behavior, blurring the public and private spheres. Al-Nakib asserted that Kuwait is in a state of urban crisis as the result of older generation Kuwaitis moving to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s. In response to this, younger generations are now taking it upon themselves to revitalize the city, establishing city centers made up of small business owners and public gardens in order to bring Kuwaitis together in rare public spaces. Even though this movement may be influenced by nationalistic ideals, Al-Nakib believes that the revitalization of the city culture will eventually bring all peoples in the community together, regardless of nationality or social position. The youth are restoring their right to the city, which represents social potential, active citizenship, and a key site of hybridization.
Diane Singerman, an associate professor in the Department of Government at American University with an expertise in Egypt, spoke on how neoliberal urban planning affects the youth. Singerman noted how civic engagement among Egyptian youth was very low, which created a culture of “waithood,” a term Singerman coined that describes how young people waited longer and longer to take on adult roles in the community. But, according to Singerman, this changed once the Revolution begun, prompting young people to reclaim public space in Cairo through Tahrir Square. The reclamation of the city remains difficult as officials attempt the “Gulfization” of Egypt; building romanticized smaller cities and living communities around Cairo, causing buildings in Cairo to become abandoned and desolate. In response to this modernist, neoliberal paradigm, Singerman and other activists created TADAMUN, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a right to the city, vis-à-vis the Egyptian constitution.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More