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

edited by Harvey Molotch & Davide Ponzini and reviewed by Leslie Sklair

1 Aug 2019, 11:33 a.m.
Leslie Sklair

The New Arab Urban book cover

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

edited by Harvey Molotch & Davide Ponzini and reviewed by Leslie Sklair

New York: New York University Press, 2019; xi + 339 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4798-9725-4, £23.99 (pbk)


This fine book starts with a bold statement from the editors, namely that we should heed the message from Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s (1977) Learning from Las Vegas that we must go beyond seeing Las Vegas as ‘tasteless, materialistic, or aberrant’ and start to recognise that it has ‘important lessons for all places’ (p. 1). In this open-minded spirit, the 14 chapters of this book address issues of wealth, ambition and distress in the cities of the Gulf. Most chapters, especially the Introduction and Conclusion written by the editors (who both contribute chapters of their own), perform richly scholarly balancing acts to square the circle of what we could label ‘the Las Vegas/Arab Gulf Cities conundrum’. Their success will be a matter of debate among specialist Arab urbanism scholars (I am not one, myself), but what can be confidently asserted is that the book offers an invaluable survey of the topic, and a guide to a vast literature on this increasingly important region that is largely absent from urban studies as a whole.

The book is divided into four, rather overlapping, sections: ‘The Gulf as Transnational’, ‘Assembling Hybrid Cities’,  ‘Urban Test Beds for Export’ and ‘Audacity, Work-Arounds, and Spatial Segmentation’. While all the chapters merit discussion, space limitations restrict me to covering only three in any detail. In ‘Problematizing a Regional Context: Representation in Arab and Gulf Cities’, Amale Andraos sets the scene for locating Arab and Gulf cities in the transnational context, arguing that ‘tradition is itself a modernist construction’ (p. 59).Speaking as an architect, she invokes the ‘imagery of the void’ (p. 60) that ignores centuries of urban settlement to counter the blank slate narrative that Gehry, for example, chose to rationalise his Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island. Koolhaas, Foster and Hadid are also brought into the discussion of how architects strive to make a ‘meaningful blend’ (p. 61; her expression) of tradition and modernism. Andraos, however, seems to resolve this dilemma by judgmental fiat, asserting that ‘The most undeniably successful architectural synthesis of the traditional and the modern in the Gulf is Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi’ (p. 62)At the same time, she acknowledges the power and success of other less starchitect projects (like SOM’s Burj Khalifa). There is clearly more than one form of Orientalism at work in Arab cities. In a particularly interesting but all too short section, Andraos discusses the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) and the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA), as key institutions in the efforts by modernists ‘to shed the shackles of colonialism’ (p. 68)The final section of this thought-provoking chapter argues that ‘Arab urbanism – as now should be obvious — is far from being a unitary and geographically homogenous process.’ Her discussion of Beirut (notably the role of the developer Solidere) convincingly demonstrates the relevance of this non-Gulf case.

‘A Gulf of Images: Photography and the Circulation of Spectacular Architecture’ by the photographer Michele Nastasi provides many telling insights into professional practice. Starting with the provocative statement ‘Whether in branding a city, gaining an architectural commission, or leasing a building, the rhetorical devices of architects and photographers are rarely questioned’ (p. 103), he analyses the creation of the image and myth of American modernism in architecture. He documents the ways in which photos of buildings may be used as much to create an ‘image qua image’ (p. 104) as to show the features of the building, which, of course, can vary with light, angle, people, perspective and context (the paradigm case being Julius Shulman’s photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22, with and without the young women). Nastasi highlights several important issues, including the difficulty of deciding, in the age of digital photography, whether a picture is of a rendering or of the actual building (Magritte springs to mind); how images of skylines can be misleading, as in density-driven verticality in Manhattan and Hong Kong, compared with ‘socially sparse’ (p. 110) Dubai and Doha; and his now quite famous photo of businessmen in La Défense, ‘Paris unrecognisable’ in an increasingly global ‘anywhere’ urban environment (p. 113). The ongoing publicity campaigns of Gulf city tourist authorities (especially in major airport advertising all over the world) would add further evidence to Nastasi’s sharp observations about photographing Gulf cities and their ‘iconic’ buildings (the term is used uncritically all through the book, as if we all know what it means). The only disappointment about this splendid chapter is the poor quality of the reproduction of the photos – if you want them in their full spectacular glory, see Ponzini and Nastasi (2016). Finally, in ‘“Two Days to Shape the Future”: A Saudi Arabian Node in the Transnational Circulation of Ideas About New Cities’, Sarah Moser, a geographer, summarises a fascinating ethnographic project on corporate organisations that are making a pitch to capture the lucrative business of the new master-planned cities in the Global South – over 150 new cities, some with implementation budgets approaching US$100 billion, according to Moser. Her project focuses on the meetings in the Gulf of two such organisations: CityquestKAEC Forum (KAEK is actually the Dubai-based developer ‘Emaar the Economic City’) and the Paris-based NGO, New Cities Foundation, for which Moser was a consultant. The focus of her research was to show how these organisations create ‘policies-in-transformation’ rather than one size fits all urban plans, and to contribute to policy transfer scholarship by ‘mapping how neoliberal agendas are extended across space’ (p. 215). The fine-grained ethnography of this chapter is brought to life with some revealing photographs. Moser skilfully and briefly treats the impact of corporate urban planning on the transition from extractive to knowledge economies in the Global South and the role of corporate–state collaboration. Guest lists to these rather exclusive meetings variously include new city CEOs, McKinsey consultants, corporates, TED-celebrity speakers (e.g. Koolhaas, Libeskind), royals and academics. Themes include the ‘monetization of city components, like parks, street trees, and sidewalks’ (p. 221) and how to deal with opposition politicians and protesters. This chapter provides original insights into how cities are being transformed all over the world. The transition to knowledge-based economies is also addressed in other chapters (notably, the late Hilary Ballon’s insider account of the physical and social construction of NYU Abu Dhabi).

Summing up this book, there are three issues that might have been discussed more fully. First, while much of the book focuses on the Gulf as transnational and the impact of Gulf cities as potentially game-changing exporters transnationally (as in chapters by Boodrookas and Keshavarzian, Ponzini and Elshsheshtawy on real estate), there is very little direct comparison with other parts of the world. For example, the idea of ‘Third World Modernism’ in architecture and city-building (see Lu, 2011) is entirely ignored, and China is mentioned only in passing. Yes, the book is primarily about Gulf cities, but the transnational vision that often insightfully permeates it makes the absence of such comparisons unfortunate. As I try to show in my own research (Sklair, 2017), there are many excellent examples of the globalisation of architecture and urban change from scholars all over the world, and many of these could throw light on Gulf cities.

The second omission is the lack of any discussion of the impact of the vast US military presence in the Gulf. The US Central Command is located at an airbase in Qatar, and the Fifth Fleet is permanently docked in Bahrain with around 7000 military personnel. Add to this the 5000 or so US troops, two naval bases and the airbase in the UAE, plus army and air bases in Kuwait and Oman. The US even has a military training mission in Saudi Arabia. Akhavan, in her excellent chapter on the importance of Dubai as a port city and its infrastructure of ‘distribution, not production’ (p. 177), does not discuss the military and strategic dimensions. I presume that all these have some impact on life in the Gulf, perhaps covered by the conceptual device of ‘urban work-arounds’ (pp. 305–308), the editors’ way of explaining how things get done in the Gulf (see the scintillating chapter ‘Consuming Abu Dhabi’ by Molotch). The third problem is not so much a glaring omission but a neglect of emissions. There is no sustained discussion of climate change, though several chapters mention the topic in passing in the context of Masdar ‘eco-city’ (for example, Hertog on the International Renewable Energy Agency, ‘the greenest office building in the UAE’ (p. 287), Lieto on its failings and Günel on solar energy in ‘spaceship’ (pp. 194ff) Masdar). In the editors’ Conclusion, they ask, ‘Why Have a Country?’ suggesting that if royal family wealth had been distributed more equally and the population had simply moved to Paris or London or other desirable locations, the carbon footprint of the Gulf cities would be much reduced. This is an intriguing thought, though the existing carbon footprint of Gulf cities deserves closer attention in the book.



  Lu, D (ed.) (2011) Third World Modernism: Architecture, Development, and Identity. London: Routledge. 
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  Ponzini, D, Nastasi, N (2016) Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors, and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities. New York: Monacelli Press. 
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  Sklair, L (2017) The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization. New York: Oxford University Press. 
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  Venturi, R, Scott Brown, D, Izenour, S (1977) Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
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