In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arab Middle Eastern Urbanization

  • Introduction
  • Contextual and Reference Works
  • The History of Urbanization/Planning
  • Neoliberalism and the Political Economy of Place
  • Urban Heritage, Religion, and Culture
  • Sustainability
  • Urban Morphology
  • Divided Cities, Social Exclusion, and Everyday Urbanism

Urban Studies Arab Middle Eastern Urbanization
Luna Khirfan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0049


This article explores urbanization in the Arab countries of the Middle East and covers contributions published in English. The literature offers a wide diversity of topics, some of which represent cross-cutting themes across the entire region (e.g., the diffusion of Dubai’s urbanization model throughout the Middle East under the “contemporary urbanization trends” theme) while others are context-specific to a sub-region (e.g., the Levant or the Arab Gulf), a country, or even a city (e.g., Beirut’s postwar reconstruction). A thematic presentation highlights the areas of concentration and those of omission that warrant further exploration vis-à-vis each context whether theoretically and/or empirically. Urban governance is one of the most broached topics, particularly the roles of civil society and the market. Indeed, studies abound on the political economy of place, namely the impacts of neoliberalism and globalization and the transfer of contemporary urbanization trends from the Gulf to the rest of the region. Paralleling this focus on high-end urbanization is a focus on urban informality whether in its strict form in Cairo, or in the form of refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Postwar reconstruction and place memory have received much attention and are connected, especially in Lebanon, to urban rehabilitation. Notably, the emphasis in the literature remains, for the most part, on capital cities with far fewer contributions on other urban centers within each sub-region/country. Also, while studies abound on urban heritage, there is a need for contributions that connect the rehabilitation of historic urban landscapes (HULs) to housing availability and affordability. In terms of omissions, there is a dearth in contributions pertaining to urbanization and environmental sustainability, particularly environmental planning, urban ecosystems, and ecological designs (nature-based solutions), and also climate change including risk and vulnerability assessments, mitigation (decreasing greenhouse gas emission), adaptation (urban systems’ adjustments to climate change), climate justice, and urban resilience. Throughout, there is little variation in the theoretical framing and the empirical methods among the abundant contributions. While the prevailing qualitative empirical approaches offer valuable insights, there is an evident lack of quantitative studies probably attributed to the challenges in the availability and accessibility of census and geospatial data. The latter may also be the reason for the near absence of urban morphological studies throughout the region.

Contextual and Reference Works

Amineh 2007 is a contextual reference on what constitutes the social, political, and economic Middle East. Four other references provide general overviews of various topics, including: the history of urbanization in Abu-Lughod 2018, urban governance and the political economy of place in Shami 2001 and in Khirfan 2017, and urban informality in Roy and AlSayyyad 2004.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Cairo 1001 Years of the City Victorious. Princeton Studies on the Near East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv7n0cmg

    This book begins with a brief historical introduction on the formation of early Cairo since the 7th century CE until the beginning of the 19th century. Following this introduction, it delves into the recent history of Cairo since 1800 until its expansion into a contemporary metropolis. Originally published 1971.

  • Amineh, Mehdi Parvisi. The Greater Middle East in Global Politics: Social Science Perspectives on the Changing Geography of the World Politics. Leiden, The Netherlands and Lisbon: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004158597.i-544

    This book combines colonial and postcolonial examinations of the Greater Middle East. It provides a contextual reference on what constitutes the social, political, and economic Middle East through an outsider lens that distinguishes between Arab and non-Arab countries. This book connects the region to global politics including the roles of the United States, Russia, and China historically and from a contempory perspective. It also provides in-depth discussions of the social, political, and economic developments within the region covering topics that include political Islam, revolution, globalization, nationalism, and war, among others.

  • Khirfan, Luna, ed. Order and Disorder: Urban Governance and the Making of Middle Eastern Cities. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017.

    The book investigates the challenges of Middle Eastern cities in terms of competitiveness, economic resilience, and stability in the 21st century. It delves into development projects in Amman and Cairo to describe complex interactions between market, civil society, and the state.

  • Roy, Ananya, and Nezar Al Sayyad, eds. Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Toronto: Lexington Books, 2004.

    The book looks into rapid urbanization growth (most of which is in the form of urban informality) in three regions—the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia.

  • Shami, Seteney, ed. Capital Cities: Ethnographies of Urban Governance in the Middle East. Toronto: Center for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, 2001.

    This edited book presents theoretical discussions and empirical investigations of four capital cities: Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Khartoum. The ethnographic lens adopted examines the context-specific relations between the state and civil society in the urban governance scheme.

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