A review by Roman Stadnicki for Yasser ElSheshtawy’s book “Temporary Cities.”
Places of unbridled hypercapitalism, perched at the top of the skylines, the Gulf cities are also hybrid places where transnational logics and even urban resistance are expressed. Two books give a new breath.
A little more than ten years ago, Mike Davis, the famous American “radical” anthropologist, after a brief stay in the United Arab Emirates, published The Dubai Stadium of Capitalism (2007, Ordinary Meadows). He saw then the “worst possible world” (another major title of Mike Davis, published in French in 2006 at La Découverte), based on economic opulence, authoritarianism and socio-racial domination. Since then, the most accessible scientific and journalistic literature on Gulf cities generally subscribed to this reading grid.
The two books listed here mark a turning point in the approach and analysis of these spaces and more broadly reflect the vitality of the urban studies conducted there since the beginning of 2010. Different in their conception, the one being a structure While the other is an individual and personal work devoted to the uses of the city at the micro scale (Elsheshtawy), they nevertheless have several points in common.
Rather than a “new stage of capitalism”, these authors prefer to see through the cities that they study a new stage of urban planning! More willingly to be part of the debate on the reconfigurations of the urban in the 21st century rather than the sterile one, as they do not fail to emphasize, on the specificities of the Gulf cities, they consider that their lands have more to to say and to learn about contemporary urban production than about the “hypercapitalism” of which these would be the laboratory par excellence. Neoliberal urbanism, exploitation through labor, the infringement of individual and expression freedoms, and the proliferation of inequalities occur, as Yasser Elsheshtawy reminds us in his book, in the Gulf and elsewhere in the world.
Favoring the urbanistic angle leads the authors of these two works to take a healthy distance with an essentialist posture that would approach these cities by the prism of exceptionalism. Yasser Elsheshtawy devotes the last chapter of his book to say that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are both exceptional and banal. Admittedly, the speed of urban development and infrastructure development, demography (submersion of local populations by foreign populations), and authoritarian immigration and employment policies are exceptional. The strategies of adaptation and / or resistance to these configurations implemented by the inhabitants, on the other hand, which are at the heart of the work of Elsheshtawy, are also found in other urban contexts, more “ordinary” a priori, but no less marked by the effects of globalization and neoliberalism. In the same logic, Molotch and Ponzini, in the very successful introduction of their work, call for a more cautious use by researchers of a so-called “Dubai model”, which would be repeated in the Persian Gulf. and even beyond, as far as the banks of the Thames according to some, as the influence of golfers’ promoters and investors expands and the “spectacle city” develops.
These books will then be appreciated for their renewed conceptual and methodological apparatus. The authors usually summoned in the work on the cities of the Gulf – Davis and his “hypercapitalism” therefore, Baudrillard and his “hyperreality”, Augé and his “non – places” for example – are here only sparingly. Molotch, Ponzini and Elsheshtawi prefer to forge their own concepts from their observations, which leads to a series of fruitful developments on the notion of “assembly” for the first, describing the mechanisms, sometimes frictions, to the work in local urban production, and “impermanence” (transience in English) for the second. Observing common social practices in UAE cities, Elsheshtawy found in the notion of “impermanence” a paradigm that sums up his thinking: Gulf cities are planned for ephemeral use and practiced by temporary residents they are therefore themselves “temporary cities”. “Temporary” has a twofold meaning, referring both to the status of migrant worker and to that of built space, city-spectacle and “informal” city combined, always characterized by a “state of incompleteness or deterioration, revealing fragility and impermanence “(131). The temporary is also political, insofar as it makes it possible to minimize the attachment to the place and to prevent rooting, while seeking to circumscribe
Abu Dhabi (EAU) crédit Manuel Benchetrit, 2012
We will also appreciate the diversity of research methodologies used in these works, which are based for the most part on a rich empirical material and sometimes lead to certain innovations. Yasser Elsheshtawy has lived and taught in the UAE for 20 years. He founded the urban research laboratory of the University of the United Arab Emirates (Al-Ain) and trained many students in field surveys, especially at the micro level, he likes most. For this book, he did not hesitate to immerse himself for long months in micro-territories – a street corner, a square, a tree, and so on. – with a camera on feet allowing him to make time-lapse films from several angles, to capture the diversity of spatial practices. As a training architect, he is also used to manufacturing his own sources (surveys, socio-demographic surveys, etc.), which is very useful in the Gulf countries where access to information, particularly concerning foreign workers, is not easy. For their part, some of the contributors to Molotch and Ponzini’s work base their legitimacy on an unprecedented form of participant observation. It is as an urbanist engaged in planning a new city in Saudi Arabia that Laura Lieto analyzes the institutional and professional factory of the urban. It was by infiltrating a very select show at King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia) that the geographer Sarah Moser was able to take stock of the role played by Saudi and Emirati actors in the international network promoting new cities.
With all these assets, what do these two books bring to the debate on contemporary urban forms and to the knowledge of the Gulf cities?
Paradoxical urban systems
Far from the simplifying dichotomies of the “tradition / modernity” or “opulence / misery” type, the authors manage to restore the multiple dimensions of the paradox that defines the urban systems present in the Gulf. At the level of the main political orientations first, the urban projects aimed at “making heritage” are multiplying everywhere today, as if to counterbalance the great “futuristic utopias” (Amale Andraos in Molotch and Ponzini). These projects generally myth the Bedouin culture of the desert to the detriment of the mercantile civilizations turned towards the sea which pre-existed in these places before the oil. They thus create “exclusive” national identities (p.64). Masdar City, mentioned in both books, also perfectly embodies the urban paradox in the Gulf. A 100% ecological city project located in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet, Masdar City is compared by Gökçe Günel to a “spaceship”, which is far to have achieved its objectives, but which is already influencing international practices in sustainable urban planning.
The paradoxical feeling is also very present in Elsheshtawy’s investigations. An important part of his book is devoted to the study of representations of Gulf cities in fiction and narratives. What emerges is what he calls a rather irrational “Dubai paradox”. In the vlogs (video blogs) that he has seen, Indian migrants are staging their lives and their success in a sublimated city that, however, rejects and replaces them as it sees fit. This is undoubtedly the proof that the feeling of attachment, even of belonging to a place, can develop even among those whom N. Vora names the “impossible citizens” , these migrants who will never be at home. in the Gulf. Yasser Elsheshtawy, a foreigner to the UAE (Egyptian national), but flag bearer when he was appointed curator of the UAE pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, did he not internalize this paradoxical feeling himself? ? In places, it does not have words harsh enough to denounce the artificiality of certain urban projects and the segregation in force in these cities, while relativizing them when, in some writings, the latter are reduced to that. His writing can sometimes very slightly slip into miserabilism – “migrants confined to the cracks and crevices of an inhuman city” (p.250) – even though he recognizes, better than anyone else, the ability of these people to deal with and resist many of the conditions imposed on them.
Transnational and hybrid cities
Too often considered as spaces exclusively built from the importation of external elements, with reference in particular to the influence exercised by Las Vegas or New York on Dubai and the leading role of foreign consultants in urban planning, cities The Gulf is actually much more the product of circulation and assembly. The chapter of A. Boodrookas and A. Keshavarzian are thus fundamental, although following the works of N. Fuccaro  for example, in that he takes the opposite view of apolitical and ahistorical representations of these territories, which are very widespread. in journalistic and architectural circles. According to them, the so-called visionary role of monarchs and “starchitects” must be nuanced in the light of the long-standing capitalist logics on these territories (the emergence of merchant elites outside the circles of power) and a largely cosmopolitanism. prior to the arrival of foreign workers after the start of hydrocarbon exploitation.
Dubaï (EAU) crédit Manuel Benchetrit, 2011
Contemporary urban landscapes are therefore the result of these deep transnational logics, which are still at work. Thus, while Qatar and the UAE offer the services of Rem Khoolaas or Jean Nouvel, their multinational real estate development companies (Emaar, Qatari Diar, etc.) offer theirs in the Middle East, in Africa and even in Europe. These cities are therefore not passive receivers of exogenous architectural and urban forms, as Sarah Moser’s chapter clearly shows about the new cities in which local professionals seem to be quite successful, no matter how successful they are. met by the local operations in the matter … Similarly, in the city in the process of doing things, the practices can not be reduced to the simple “top-down” exercised by foreign consultants, says Laura Lieto, but good to day-to-day negotiation and adaptations suggested by local actors, thereby producing new forms, hybrid, urban planning.
Yasser Elsheshtawy is certainly not the first to focus on the living conditions of migrants in the Gulf cities, but he is the first to provide such a deep spatial analysis and to apprehend them in terms of distrust and resistance.
By looking at the scales of daily life, ordinary spaces, it appears in the pages of Temporary Cities another city than that promoted by international marketing or that, more critical, which considers migrants as helpless beings crushed by the accumulation of capital and authoritarianism. Elsheshtawy is thus part of the studies, many outside the Gulf, on the “ordinary townspeople” and the alternative forms of urbanity that are born in the urban margins.
His intimate knowledge of the field, his sensitive pen and his plural iconography allow to really embody these margins, often bypassed by the communication axes and hidden, even destroyed, by municipal authorities, but functioning for users as public spaces apart whole. The regulars of these cities know that these spaces exist, that they constitute interstices, margins, located at the back of the scenery. Elsheshtawy goes further. It is an integral part of urban systems, linked to the “scenery” by this ephemeral character that defines the local urban condition, and all the more inscribed in the landscape that the conditions of emergence and appropriation of these spaces are fragile. and precarious.
The author builds his demonstration in two stages. He first seeks to reproduce as faithfully as possible the visual and sensory landscape of this “city bis”  through his own observations and representations at work in fiction. Then he develops four case studies where residents defy the “temporary city”. The result is a typology: “the daily space” of the restaurant “Peshawar” located at a street corner in a popular district of Dubai before which the animation never stops; “The refuge space” of a hollow tooth of Abu Dhabi land use plan that allows the Bangladeshi diaspora to socialize freely, under the only tree in the neighborhood; “The cosmopolitan space” of the Nasser Square, located in the center of Deira, in the “old” Dubai, whose central attributes persist over time – it was the location of the first modern tertiary activities of Dubai in the years 1960 – and even seem to have been revived by the inauguration of the metro in 2009; “Local space”, or endogenous could we still say, Sha’bi houses of the traditional habitat of the UAE: products of a housing policy launched by Sheikh Zayed in the late 1960s to settle the Bedouin, these Today, houses are widely considered slums to be eradicated although still inhabited, either by some old Emirian families or by migrants who have reclaimed them.
This fascinating and effective typology is a major contribution to studies on the informal uses of the city, on ordinary resistance through the practice of space and, more broadly, on the place of the inhabitants in contemporary urban systems.
Nevertheless, there are some criticisms to make of these two works, which in no way detract from their great interest. Frequent in English-language publications on the Gulf, a certain tendency towards extrapolation and generalization is apparent, at least in the titles of these books. This can be justified from an editorial point of view, to include a work in the popular field of “Gulf Studies” for example, but it produces a uniform vision of the situations described in this region of the world. Molotch and Ponzini are clearing themselves of an intention to apply their conclusions to all the Gulf cities by talking about “our Gulf cities” in their introduction, but this is hardly convincing. As for Yasser Elsheshtawy, while he deals mainly with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with some excursions to Doha and Al-Ain, he uses the term “Arabia” in the subtitle of his book. But what does “Arabia” represent in the region if it is not Arabia? Is it a relevant territorial and identity referent? Is it the Arabian Peninsula? In this case, geographical boundaries should encompass Yemen, which almost everything opposes to the Gulf countries …
Mascate (Oman) crédit Manuel Benchetrit, 2011
It is to be regretted that, while urban studies on the Gulf abound today, few venture out of capital cities. The urban gulf is not limited to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, which are also the ones most discussed in these two books. There is an urgent need to conduct research on more peripheral cities in the Gulf, be they capital cities still under-worked such as Kuwait City or Muscat, or medium-sized cities whose trajectories seem to differ from those of the most large, Sohar in Oman or Sharjah in the conurbation of Dubai for example.
Finally and without chauvinism or almost, these works completely miss the literature in French on the Gulf cities. Production is certainly less numerous than in English, and even if a fine tribute is paid to works, to the great ethnographic qualities, published recently by French researchers in English , the sources in French are almost never exploited by our anglophone colleagues. However, and to retain only one example, it appears in the chapter of synthesis signed by Steffen Hertog closing the book of Molotch and Ponzini certain analyzes on the urban development of Dubai, the process of financialization which it runs and its effects in terms of territorial fragmentation, which already appeared in a book published nearly 20 years ago by Roland Marchal , as well as in some articles by Marc Lavergne and Brigitte Dumortier, to name but a few French authors precursors on these grounds .
The New Arab Urban and Temporary Cities read well together. Without stepping on it, they usefully and intelligently complement the analytic edifice, now well consolidated, of contemporary urbanization in the Gulf. But Yasser Elsheshtawy’s book is not limited to that. Not only does it come to settle at the top of this building, but above all, it will finally allow all those who regularly go to the Gulf not to blush, sometimes, in front of their dubious colleagues, to fully appreciate the powerful experiences urban!
– Yasser Elsheshtawy, Temporary Cities. Resisting Transience in Arabia, London / New York, Routledge, 2019, 297 p.
– Harvey Molotch, David Ponzini (eds.), The New Arab Urban. Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition and Distress. New York, New York University Press, 2019, 339 p.
Translated from French by Google Translate