“The New Arab Urban: Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress” edited by Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini— Contradictions of Contemporary Urbanization

Molotch, Harvey and Davide Ponzini, editors. “The New Arab Urban: Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress”,  NYU Press, 2019.

Contradictions of Contemporary Urbanization

Amos Lassen

In “The New Arab Urban”, we learn of the contradictions of contemporary urbanization as revealed by cities on the Arabian peninsula. These fast-growing cities of the Persian Gulf indisputably sensational. The world’s tallest building is in Dubai; the 2022 World Cup in soccer will be played in fantastic Qatar facilities; Saudi Arabia is building five new cities from scratch; the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Sorbonne, as well as many American and European universities, all have handsome outposts and campuses in the region. Such initiatives look to strategies to diversify economies and pursue grand ambitions across the Earth.

We look at Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha and see that the dynamics of extreme urbanization are strongly evident. The writers of “The New Arab Urban” show us what happens when money is plentiful, regulation weak, and labor conditions severe. Just how do authorities in such settings reconcile goals of oft-claimed civic betterment with hyper-segregation and radical inequality?  How do these elite custodians arrange tactical alliances to protect particular forms of social stratification and political control? What sense can be made of their massive investment for environmental breakthrough in the midst of world-class ecological mayhem? How do they reconcile the position of women in their societies?

To address such questions, the new Arab urban is placed in wider contexts of trade, technology, and design. “Drawn from across disciplines and diverse home countries, they investigate how these cities import projects, plans and structures from the outside, but also how, increasingly, Gulf-originated initiatives disseminate

Sociologist Harvey Molotch and Urban Analyst Davide Ponzini add to our understanding of the modern Arab metropolis—as well as of cities more generally. Gulf cities display development patterns that impact the world regardless of how unanticipated in the standard paradigms of urban scholarship are.

“Molotch and Ponzini give us ‘analytical shock therapy,’ by setting aside preconceptions, showing that cities really can be created with land monopoly and a potent mix of spectacle, inequality and authoritarianism. These are not one-offs, but test beds for new globalizing forms of city building and they are emulated and exported. We need to understand them.
The book argues that our tried-and-tested theories fall short in understanding them or learning from their rapid urbanization. The various essays included here propose different approaches to considering this old/new form of urbanity, to expand the domain of urban study itself to draw concepts like mobility, transience, complexity, hybridity, contradiction, spontaneity, and even unpredictability into its interpretive paradigms.


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