May 22, 2014

SFS-Qatar Examines Development of Gulf Global Cities

While interest in the development of global urban centers is rising, Georgetown’s Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar is taking an innovative approach to this new field with its Evolution of Gulf Global Cities project. In addition to trends in urbanization, the project seeks to assess how cultural and social factors affect urban settings across the Gulf region.

Segregated Urban Landscapes

The evolution of global cities in the Gulf region—the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran—follows a unique trend in urbanization. There has been a shift in Gulf port cities from cosmopolitan, regional centers of cultural and economic exchange to cities embedded in the global economy.

With this shift, urban centers have lost their past flexibility. Gulf cities are now comprised of rigid segregated space, due to government efforts to manage the influx of immigrants. Dwaa Osman, a CIRS research analyst, says, “State-planned and -controlled urban planning has led to socio-spatial segregation that not only has separated nationals from non-nationals, but also different social sub-groups within each.” Residents no longer have the opportunity to regularly interact with one another as urban space has become politicized with issues of class and nationality.

Defining National Identity

While Gulf cities have followed the impulse to go global, there is simultaneously a strong government effort to maintain a sense of national identity. Cosmopolitan heritage projects such as constructing national sites and museums seek to put Gulf cities on the global map while also anchoring and defining their heritage.

Participants in the project pointed out that “heritage” is itself an ambiguous and contested issue. Instead of inviting various perspectives on the issue, the state is taking a top-down approach to defining what the history and heritage of the state and its people are. While much of the popular scholarship on urbanization in the Gulf focuses on the economic factors of the oil market, CIRS is taking into account the full scope of these identity and social issues that contribute to the evolution of Gulf cities.

A New Interdisciplinary Approach

Through the Gulf Global Cities project, CIRS seeks to understand the cultural and social space of the city by engaging with scholars from across disciplines: urban sociologists, social geographers, political scientists, city planners, and architects. This unique approach to the study of urbanization aims to link macro-level knowledge with micro-level understanding of everyday living and human interaction. Participants add further insight by not only contextualizing each city, but also employing a comparative approach across the region.