Rethinking Cities in the Middle East: Political Economy, Planning, and the Lived Space

Haim Yacobi, Relli Shechter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Urbanisation is an economic, political, and socio-cultural complexity, and so is its interaction with cityscapes. However, this truism rarely finds an expression in academic research. It is obvious that economic transitions would determine the quality and volume of the built environment. Municipal and state decision making further shape the nature of urban spaces, and socio-cultural transformations influence perceived notions of the lived space and, in turn, reshape the physical landscape itself. Nevertheless, research on cities in the Middle East and elsewhere remains fairly limited in scope, with little cross-discipline 'conversation' among scholars in different fields which attempts to account for such complexity. This is all the more surprising as life in cities has become, over the past half century or so, the most significant form of human collective dwelling; in the Middle East over half the population currently lives in urban settings and the numbers are forecast to grow in the future. This review article is the result of a dialogue between an architect and an economic historian in response to the foregoing. We have united in an attempt to offer a more integrative approach to Middle East urbanism, accounting for the interactions of the political economy of this region, planning, and the lived space. The key questions on which we focus are why and how do state transformation and economic structural change impact upon urban space. In seeking the answers we examine the long-term trajectory of cities as they went through the first period of globalisation under imperial intervention and/or direct colonial rule; gradually came under independent, inward-looking, national regimes; and presently experience the second wave of globalisation and the opening of local economies to international markets. Such a narrative explores common themes in the historical trajectories of cities' lives. Our long-term, geographically extensive overview (Map 1) is bound to miss some specific developments that have made a significant impact on the transformations of cities in the region; our aim is not to totalise Middle East experiences and reduce a variety of narratives to a simplistic linear model of change. Even more so, our study of the Middle East is mostly focused on Egypt, the Asian Arab countries (the mashraq), Israel/Palestine, and Turkey, the geographical unit which roughly corresponded with the Ottoman Empire, the last state to control the Middle East before the age of nations. We acknowledge that any bird's eye view perspective is bound to do some injustice to historically specific contexts, and city transitions that occurred in such contexts. We would welcome any future work that brings our suggestion here, namely to integrate political economy with the study of urban development and city life, to bear on more specific research on urbanism in the Middle East.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)499-515
JournalJournal of Architecture
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Architecture
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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