Urbanization in the MENA region: A Benefit or a Curse?

Cities of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region share many characteristics that are not limited to their shared heritage, traditional urban form, or socioeconomic conditions. We argue that the cities of the MENA region share another characteristic; limited success in reaping the benefits of urbanization which has been taking place for over a decade, ultimately leading to unique growth in carbon emissions across multiple metrics

Introduction

We live in a world dominated by cities. Cities have transformed the dichotomy of human settlements and created a space where large human populations, economic activities, and a man-made environment can co-exist and thrive. They attracted residents that are eager to lead a modern urban life with an appeal that continues to grow and a perception of being the pinnacle of human civilization. Cities and urban areas occupy less than 3 percent of terrestrial areas1, but they are home to 55 percent of the global population2, generate 80 percent of global GDP3, and are responsible for 70 percent of carbon emissions.4

This transformation of our world into a planet of cities, a process known as urbanization, began two centuries ago, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. The process was initially driven by a quest for economic efficiency. According to the American economist Edward Glaeser, cities existed to “eliminate transportation costs, for goods, people, and ideas”.5 Once established, the economic benefits presented by cities, such as agglomeration, economies of scale, and networking effects, have all fuelled redistributional shifts from the rural areas to towns and cities, further increasing the density of built up areas, which provided further economic, social, and environmental benefits to their residents.

But urbanization was, and continues to be a malleable force that approaches different regions at different scales and time frames. A clear distinction, for example, can be drawn between urbanization patterns in the West compared with those in the Middle East region. Western Europe and the United States started urbanizing in the 19th century, both reaching a 40 percent urban population by the beginning of the 20th century. 6 At this point, the impacts of the Industrial Revolution had only started reaching the Middle East region, and its urban population -which only represented 16 percent of the total population- had only started growing.7In addition, the Industrial Revolution had another impact on areas to the east and south of the Mediterranean Sea where increased trade led to the growth of seaport cities at the expense of historical inland settlements such as Cairo and Damascus.8

Trends of Urbanization in the MENA region

By the 1960s, the urban population in the Middle East was estimated to be 35 percent9 of the total regional population according to the World Bank. Since then it has almost doubled to 65 percent, exceeding the global average of 55 percent. The rate at which the urban population grew regionally was as high as 5 percent in 1960, and remained above 4 percent three decades onwards. This rate surpassed the region’s overall population growth rate, which averaged 3 percent during that same period.10 This suggests that the population growth at the end of the 20th century in the Middle East was not limited to natural demographic increases, but was also affected by the influx of internal and cross border persons. Not only were citizens moving from rural to urban areas, but refugees from other countries were also relocating to cities.11 Since 1990, the rate of urbanization in the region has settled to a more modest growth rate of 2 percent on average, which closely followed the overall population growth.12

As depicted in the graph above on the urban share of population in MENA countries (2017), urbanization is far from uniform across the region. In Egypt for example, urbanization has been very slow over the last 70 years, rising modestly from 31 percent in 1950 to 43 percent in 2016. In Jordan by comparison, urbanization has increased much more rapidly from 37 to 91 percent during the same period. And unlike Egypt, Jordan’s urbanization did not follow a linear trend, but experienced spikes in urbanization that coincided with regional conflicts in the 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

Uniquely, the Gulf’s coastal states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE were ‘born urban’ with exceptionally high urban population shares. This was due to the harsh climate of the arabian peninsula and its lack of water and biocapacity, which limited the development of rural areas around activities such as agriculture and grazing. With the advent of oil, and supported by desalination and air conditioning, small human settlements grew rapidly to the Gulf cities we know today.

Urbanization Without Urbanism

Cities of the MENA region however, did not benefit from urbanization as much as they could have, and many of them have ended up with what Egyptian sociologists Saad Eddin Ibrahim describes as ‘Urbanization without Urbanism’, where the quality of a city does not grow at the same rate as its size.

Urbanization is supposed to procure certain economic, social, and environmental benefits. To start with, the density of the city creates proximities to businesses and goods, which leads to economic development. Socially, density entices the development of a rich variety of attractions -including niche social activities of all sorts- to capitalize on the range of interests of residents within a small catchment area. On the environmental front, densification presents an opportunity for higher energy efficiency in heating and cooling buildings and in powering transportation compared to non-urban areas.

In the MENA region however, the transformation of the fabric of human settlements into an urban one, has not addressed the scarcity of resources through improved efficiency. Instead, the rapid urbanization has exacerbated the disparity between population growth and the scarcity of resources and services. The transformation to urban life, urban society, and even urban politics has in fact added stressors onto what were already disjointed settlements, further escalating urban problems of congestion and inequality.

Substantial Increase in Congestion and Pollution

Take the city of Cairo for example, today the 13th most populous urban area in the world.13 With a population of 19.3 million, the Egyptian capital has continuously failed to capitalize on the agglomeration benefits afforded by its population size. According to Mckinsey, Cairo’s GDP in 2015 was only a quarter that of Beijing, despite sharing the same population size.14 This is partly attributed to Cairo’s poor productivity caused by an inefficient mobility network. Despite its low car ownership rates of only 106 private cars per 1000 residents15, Cairo suffers from high levels of traffic congestion and air pollution. This was partly a result of the quadrupling of the urban block sizes and the halving of roads’ share in the city’s built up area over the last 30 years, both of which were planning decisions that had mobility and productivity consequences.

Cairo’s high urban density, of almosyt 10,000 residents per square km16, places it in what some studies call ‘the window of urban sustainability’, and makes it a good candidate for successful Transit Oriented Development. Yet, the city has failed to invest adequately in public transport and to date, only has a limited urban metro network of 3 lines on 78 kilometers, a poor bus network of only 11 lines with 105 buses17, and no intermodality to enable door to door journeys. This lost opportunity to capitalize on density is made all the more evident by the high ridership levels of the existing network, and suggests that if additional investments in public transport were made, the city’s overall productivity could improve.

Another interesting MENA city is Amman, a city only a quarter of Cairo’s population with 4.5 million residents, and half its urban density at just over 5,000 residents per square km18. The Jordanian capital’s GDP in 2015 was a third of Cape Town’s which shares the same population size.19

Amman’s density is comparable to many European cities and is thus expected to maintain a viable public transport network, but its hilly terrain has long limited its ability to develop a high volume - high speed public transportation network, and its 485 buses and 49 lines20 have proved insufficient to draw people away from private vehicles. As a result, car ownership rose to twice that of Cairo, at 211 cars per 1000 residents21, and so did traffic congestion and air pollution, albeit not to the same extent experienced in Cairo. Both of these cities have failed to invest adequately in networks that capitalize on their population sizes and densities such as investing in public transportation systems and roads.

The Negative Effects of Informalities

In addition to this lack of investment, both Cairo and Amman face an additional force that hinders effective urbanization. This force takes the form of urban informalities, which aggregate due to rapid urban growth and the lack of residential capacity and infrastructure to absorb this growth.

In the case of Cairo, the large share of informal areas - which are home to two thirds of the city’s population according to David Sims - is a major barrier to the city’s ability to deliver environmental, social, and economic benefits to its residents.22 These informalilites are a product of freewheeling capitalism and limited governmental regulation, both of which were most evident in the 1970s, and 1980s.23 Urban informalities were built on agricultural and desert land, and while most were eventually legalized through the provision of basic services, they remain the most vulnerable economically, socially, and environmentally. The 1992 earthquake in Cairo demonstrated the vulnerabilities of these communities vividly, where, in minutes, 9,000 buildings were damaged and 800 blocks of flats destroyed, displacing 80,000 people from the densely packed center of Cairo alone.24

Similarly, Informal settlements in Amman represent a large share of the city’s urban area. The waves of refugees entering Jordan in 1948, 1967, and during the Gulf War, have aided in the rapid urbanization that has erupted in the city. This rapid increase of population created high demands on both residential and service infrastructure within urban areas. However, the official response to such urbanization had not matched the growth rate of the city, resulting in what Saad Ibrahim calls “under-urbanism”.25 This, in turn, led to the formation of informal settlements built by refugees near urban centers.

These informal areas have a staggering economic, social and environmental cost on the city. The city’s economic performance is affected by the poor provision of services such as electricity and water, while its environmental and social performance is affected when makeshift arrangements are made for utilities, (e.g. diesel generators, untreated groundwater, and open sewers), and by poor access to healthcare facilities and public spaces.

Increases in Carbon Emissions

But perhaps the simplest example to demonstrate how the cities of the region have failed to benefit from their urbanization is how their carbon emissions have fared over the years. As the MENA region urbanized in the 40 years between 1974-2013, going from 46 percent to 64 percent urban, the region’s total carbon emissions continued to grow. But uniquely so did its carbon emissions per capita and its carbon emissions per dollar of GDP.

In fact the MENA region is the only region in the world where such growth in carbon emissions occurred on all three metrics.26 And while there are other factors that shape such changes in carbon emissions such as changes in carbon intensity of energy sources, this trend remains a staggering one given the possible reductions that could have been achieved from urbanization.

In addition, a closer examination of individual countries suggests that this economic and environmental inefficiency in energy and resource consumption is not limited to the rentier economies of the GCC but also extends to north african and levantine countries.

  • Carbon Intensity in different countries of the Middle East and North Africa region<sup>27</sup>

But while these regional trends hold true, some encouraging local variations in resource consumption can be detected. Amman for example, has managed to adapt to its water scarcity through water demand management while Cairo put no such measures in place. Today, an average resident of Amman uses half the municipal water volumes used by a resident of Cairo with no visible impact on their quality of life or their economic output.

Cities of the MENA region have emerged against a backdrop of harsh environmental conditions and limited resources, and therefore have every reason to work towards capitalizing on their potential. Their densities and young populations provide a demographic basis for developing thriving cities that can achieve the environmental, social, and economic benefits of urbanism if the appropriate measures are to retrofit them with the right urban components.

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Karim Elgendy is a Sustainability Consultant at Dar and Founder of the Carboun Initiative.
Natasha Abaza, Designer and Planning Student at Harvard Graduate School of Design.


1World Bank Open Data, “Urban land area (sq. km) - World”. Using data from Center for International Earth Science Information Network - CIESIN - Columbia University. 2013. Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ) Urban-Rural Population and Land Area Estimates, Version 2. Palisades, NY: NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). Published online at data.worldbank.org Retrieved from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.TOTL.UR.K2?locations=1W Accessed June 6, 2020.

2World Bank Open Data, “Urban population (% of total population)” using data from the United Nations Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision. Published online at data.worldbank.org Retrieved from: .https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS Accessed June 6, 2020.

3The World Bank, “Urban Development”, Published online at www.worldbank.org Retrieved from: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/overview Accessed June 6, 2020.

4C40 Cities, “Why Cities”, Published online at www.c40.org Retrieved from: https://www.c40.org/why_cities Accessed June 6, 2020.

5Glaeser, Edward, and L. Kohlhase. "Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs." Papers in Regional Science 83, no. 1 (2003): 225.

6Klein Goldewijk, Kees, Arthur Beusen, and Peter Janssen. "Long-term Dynamic Modeling of Global Population and Built-up Area in a Spatially Explicit Way: HYDE 3.1." The Holocene 20, no. 4 (2010): 565-73.

7Bairoch, Paul. Cities and Economic Development : From the Dawn of History to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

8Ibrahim, Saad. "Over-urbanization and Under-urbanism: The Case of the Arab World [and Their Interrelationship with the 'modernization' Process]." International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (1975): 32.

9Silva, de, Sara Johansson, Carlos Silva-Jáuregui, and Carlos. “Migration and Trade in MENA : Problems or Solutions?” Migration and trade in MENA : problems or solutions? (English) | The World Bank, July 1, 2010, 4.

10Silva, de, Sara Johansson, Carlos Silva-Jáuregui, and Carlos. “Migration and Trade in MENA : Problems or Solutions?” Migration and trade in MENA : problems or solutions? (English) | The World Bank, July 1, 2010, 4.

11Ibrahim, Saad. "Over-urbanization and Under-urbanism: The Case of the Arab World [and Their Interrelationship with the 'modernization' Process]." International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (1975): 32.

12Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. "Urbanization". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization', 2018.

13Demographia. “ Demographia World Urban Areas.” 16th Edition 2020.

14Mckinsey and Company, “Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities”, 2011.

15UITP, “MENA Transport Report”, 2019.

16Demographia. “ Demographia World Urban Areas.” 16th Edition 2020.

17UITP, “MENA Transport Report”, 2019.

18Demographia. “ Demographia World Urban Areas.” 16th Edition 2020

19Mckinsey and Company, “Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities”, 2011.

20UITP, “MENA Transport Report”, 2019.

21UITP, “MENA Transport Report”, 2019.

22Sims, David. Understanding Cairo : The Logic of a City out of Control. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

23Dumper, Michael., and Bruce E. Stanley. Cities of the Middle East and North Africa : A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

24Sims, David. Understanding Cairo : The Logic of a City out of Control. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

25Ibrahim, Saad. "Over-urbanization and Under-urbanism: The Case of the Arab World [and Their Interrelationship with the 'modernization' Process]." International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (1975): 32.

26Elgendy, Karim. “Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa : Carbon Intensity: Carboun: Advocating Sustainable Cities in the Middle East.” Carboun. Accessed June 2, 2020. www.carboun.com/infographics/climate-change-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-carbon-intensity/.

27Elgendy, Karim.,“Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa : Carbon Intensity: Carboun: Advocating Sustainable Cities in the Middle East.” Carboun. Accessed June 2, 2020. www.carboun.com/infographics/climate-change-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-carbon-intensity/.


Bibliography:

Bairoch, Paul. Cities and Economic Development : From the Dawn of History to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

C40 Cities, “Why Cities”, Published online at www.c40.org Retrieved from: https://www.c40.org/why_cities Accessed June 6, 2020.

Duffield, Roberta. Egyptian Urban Exigencies: Space, Governance and Structures of Meaning in a Globalising Cairo, 2019.

Dumper, Michael., and Bruce E. Stanley. Cities of the Middle East and North Africa : A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Elgendy, Karim. “Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa : Carbon Intensity: Carboun: Advocating Sustainable Cities in the Middle East.” Carboun. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Glaeser, Edward, and L. Kohlhase. "Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs." Papers in Regional Science 83, no. 1 (2003): 197-228.

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. "Urbanization". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization', 2018.

Ibrahim, Saad. "Over-urbanization and Under-urbanism: The Case of the Arab World [and Their Interrelationship with the 'modernization' Process]." International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (1975): 29-45.

Issawi, Charles. "De-industrialization and Re-industrialization in the Middle East since 1800." International Journal of Middle East Studies 12, no. 4 (1980): 469-79.

Klein Goldewijk, Kees, Arthur Beusen, and Peter Janssen. "Long-term Dynamic Modeling of Global Population and Built-up Area in a Spatially Explicit Way: HYDE 3.1." The Holocene 20, no. 4 (2010): 565-73.

Mckinsey and Company, “Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities”, 2011.

Silva, de, Sara Johansson, Carlos Silva-Jáuregui, and Carlos. “Migration and Trade in MENA : Problems or Solutions?” Migration and trade in MENA : problems or solutions? (English) | The World Bank, July 1, 2010.

Sims, David. Understanding Cairo : The Logic of a City out of Control. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

UITP, “MENA Transport Report”, 2019.

World Bank Open Data, “Urban land area (sq. km) - World”. Using data from Center for International Earth Science Information Network - CIESIN - Columbia University. 2013. Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ) Urban-Rural Population and Land Area Estimates, Version 2. Palisades, NY: NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). Published online at data.worldbank.org Retrieved from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.TOTL.UR.K2?locations=1W Accessed June 6, 2020.

World Bank Open Data, “Urban population (% of total population)” using data from the United Nations Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision. Published online at data.worldbank.org Retrieved from: .https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS Accessed June 6, 2020.

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Department for Middle East and North Africa
FES Berlin
Hiroshimastraße 28
10785 Berlin

info.nahost(at)fes.de

About FES 

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has a network of eleven country offices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and implements projects in a total of 14 countries. Some offices, such as Egypt or Sudan, look back at a history of more than 40 years of cooperation.

Offices in the Region