Urban and Young: The Future of the Middle East

Demographic trends in the Middle East point to a future of ever more youthful and increasingly crowded cities. The Middle East has the youngest population of any region in the world and the second highest urbanization rate. Sixty-three percent of the region’s population is under 29 years of age and the region’s average annual urban growth rate of 4% in the past two decades is second only to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Together, these present opportunities for accelerating growth and globalization in the Middle East. Indeed no industrial country has developed without high rates of urbanization, and taking advantage of their youth bulges is how the “Asian Tigers” rose to economic power beginning in the 1960s. However, before the Middle East can capitalize on its demographic trends serious development will have to take place first.

Today, globalization and market-oriented reforms are the overarching themes for the economic boom in the region – businesses, luxury services and international brands are rapidly becoming staples of most large cities across the region. But many urban dwellers have yet to enjoy any of these. In particular, urban youth are finding themselves left behind without the skills, resources (such as access to affordable housing and credit), or support needed to productively integrate into these rapidly modernizing macro-economies. The result: crowding without benefits and increasing exclusion of those who represent the greatest economic and social potential for a city. Egyptian sociologist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim describes this phenomenon as urbanization without urbanism–where the quality of cities does not grow at the same rate as their size. Ibrahim defines urbanism as a “qualitative change in people’s outlook, behavioral patterns, and the organizational networks which they create and participate in.” 1

With a short demographic window of opportunity and high urbanization rates, cities and local governments have a particularly key role to play. In order to achieve urbanism, Middle Eastern cities will have to employ new, collaborative strategies for development that capitalize on global best practices. The region with its many cities, ranging in sizes, levels of economic development, with diverse topography and degrees of global integration have much to learn and share with other regions and cities around the world. In planning for and managing this rapid urbanization, local governments also have the opportunity to use public space to promote inclusion, greater equality and quality of life, and lay the foundation for new social contracts with young generations of citizens.

In Jordan, Amman provides a hopeful and refreshing model for the region. With the “Greater Amman Master Plan,” which earned the city the 2007 World Leadership Award for Town Planning, Amman’s Master Plan is the first forward-looking, comprehensive city-planning strategy in the region. This plan focuses on several aspects of urban development such as better public transportation, green and pedestrian-only spaces and youth recreational areas.

This example of urban planning showcases the role of local government in not only investing in “visible infrastructure” but also channeling their limited powers towards the development of the “invisible infrastructure” – the institutions, incentives and signals that govern the lives of people. In developing green spaces, local governments are not only investing in physical infrastructure but also engendering a greater social and environmental awareness among their young citizens. In expanding recreational spaces for youth, city governments are providing can promote creativity and life-skills as the foundation for human capital development.

Thus, these infrastructural changes have the potential for remarkable transformation that goes far beyond bricks and mortar. They signal clear changes in the attitudes of policymakers towards their citizens, and provide citizens with incentives to change their behaviors and perceptions accordingly.

There is no doubt that the necessary changes seem daunting and require an overwhelming need for capacity development and organization in cities and municipalities across the region. So how are cities and local government expected to achieve this? In very simple terms: targeted and effective collaboration. Collaboration with local and global stakeholders would not only provide the means for generating best practices and know-how, but would also facilitate capacity building and resource-sharing where appropriate. Most significantly, however, the change will require a paradigm shift in the way business is done in the region: city and municipality governments must make the leap from bureaucracies to learning institutions. New ways will have to be found to equip them in planning ahead for expansion, using resources sustainably and delivering essential services to their citizens.

The Role of the United States: A Strategy for Development and Diplomacy

As many Middle Eastern economies gradually begin to realize the opportunities they have in their demographic trends and use the resources from the current oil boom to embark upon real development at the city and local level, the United States will have a crucial opportunity to reshape its role in the region. As a country that has pioneered advances in city-to-city learning and partnership, and one with diversity in cities that can rival that of the region – the opportunities for knowledge sharing and collaboration abound. The new administration must realize that here lies the real potential for securing stability in the region and reclaiming America’s role from bully to mentor and as leader by example.

A recent U.S.-Arab Mayors’ Forum hosted by the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, demonstrated the potential achievements to be gained by this approach. At the event, Arab mayors and municipality leaders from the region came together with American mayors. This unprecedented event was co-hosted by Chicago’s Sister City partners in the Arab World, Mayor Omar Maani of Amman, Jordan and Mayor Mohamed Sajid of Casablanca, Morocco. Mayors and Municipal leaders heard from noted experts with cutting edge ideas and shared innovations directly with one another on three main topics: economic development, youth and education, and the environment. Our own Visiting Fellow, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani at the Middle East Youth Initiative (MEYI) in the Wolfensohn Center for Development, helped shape the agenda on education and was the featured expert at the discussion on Education and Youth.

The Forum provided a unique opportunity for mayors and local leaders to engage in an open dialogue on the challenges faced by municipalities, as well as best practices and new initiatives that are being implemented in cities around the world. Leaders had a chance to develop and expand personal relationships and open doors to new communities and cultural connections. Furthermore, the Chicago Forum set the stage for a future of continued collaboration among mayors throughout the United States and the Arab world, with more Arab cities expressing interest in joining the Sister Cities International network.

Two particular comments voiced by the Mayor of Casablanca and the Mayor of Beirut, revealed much needed wisdom. First, “we didn’t realize we had so much in common, not only with each other [in the region] but with our peers in America.” Second, “this event has been a great opportunity for us and ironically we are meeting each other [from the region] for the first time in Chicago!”

The comments demonstrate a clear need for cooperation, partnership and sincere relationship-building outside the boundaries of traditional politics. It demonstrated a simple but powerful reality: how cooperation through development should become the new model guiding diplomacy.

Please submit your comments on this opinion piece on the Middle East Youth Initiative Web site.

Ibrahim, Saad Eddin: Over-Urbanization and under-Urbanism: The Case of the Arab World. International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 6, No. 1. January 1975. pp. 29-45. Ibrahim, Saad Eddin: Over-Urbanization and under-Urbanism: The Case of the Arab World. Vol. 6, No. 1. January 1975. pp. 29-45.