An old Arab saying goes, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.” These three capitals, along with Damascus, were long the hubs of culture and education in the Arab world. Arabs from across the region flocked to these cities to study and work. Sculptures such as the 1958 Monument of Freedom in Baghdad by the great Iraqi artist Jawad Salim and "Egypt's Renaissance," unveiled in 1928 in Giza by the pioneering artist Mahmoud Mokhtar, embodied the ambitions of these Arab cities.
However, over the past few years, as these traditional Arab capitals became more embroiled in civil strife, a new set of cities started to emerge in the Gulf, establishing themselves as the new centers of the Arab world. Abu Dhabi, its sister emirates of Dubai and Sharjah and the Qatari capital, Doha, have developed as the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant.
Abu Dhabi City, with its massive GDP of $248 billion that outweighs any other Arab country save Saudi Arabia, has embarked on a cultural renaissance program that includes opening campuses of world-class universities such as New York University, Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne and INSEAD, the top-10 global business school based in Fontainebleau. Abu Dhabi is busy constructing a Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum, a Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando and a concert hall by Zaha Hadid. The city’s airport is home to the multiple-award-winning Etihad Airways and is undergoing a major expansion to be completed by 2017 that will add a total floor area exceeding that of the Pentagon and the capacity to service 40 million passengers. And it’s not just about oil. Abu Dhabi’s non-oil sector is estimated to have reached $107 billion in 2012, making up 43.5% of the economy of the emirate.
While much of the region was embroiled in wars, Dubai transformed itself from a fishing village to a global capital of business and trade in a matter of a few decades. Dubai, home to the world’s tallest tower, man-made islands and cutting-edge infrastructure, is today the embodiment of a global city with more than 200 nationalities and a constant stream of arriving immigrants. The city is a near-certain winner of the soon-to-be-announced World Expo 2020, which will catalyze development even further. Referred to as the “Center of the World,” Dubai, home of Emirates Airlines and a top-five global airport, attracted Arabs from across the world with its array of free zones that cater to media, IT, finance and various other industries, earning the praise of the UN Arab Human Development Report as early as 2002.
Sharjah, perhaps kicking off this eastwardly gravitational shift, became the first Gulf city to be designated the "Cultural Capital of the Arab World" by UNESCO in 1998, the very same year the emirate inaugurated the reputable American University of Sharjah. Sharjah also hosts a prestigious art biennial, book fair and more than 20 museums of various specialties. These cities of the United Arab Emirates, said to attract 15,000 Arab immigrants a month, are collectively seen, according to a recent survey, as the destination of choice for young Arabs across the region and the country that young Arabs want their own to emulate.
Doha, home of Qatar Airways and the soon-to-be-opened Hamad International Airport, plays host to top US universities such as Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Weill Cornell Medical College and Carnegie Mellon University, among many others. Doha, the biggest exporter of liquid gas in the world and host of the 2022 World Cup, also hosts an I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, an upcoming Orientalist Art Museum and a national museum designed by Jean Novel.
Doha and the United Arab Emirates, hosts of the two most widely watched Arab news channels, have not only excelled in terms of infrastructure. According to the latest UN Human Development Report, the Emirates and Qatar were the only two Arab states that ranked in the “Very High Human Development” category that is based on excellence in health, education and income levels.
Naturally, such a high-speed development in these Gulf cities comes with its own set of unintended consequences and challenges. These include the exploitation of labor by some and the degradation of the natural environment. The Gulf cities, however, have taken various steps to counter such issues due to more local awareness and international urging.
Decades of underinvestment and full-blown civil wars have resulted in the historic Arab cities of North Africa and the Levant having poor and inadequate infrastructure, from archaic roads to outdated academic curricula and teaching methods. However, the traditional Arab capitals may be down now but they certainly aren’t out. These cities that dominated the Arab psyche for decades in the 20th century are rich in culture and human and natural resources. Nonetheless, if and when they begin the process of turning their fortunes around, they will encounter an Arab-world landscape dominated by the new, formidable Gulf cities that have set a standard that is hard to match not only regionally, but on a global scale.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a commentator on Arab affairs. On Twitter: @SultanAlQassemi