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 Cities, Hinterlands, and Region: Rethinking Urbanization in the Middle East

Salma Abouelhossein


In this short presentation I would like to propose a simple claim and opening remarks about the need to transcend city-centric approaches in urban studies and to study the processes of urbanization across different scales, localities, ecologies, and territories. I will specifically propose widening our analytical lens of studying ‘the urban’ in the Middle East to engage with the different ‘hinterlands’ (for the lack of a better word) that are incorporated in and constitutive of, albeit in uneven and variegated ways, historically specific regional processes of urban development and city-building, especially in GCC cities. Given how many cities in the Arabian Peninsula have grown since the mid-1970s into what Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini describe as “the world as their hinterland”, the socio-ecological dynamics of their developments were far-reaching and transcended nation-state divisions. In the process, different non-city spaces across the Middle East were transformed in uneven ways to sustain the reproduction of emerging cities in the Arabian Peninsula. Concurrently, these hinterlands and their local politics and struggles have shaped the development of emergent cities. Following relations of labor, food/land, and finance help reveal some of these entangled and variegated socio-ecological dynamics of urbanization. Hence, the ‘region’ becomes an important, yet unstable and historically-mutating scale in studying the diverse processes of urbanization in the contemporary Middle East. This proposition (if plausible) suggests: (a) ‘regional urbanization’ as a crucial dynamic (or category of analysis) in the study of geographical uneven development in the Middle East. Doing so, it also (b) suggests key insights to the study of urbanization and the conceptualization of the ‘urban’ in the field of urban studies.


Salma Abouelhossein is a PhD student in Urban Studies and Planning at Harvard University. Her general research interests are in urbanization and crisis, the materialities of the finance economy, depeasantization and dispossession. Her dissertation studies the entangled ways in which agrarian change in the Nile Valley, focusing on two sugarcane production regions in Egypt and Sudan, was constitutive of emergent urbanizations in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century.