Post-Oil Cities in the MENA Region: Lessons from Doha

The Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) commissioned commentaries from the Sustainable States project's working group, which consists of environmental analysts and practitioners from the Middle East and North Africa region.

A visitor to the historic heart of Doha, Qatar, may be struck by how different it feels than other Gulf cities. The neighborhood of Msheireb has stone-clad modern buildings inspired by traditional styles, shaded streets and pedestrian routes, courtyard-facing blocks, and public spaces full of civic pride. But what makes Msheireb—a project started in 2008 that became mostly operational last year—remarkable is not just the quality of its buildings and infrastructure. Its developers capitalized on the benefits of environmental sustainability that cities can provide at every scale. In doing so, they created a new model for urban restoration in the Arab world which can pave the way toward more sustainable cities.

The Middle East and North Africa: An Urban Region with Unsustainable Cities

Cities of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have emerged against a backdrop of harsh environmental conditions, scarce natural resources, and limited arable land. They were historically distinct from the rural areas upon which they depended for food, with oasis cities such as Damascus, Marrakech, and Esfahan reliant on their immediate surroundings.

Following several centuries of urban decline, cities of the MENA region began experiencing demographic growth and urbanization in the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, this accelerated into rapid urbanization, with the urban share of the regional population rising from an estimated one-sixth in 1900 to two-thirds today, a ratio that exceeds the global average and continues to grow.

Cities hold many promises to populations and policymakers, including the economic, social, and environmental benefits created by agglomeration, economies of scale, and the network effect. Proximity created by agglomeration, for example, creates conditions for a more efficient use of energy as well as lower mobility costs. Similarly, the cost advantages created by economies of scale enable higher economic efficiency, while the network effect keeps attracting financial and human capital.

But cities of the MENA region have had limited success in reaping the benefits of urbanization despite having every reason to improve resource efficiency to manage natural resource scarcity. Instead, many have ended up with what Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim described as "urbanization without urbanism,” where the quality of a city does not grow at the same rate as its size.

This is due to trends that undermine urbanization and counteract its benefits. Some of these are related to rapid urbanization, such as the convergence of new rural migrants onto “urban villages” within cities and the concentration of populations in one or two major cities.

But the most critical trend is de-densification, a process where the size of the city grows faster than its population, which reflects a policy of allowing horizontal urban expansion rather than encouraging taller buildings. The population density of major cities in the region has been dropping annually by approximately 1.5 percent over the last decade, according to analysis by New York University.

The process of de-densification is driven by a number of factors, including large-scale suburbanization, the emergence of gated communities, failure to invest in cities’ urban cores, preference for development on virgin land, dependence on personal vehicles, poor public transportation networks, and the lack of urban containment policies (with the exception of Tehran’s green belt).

This process also contrasts the traditional urbanism of regional cities, many of which grew organically into compact and dense settlements. Traditional regional cities are often characterized by their network of shaded streets and public spaces that connected commercial and public facilities with residential neighborhoods composed of clusters of inward-facing courtyard houses around cul-de-sac streets.

These development principles and construction systems are recognized for protecting property rights, privacy, and public right of way. But they also prevented sprawl, limited travel distances, improved occupants’ comfort, and reduced the overall environmental footprint of cities. Many cities also had defensive walls which further limited sprawl and increased land-use efficiency.

But the modern globalization of trade allowed regional cities to overcome the resource limitations of their hinterlands and expand their environmental footprint as far as they could financially afford. This fueled rapid urbanization, sprawl, and resource inefficiency. City residents also abandoned—and often demolished—their traditional urban areas in favor of planned, albeit imported, urban models.

Today, the de-densification trend presents great challenges to urban sustainability due to density’s centrality in setting the level of urban resource consumption. Low urban density increases demand for mobility while reducing the economic viability of public transportation and the potential for walking and cycling. It also cuts the potential for efficient heating and cooling in buildings, increases the material use and cost of infrastructure, and locks in carbon emissions for decades—depending on the carbon intensity of its energy sources.

This partially explains why despite the MENA region’s rapid urbanization over the last few decades, its total carbon emissions, carbon emissions per capita, and carbon emissions per dollar of GDP have all continued to grow. In fact, the MENA region is the only world region where all three of those metrics rose between 1974 and 2013, with half of these emissions attributed to cities.

Other trends contributing to increased resource consumption include national energy and water subsidies and poor investment in public transportation networks, which are currently accessible to less than half of the region’s population.

Successful Surgery at the Heart of Doha

Against this backdrop, the Msheireb experiment in Doha provides a roadmap on how to create a more sustainable model for a post-oil city. Msheireb represents the MENA region’s largest and most successful attempt at restoring a city’s urban center in order to achieve the environmental sustainability benefits that cities are meant to provide.

In a city which grew almost fifty-fold between 1950 and 1997 and became largely suburban in a way not to dissimilar from Los Angeles, the development of this 31-hectare neighborhood—roughly the size of Washington’s Federal Triangle—provides an example of how to enable a more sustainable use of energy and material resources, reduce environmental footprint, support the health and wellbeing of residents, and provide much needed public spaces.

Msheireb’s developers made a conscious effort to integrate environmental sustainability at every scale. This is evident in their adoption of mixed-use high-density planning, which combines residential, office, retail, educational, and hospitality uses in a mid-rise neighborhood. To recognize the extent to which this represents a departure from current unsustainable models prevalent across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), one only needs to look at the sprawling suburbia surrounding it.

This adoption of mixed-use high-density planning made Msheireb a walkable neighborhood that is also supported by a dedicated 1.5-mile-long tram line. More importantly, given its central location, its planned population of 25,000 residents, and the expected level of visitor footfall, it became the perfect location for Doha’s main exchange Metro station where all three lines of the new Doha Metro network intersect. This synergy between urban regeneration and public transportation is one of the critical factors of urban sustainability and is already encouraging Doha’s residents to walk and use public transportation more frequently, despite existing social and cultural barriers to forsaking their gas-guzzling cars.

Msheireb’s high density has also enabled the integration of resource efficient technologies such as district cooling, automated vacuum pipes waste collection, solar panels, smart meters, and hundreds of thousands of connected devices. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of Msheireb as some futuristic masterplan. Unlike the tens of climate-inappropriate glazed towers constituting Doha’s central business district across the bay, environmental lessons learned from the region’s traditional urbanism and building design are evident throughout the development: the street orientation allows sea breeze to cool down outdoor areas; buildings and outdoor shading moderate the impacts of Doha’s intense sun; and construction makes use of local and regional stone. Many of these lessons also helped improve energy efficiency in individual buildings and helped the neighborhood’s developers achieve an impressive 110 LEED green building certificates.

Having said that, Msheireb’s efforts toward urban sustainability are not without fault. Its expansive underground parking has the capacity to accommodate 10,000 vehicles, which does not sufficiently encourage the transition away from the use of private vehicles. The neighborhood also introduced Doha’s first domestic natural gas distribution network at a time when electrification and renewable energy sources are accepted as the best route toward decarbonization.

Fixing Cities to Save the Climate

Retrofitting existing cities to reduce their environmental footprint and prepare them for the impacts of climate change is never a simple undertaking. Large-scale urban regeneration that densifies a city’s urban core is a decades-long complex process that requires significant adjustments to existing urban fabric and urban networks. But if carried out considerately, it promises not only to improve the sustainability and resilience of a city, but also to improve its livability and strengthen its social fabric. This is particularly critical in an urban region like MENA where cities are both central to sustainable development and highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The lessons from Msheireb are not only that such urban regeneration is possible, but that better outcomes can be achieved when local traditional knowledge is understood and its relevant urban principles applied to create a more sustainable future for regional cities.

Karim Elgendy is a sustainability consultant based in London. He is an associate fellow with Chatham House and the founder of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in cities of the MENA region. Karim is a member of the CSIS Middle East Program’s Working Group for the Sustainable States project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Karim Elgendy

Member, Working Group for the Sustainable States Project; Sustainability Consultant