A shift in Arab influence: The rise and rise of Gulf cities

Regarded as outspoken and pugnacious, Sharjah writer Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi will lecture at NYUAD on Gulf cities on Tuesday night, sharing his views on the region’s rise and the role of Dubai as symbol of an ascending power. If you were unaware of the identity of the speaker, you could be forgiven for thinking […]

Regarded as outspoken and pugnacious, Sharjah writer Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi will lecture at NYUAD on Gulf cities on Tuesday night, sharing his views on the region’s rise and the role of Dubai as symbol of an ascending power.

If you were unaware of the identity of the speaker, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tuesday’s lecture at the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, The Rise and Rise of Gulf Cities: Prospects and Challenges, might focus on the drier stuff of cities – infrastructure, demographics, policy and economics.

In this instance however, you’d be wrong. The lecture is being presented by Sultan Sooud Al ­Qassemi, one of the most high-profile and widely published Emiratis writing in English, who has built a reputation as a freelance commentator willing to tackle topical and often controversial issues in public, online and in print.

The Rise and Rise of Gulf Cities represents Al Qassemi’s latest thinking on a position he has been developing since 2013, when he argued in the Washington DC-based publication Al-Monitor that the achievements of cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Doha were eclipsing those in contemporary Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, the traditional powerhouses of Arab culture and education.

“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 centres of the Arab world,” Al Qassemi wrote at the time.

“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.”

As well as attracting readers, the article also generated a barrage of online criticism, the majority of which came from within the region.

“The Gulf cities have positioned themselves as important cities, but this hasn’t yet been ­accepted by people in other parts of the Middle East,” Al Qassimi says.

“I was called a chauvinist by a Palestinian guy living in Syria and was told that the Gulf states have destroyed Arab culture.”

Al Qassemi works from his ­office in his hometown, Sharjah, where as well as writing comment pieces for regional and international media outlets, the 38-year-old also runs his own financial brokerage company, Barjeel Geojit Securities, and the Barjeel Art Foundation, which he founded to house his extensive collection of modern and contemporary Arab art.

“My aim is to educate. It’s not to put anybody down, and the fact is Gulf cities are now facing challenges that are related to their ­attempts to become global cities,” he insists.

“Places that were little more than fishing villages a few decades ago are now global powers in terms of diplomacy, energy, finance and culture, and as they become more prominent they are inviting more global attention.”

In tonight’s talk, Al Qassemi will set out what he sees as the Gulf region’s rise, the reasons for the wider response and the consequences – something Al Qassemi describes as increased scrutiny and “pushback” – that the UAE and Qatar have had to deal with in areas such as the media, labour relations, culture and business.

Al Qassemi cites the experience of Etihad Airways and Air Berlin in Germany as an example.

In January, a German court ruled that Etihad would not be able to operate code shares on some flights, because they were not supported by the aviation services agreement between the UAE and Germany.

According to Etihad, this was a move that resulted from “lobbying by Lufthansa”, Germany’s national carrier.

“As the Gulf states have positioned themselves as global airline hubs, they are getting challenged by traditional airlines in the US and Europe and this is a form of pushback that we aren’t used to,” Al Qassemi says.

“When we were playing in the minor league, we weren’t used to this kind of pushback, to major corporations lobbying and trying to scuttle the positioning of the Gulf states as major hubs.”

At a fundamental level, Al Qas­semi believes that a lot of the negative responses to the Gulf and its major cities are generated by ignorance and anxiety.

“I think that the speed of the ­development of Gulf cities is what is driving this pushback. They’ve become competitors ­almost out of nowhere, they didn’t exist decades ago, and yet they’re now eyeing the top spot,” he says. “[Gulf Cities] want to have the very best infrastructure and airports, and they want to be the No 1 player in sports and entertainment, and I think that the scale of their ambition is driving that fear,” Al Qassemi says.

“People are yet to acknowledge, fairly, how the Gulf states have changed. It’s something they ­haven’t fathomed yet.”

Al Qassemi first came to wider attention in 2011 when he started using his Twitter account, @SultanAlQassemi, to translate the latest news from the Arab Spring from Arabic to English.

Tweeting as frequently, he has estimated, as once every 45 seconds at certain points, Al Qassemi soon developed a reputation as one of the fastest and most reliable sources of information about events as they were unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since then, Al Qassemi’s online presence has grown spectacularly. At the beginning of 2011, @SultanAlQassemi had 7,000 followers, but now boasts more than 430,000.

In 2014, he joined the Global Commission on internet Governance and became an MIT ­Media Lab Director’s Fellow, while in March, the International New York Times invited him to curate a series of articles about the rise of Gulf cities.

Al Qassemi’s selection included two of the most critical but thoughtful articles to have been written about Dubai in recent years. Yasser Elsheshtawy’s “Tribes with Cities”, which reflected on the relationship between the traditional centres of Arab culture and those of regions such as the Gulf, which were traditionally seen as the periphery, and Thanasis Cambanis’s “Is Dubai the Future of Cities?”, which originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

Ever the antagonist, Al Qassemi admits to disagreeing with each of the articles he selected.

“Not a single article I chose agreed with me and that’s why I chose them,” he says. “Why would I curate articles that agreed with me, it would be so boring.”

Al Qassemi says that his prodigious output, most of which ­is written in English, is driven by the need to add balance to debates surrounding the Gulf.

“Gulf voices in English were missing from the conversation. People were learning about the Gulf from people who aren’t from here and the conversation in English wasn’t up to the standard that we need it to be,” he says.

“There are a lot of great writers writing in Arabic and we need to encourage them to write in English, which is why I write in English.”

Locally those titles have included The National, Gulf News and Zawya while internationally Al Qassemi has written for the journal Foreign Affairs, CNN, International Business Times and the London-based newspaper The Independent, where he engaged in one of his most high-profile rebuttals of criticism aimed at himself and the UAE.

In 2009, The Independent published The Dark Side of Dubai, a feature written by one of its UK-based commentators, Johann Hari, who interviewed Al Qassemi while he was in Dubai conducting research.

“Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism,” Hari wrote. “But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.”

Hari recounted his interview with Al Qassemi in detail, describing him as columnist and private art collector “with a reputation for being a contrarian liberal, advocating gradual reform”.

Al Qassemi responded with If You Think Dubai is Bad, Just Look at Your Own Country, which was published in The Independent four days later.

“When you stitch together a collection of unconnected facts taken out of context, you end up with a distorted and inaccurate picture,” Al Qassemi wrote, “something that Britain’s ­Dubai-bashers would do well to learn.”

On one level at least, Hari was correct. Al Qassemi does have a reputation as a liberal. He even describes himself as one, and he has earned that reputation thanks to a series of articles that have explored issues such as the Middle East’s declining diver­sity, secularism in Gulf states and the prospect of extending citizenship to long-term expatriates resident in the UAE.

“I don’t want to sound like a person who’s deluded by saying everything’s amazing. No it’s not,” he admits. “But you cannot measure the growth of the Gulf cities in terms of towers. It’s also a matter of softer things like education, like medical care, like art, culture, and when it comes to these issues, I think that the Gulf states are doing very well.”

Al Qassemi admits that he is in a rush to change everything.

“For me it’s happening too slowly, I personally would like to see things change faster, but the majority seems to be comfortable with it and I have to understand and respect that.”


The Rise and Rise of Gulf Cities: Prospects and Challenges, hosted by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute takes place on Tuesday evening at the New York University Abu Dhabi campus. For registration and more details visit the events page at nyuad.nyu.edu/en/

Source: uae news

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