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WorkShop 13: What is New about "Neo-Liberal" Urbanism? Middle Eastern Cities in Comparative Perspective

Twelfth Mediterranean Research Meeting 2011 


What is New about “Neo-Liberal” Urbanism? Middle Eastern Cities in Comparative Perspective

directed by:


Najib Hourani

Michigan State University, USA

[email protected]  

Mona Fawaz

American University of Beirut, Lebanon

[email protected]




Since the 1980s, Middle Eastern cities have hosted several experiments in market-driven, or “neo-liberal” urbanism, yet they remain off Urban Studies’ disciplinary map. This workshop seeks to place regional cities squarely within contemporary debates about the nature of neo-liberal urbanism through historical and comparative studies of urban transformation.


We seek to evaluate two dominant approaches to the rise of “neoliberal urbanism” – that derived from “structuralist” accounts of the shift from state to market in the management of urban affairs, and the account rooted in the growing literature on “governmentality” – through historically-grounded case studies of transformations of Middle Eastern cities. How has market urbanism been adapted and adopted in the region? What local, regional and global structures facilitated or imposed the process? How have they reconfigured politico-economic institutions and practices, and so, the urban structure and fabric of regional cities? How does the region’s urban experience confirm, re-orient or undermine these currently dominant theorizations of market urbanism as drawn from western accounts?


Participants will evaluate dominant paradigms through a contemporary or historical episode of structural transformation or governmentalization of a regional city. In addition to contemporary cases, we suggest three historical moments that provide fertile terrain for the evaluation of dominant paradigms: a) late Ottoman modernization of urban administration and economy, b) colonial state formation, and c) the shift to Keynesianism and economic nationalism in the era of independence. Through concrete case studies, authors are asked to attend to the structures, institutions, technologies and strategies introduced, the problems they meant to address and the politico-economic forces that benefited from, resisted or were produced by them. The organizers hope that, in evaluating how the cases or comparisons confirm, redirect or contradict either or both of the dominant formulations discussed above, the panel will not only develop more rigorous understandings of neo-liberal urbanism in the Middle East, but to do so in such a way as to ensure the Middle East has a central place in the production of urban theory.


Workshop Description

 Middle Eastern cities today play host to a number of experiments in market-driven, or “neo-liberal”, urbanism. While the securitized cityscape of Dubai is often taken as emblematic of such approaches, cities as diverse as Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Rabat and Tel Aviv today scramble for position in what urban elites believe to be an emerging hierarchy of world cities. Accordingly, and often at the urging of international institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations, regional cities and the lives of their inhabitants are being transformed through the privatization of government services, the liberalization of property regimes, the implementation of large-scale redevelopment projects and the production of tourism-driven heritage preservation zones, all in the name of attracting increasingly fickle flows of capital. So, too, do they reap what marketization sows: increased poverty, population displacement, authoritarian control and political economies dominated by local, regional and global finance, insurance and real estate interests. Despite the ubiquity of market urbanism in the region, Middle Eastern cities, and especially those of the Arab world and Iran, remain, to paraphrase Robinson (2002), off Urban Studies’ disciplinary map. What few studies do exist, while providing useful introductions to a variety of cases, tend to exclude themselves from larger debates over the material, legal, institutional and politico-economic dimensions of urban processes (notable exceptions include Kanna 2010 and Mitchell 2007).

 In enabling systematic, comparative and historical studies of the region’s experiences with market-driven urbanism, this panel seeks to place cities of the Middle East squarely on Urban Studies’ map.  In bringing together panelists representative of the two dominant approaches to the study of contemporary neo-liberal urbanism – as a shorthand, identified here as the “structuralist” and the “governmentality” approaches  – our workshop seeks to engage central debates through concrete, historically-grounded case studies, and so contribute to more rigorous theorizations of the neo-liberal as a global phenomena. What are the contours of neo-liberal urbanism in the Middle East today? What historical predecessors and social, politico-economic processes and practices produced context-specific neo-liberalizations? How do such processes travel between or link regional cities to larger, national, regional or global political-economies?

 According to the “structuralist” narrative, since the 1970s economic transformations in western cities have driven and been driven by broader shifts in national political economies. As welfare statism gave way before resurgent market ideology (Brenner and Theodore 2002, Fitch 1996, Harvey 2005, Sywngedouw, Moulaert and Rodriguez 2002), urban entrepreneurialism replaced managerialism with surprising speed (Harvey 1989, Hall et al. 1998). Cities increasingly sought to cut budgets, reduce taxes, repress labor and privatize services, all in the name of competition for private investment. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalist globalization, neo-liberalization was adopted and adapted across radically different local contexts (Marcuse 1996, Peck 2004, Peck and Tickell 2002). The explanatory power of this framework is impressive, and raises several important issues that this panel seeks to explore. How did the discourse of neoliberal urbanism constitute Middle Easterns cities as objects of intervention? What local, regional and global structures facilitated or imposed or resisted neoliberal projects?  How have they reconfigured urban geographies and the politico-economic institutions, networks and processes that produce them?

 Representatives of the “governmentality” approach question this account.  At its core, they argue, structuralism relies upon a division between the economic and political spheres in which the former serves as a universal and the latter the particular obstacle to the realization of that universal. This has two main consequences. First, it reinforces the terms of neo-liberalism itself. As Hackworth (2007) and others (Gibson-Graham 1995, Larner 2003, Mitchell 2002, Ong 2007) point out, the supporters of marketization rely upon the conception of the economic as a natural and irresistible transformative power. The multiple failures of such interventions, therefore, can easily be “externalized” – attributed to cultural or political backwardness, reactionary conservatism or imperfect implementation of what neo-liberals take to be otherwise sound economic policies. 

 Second, they argue that such approaches reify the state as well, as an entity outside and opposed to universal economic rationality. In so doing, they hide from view the mutual constitution of state and market at the level of practice and obscure the activities of networks of individuals, families, institutions and epistemic communities that work across the putative boundaries between them in pursuit of power (Mitchell 2008, Pottage an Mundy 2004).

 They suggest an alternative approach that addresses the rise of neoliberal urbanism not as an economically-driven shift in the relative balance of power from state to market.  Rather, drawing on the work of Foucault (1991), scholars such as Ong (2007) and Ong and Collier (2004) draw our attention to neo-liberal urbanism as the most recent in a series of shifting governmentalities - strategies and techniques of government shared by institutions on either side of the putative economic/political divide. Such strategies and technologies – such as cartography, property law, public administration, securitization, architecture and economic and urban planning - map and re-map urban spaces and populations and so render them legible to and manageable by, state and non-state institutions alike.  How have such technologies and strategies adapted, adopted or overwritten prior techniques of government? What politico-economic and social problems did they seek to address and how have they called into being new constellations of power and authority? How did they inscribe themselves in the urban fabric?

 History matters to both the “structuralist” and the “governmentality” approaches. Indeed, existing and novel institutional arrangements, practices and techniques articulate with larger local, regional or transnational interests and agendas that, over time, might increase their importance, re-orient their functions, or render them obsolete in the production of, and contestations over, politico-economic power. In addition to the present, three historical moments stand out as particularly fertile precedents to contemporary re-organizations of power at the urban level, the study of which, we hope, will deepen the case studies and render the theoretical tension between structuralist and post-structuralist approaches more productive. As a growing historical literature shows, during the last century of the Ottoman Empire, Middle Eastern cities were a primary locus of Imperial efforts to stimulate economic activity through the creation of new institutions of government – for example, municipal governments and new property regimes - in line with modern conceptions of administration and economy (Hanssen 2005, Pottage and Mundy 2004).  The second transformation comes in the context of colonial state formation (Owen 2004), in which what Kalpagam (2000) calls “colonial governmentality” introduced new series of technologies of politico-economic governance as means through which to incorporate the region into imperial political economies. Finally, with the transition from colonialism to formal independence, a new “politics of calculation” (Mitchell 2002) arose with the rise of Keynesianism, developmentalism and economic nationalism. How have these historical episodes of transformation introduced new institutions, discourses, and strategies of government that overthrew, or articulated with then existing formations? How do their effects continue to be visible today in the legal and administrative practices that constitute the city, the urban fabric or the politico-economic dynamics of urban life itself?  In comparing, contrasting or linking contemporary projects with historical precedents it is our hope that participants will be able to more effectively demarcate theoretically significant transformations, the processes that bring them about, and the effects they have had on the evolution of urban, national, regional and global political economies.


Workshop Participants and Papers

This panel is open to urban planners, geographers, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and historians interested in the contemporary and historical transformation of Middle Eastern cities.

 Papers should examine an episode in the structural transformation or the governmentalization of a regional city with special attention to the structures, institutions, technologies or strategies such episodes introduce, the urban problems they were meant to address and the politico-economic forces that sought to benefit from or resist them.  While papers should address current theoretical debates, we ask that they do so through concrete case studies or comparisons. These might include for example, specific places, such as a market district, or a particular neighborhood or even a specific architectural form or redevelopment project. Papers may also examine larger discursive transformations - for example, the rise of private property regimes or urban planning discourses - so long as the study is anchored in the particularities of place. We welcome, as well, papers that not only map continuities and ruptures in the spatial and politico-economic constitution of regional cities, alone, but which are also sensitive to the transnational circuits through which ideologies, projects or discourses are formulated.

 The organizers hope that, in evaluating how the cases or comparisons confirm, redirect or contradict either or both of the dominant formulations discussed above, the panel will not only develop more rigorous understandings of neo-liberal urbanism in the Middle East, but to do so in such a way as to ensure the Middle East has a central place in the production of urban theory.


The deadline for the submission of paper proposals of circa 750 words is 15 July 2010. Applications should be submitted on-line through the electronic application form available at the following web address:


The final list of selected workshop participants will be communicated by 1 September 2010.


Participants are expected to submit the final version of their paper no later than 15 February 2011. They will be invited to attend an international workshop in Montecatini (Tuscany, Italy) on 6 – 9 April 2011. The proceedings of the workshop will be published in an edited volume with an established academic press. 




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