Urban Data for the Arab Region

Population: 357 million (2010)

Urban Population: 56% (2010)

Youth Population (below 25 years): 60% (2010)

Urban slum population as a percentage of total urban residents: 28.4% (2012)

GDP per capita growth: 2% (1990-2011)

Number of refugees: 7.5 million (2010)

IDPs in the region: 9.8 million (2010)

Urban Issues

ROAS identifies eight key issues that pose challenges, but also opportunities in correlation with the urbanization process in the region:

Demographic trends over recent decades have resulted in  accelerated urbanization in the region, and contributed to, instability. While about 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 25, employment opportunities for the youth and particularly young women are limited; young women and girls are also frequently excluded from decision-making processes. Marginalization, felt by youth has translated into political polarization. 

While the economic performance of the Arab states is very diverse, and while there is a general recognition amongst Arab Governments of the importance of the city as a hub for economic activity and job creation, a number of challenging economic trends related to urbanisation prevail. These include limited diversification of local economies leaving them vulnerable to global market fluctuations; shortage of jobs, partly as a result of the privatisation of formerly state-owned enterprises; scarcity of small scale credits and lack of affordable housing, which has left many people in cities in desperate situations. These trends have led to the growth of major informal economic sectors in the Arab cites, and the rapid expansion of informal spatial development.  

Social trends in many Arab countries are characterized by social inequality.  This is manifested visibly in cities where well serviced affluent communities and poor, frequently underserved communities exist in close proximity. Social inequalities are also experienced between cities. Youth are often marginalised and lack opportunities to contribute meaningfully in society. Likewise, women and girls are affected by a prevalent gender bias, rooted in tradition.

Issues of security and conflict are major challenges for the Arab region. The last decade is characterized by the repeated occurrence of various intense and violent conflicts. They resulted in massive flows of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees to cities in more peaceful areas, affecting the cities in the conflict country as well as cities in neighbouring states. Rapid population influx within, to and between cities has resulted in localised surges in the cost of living including housing rental, competition for employment, and inadequate access to basic services.

The management of land and urban planning in the Arab region is often very centralized, which tends to leave cities without the capacity to effectively plan and regulate urban development and expansion. Urban planning approaches are often outdated, do not take into account the realities of the urban population, and are poorly regulated. This has often resulted in spatial segregation by class, declining densities, lack of public space and the development of unplanned neighbourhoods.

Also connected to conflict and planning issues, a lot of Arab governments struggle to fulfil the right to adequate housing and basic urban services. The influx of refugees, demographic trends, land speculation and poorly planned city extensions resulted in a significant shortage of affordable housing. People whose needs are not satisfied by the formal housing market resort to informal construction instead, often on the urban periphery. In informal settlements housing safety standards are often not met and access to basic services is limited.

Arab countries are very exposed to extreme environments and climate change. Their already scarce water resources are decreasing and cultivated areas are increasingly threatened by desertification. Paradoxically, at the same time heavy rainfall and sea level rise could be devastating to many of the region’s densely populated cities. Risks associated with climate change and natural hazards in cities need to be better understood, and measures to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change and reduce disaster risks will be essential, and will necessitate cooperation between states on certain issues.

Similar to urban planning, effective governance and legislation of Arab cities is hindered by high degrees of centralization. Municipalities are often completely dependent on central governments, both financially and politically, and often lack trained personnel to plan and manage urban growth. With the absence of politically and fiscally empowered local government, many cities in the region are unable to respond effectively to the needs and priorities of local citizens.