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Urbanization in the Middle East
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Urbanization and Informality

Responses to Rapid Growth of Middle Eastern Cities

Written by: Maruta Herding


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Middle East: an Urban Profile

III. Urbanism and Urbanization

IV. Informality

V. Conclusion



I. Introduction

The inevitable process of urbanization bears chances and problems the like and it is a challenging the form of societal life. The first challenge for a social scientist is to entirely understand the phenomenon. On a horizontal or spacial level urbanization refers to a high density of urbanized areas as opposed to rural areas; on a vertical or timely level it refers to the process of the growth of cities. When adding more detail to this broad definition, one encounters some difficulties: Cities are centres of industry and education, of government, culture and intellectual life and provide the infrastructure of health care, shelter, food and water supply. However, urbanization is at the same time associated with the lack of these primary and secondary life supplies. Factories and universities do not suffice for all city dwellers; theatres, film and publishing are oftentimes exclusive and moreover, meeting basic physical needs is the greatest problem in the large slums of cities. Furthermore, while urbanization is on the one hand determined by stronger infrastructure including politics, economy and intellectual life, it must also be regarded as a simple relation of inhabitants per area who benefit from the facilities; as it increases and the inhabitants exceed the supplies, the flipside of urbanization comes to the fore. Again, this might be due to the lack of space (horizontal) or the lack of time for the supplies to increase accordingly (vertical).

Saad Eddin Ibrahim provides a summarized definition of urbanization, referring to it as “a process of redistributional shifts of population from the countryside to towns and cities. The latter are human settlements characterized by a higher degree of population concentration living in a contiguously built up area and engaged in mostly non-agricultural activities.”

There are various approaches to the phenomenon of urbanization – the analysis might focus on the causes, consequences and reactions to it. As far as the causes are concerned, rural-urban migration accounts for most growth of cities, furthermore population growth, refugees of droughts and wars as well as the underlying “classical” factor of industrial and economic growth. The consequences are diverse and can be divided into positive and negative, depending on whether the population exceeds the possible provisions. Cities certainly correspond to a higher living standard, job and education opportunities, access to information, possibilities of participation in political and cultural life. On the other hand, over-urbanization causes supply shortage of basic physical needs, employment and education leading to political unrests, the latter accounting for both positive and negative consequences. Reactions towards these developments appear from economic, political or governmental side and from the “people”, those city dwellers affected through urbanization. The economy might react by taking advantage of the large work force, industry flourishes or new businesses emerge; the government most probably engages in urban planning and the supply of shelter and infrastructure and is possibly occupied with responding to political movements or the integration of migrants. The people are likely to express their needs in political activism and invent jobs such as in the informal sector. It is these reactions that this paper attempts to identify and analyse, whereby the focus will the reactions to the negative consequences of urbanization.

II. The Middle East : an Urban Profile

The Middle East and North Africa is a highly urbanized region with 55% of the population living in cities; only Latin America exceeds this rate by over 70%. Usually the population inhabits one or two big cities in a country; the most extreme example being Africa’s largest city, Cairo, which UN-HABITAT estimates with 11 million inhabitants. As far as density is concerned a study from 1971 already highlights that the population of the Nile Delta and Valley exceeds 1 500 per square mile and is the highest in the world, with Cairo having 23 000 per square mile. Beirut holds over 60% of the Lebanese people, Israel and Kuwait have an urbanization rate of 90%, the least urbanized country Sudan still has a rate of 25%. One of the major features in the region is its rapid urbanization not least because the rate of population growth is extremely high. Furthermore, throughout history urbanization and industrialization have been intertwined and have developed together. In the Middle East however urbanization has by far outstripped industrialization, and the weakness of the latter has not at all slowed down the former.


Case Study: The Megalopolis of Cairo

The rush on Egypt’s capital has evoked manifold reactions on the part of both government and inhabitants towards the lack of housing. In a general summary the housing situation has ameliorated over the past decades: While 2.6 persons shared a room in the mid-1970ies, nowadays half as much have to share one. Water and electricity supply rose from 65% and 77% to nearly 100%. Construction boom within the past three decades increased the supply of housing at the double rate of the population growth and oftentimes flats remain vacant for years. However, new housing was not made accessible to the poorer population, thus Cairo became a city of “flats without tenants and inhabitants without flats” as a survey put it in 1990.

To understand this paradox development it is necessary to scrutinize the different kinds of housing in Cairo. In his survey on living conditions in Egypt’s capital Günter Meyer distinguishes seven types: The old city, the city of the dead, areas of state-sponsored housing, squatter settlements on state-owned land, informal settlements on irrigation land, “relief cities”, and safe-guarded residential blocs. All but the last two are inhabited by poorer population and are characterized by some degree of informality.

In the old city the building boom of the 1980s, caused by rising income and transfers from migrant workers in the Gulf, led to illegal adding of stories on top of older houses and to the likewise unauthorized destruction and rebuilding of large apartment houses. Leaking water pipes caused rising ground water which destroys both ancient monuments and residential houses. Only at the end of the 1990s the authorities began to take action against illegal constructions, redeveloped buildings and addressed the sewage problem. The general situation in the old city is characterized by weak structural fabric and uncoordinated arbitrary construction.

The phenomenon of life in the city of the dead highlights the housing shortage of the poor. Between the end of World War II and the 1980s 125 000 people settled in the burial houses of the large cemeteries east and south of the old city. Water and electricity supply is nowadays provided, however this caused an increase in rents so that the poorest can no longer afford it.

In the 1950ies the state engaged in building houses similar to the Western European concept of “council flats” for low income population. Given to poor families at a extremely low rent the buildings lack maintenance and are entirely overcrowded; some families extend their flats by unconventional addition of stories on top or on the sidewall of the buildings. Since the 1970s state-led construction shifted towards provision of flats for sale rather than to let (Madinat es-Salam) or even luxurious apartment buildings for the wealthier (Mohandesin).

The only opportunity remaining for the poorest parts of society is usually to occupy state-owned land. Manshiet Nasr started with the squatting of 40 homeless families in the area in the 1950s; similar is the development of the Zabalin’s or trash collectors’ areas on Muqattam hill. The government’s reaction is rather striking – the squatter settlements were legalized afterwards by selling the land and eventually construction increased rapidly.

The most common type is living in informal settlements on former irrigation land, as for instance the area of Dar es-Salam in southern Cairo. While building on irrigation land is illegal due to the loss of potentially agricultural land it is possible to purchase the land and sell plots of it to single families, who are usually from the middle class or relatives of a migrant worker to the Gulf. As the state turns a blind eye to it people start their private constructions. Due to the high costs of the plot buildings are dense and high thus the extreme population density is, according to Meyer, the highest in the world with 80 000 inhabitants per square kilometre in al-Munira in 1996. Lacking fresh air during the summer, water and electricity during the first two decades, a sewage system and facing the problem of rising ground water, the government only became aware of the problems in the 1990s when these areas developed to “breeding grounds for terrorism”. As militant Islamic groups began to hide in and recruit people from the informal settlements the Egyptian authorities improved the infrastructure, paved and lighted roads, renewed the sewage system, and built schools and youth centres.

To relief the metropolis from squatter and informal settlements the government started constructing the cities of 6 th of October and 10 th of Ramadan in the desert. Successful in industrialising, the residential areas remained largely empty. Most of the workers cannot afford the cost, more wealthier people purchase flats to be used in later years by their children or as objects of speculation. Only recently private house construction has increased among the wealthier people. Another new opportunity for the rich is living in isolated areas with are safe-guarded and consist of large villas, tennis and golf courses. Located mainly in Heliopolis and 6 th of October City these areas – named Beverly Hills, Utopia and the like – are enthusiastically accepted and quickly sold. The investments were often financed by non-hedged credits of state-owned banks which in the late 1990s led to a liquidity crisis of the state.

The examples indicate that the response to the housing shortage is mainly an initiative from the people and less so from the government. The planned and unplanned process of urban growth reveals the inability of the state to cope with the enormous urbanization. It is very telling that the state does not apply the laws against the addition of stories onto old houses or the building on irrigation and state-owned land – not because the authorities do not know or do not have the means, partly out of a lack of willingness but most probably the passiveness is deliberate. If the laws were applied, shortage would increase and mass riots would be likely to occur pressuring the state to provide houses, infrastructure and land. Due to both a lack of money (or the management thereof) and short-sightedness the government welcomes the private and informal solutions while ignoring the long-term effects such as the loss of agricultural land, a worsening life quality, and the possible rise of extremism. Moreover the paradox of empty flats and homeless population enforces the increase of the gap between rich and poor. The creativity of the population to find shelter does not make up for the damaging long-term consequences.

III. Urbanism and Urbanization

Commonly there is a correlation between urbanization and modernization; perhaps not a direct one certainly mediated through factors such as industrialization and communication. The Middle East is a region of rapid urbanization therefore one might expect a high degree of modernization. Saad Eddin Ibrahim argues though that urbanization does indeed take place but it is urbanism which is lacking – the quality of cities does not grow at the same rate as their size. Ibrahim refers to urbanism as a “qualitative change in people’s outlook, behavioural patterns, and the organizational networks which they create and participate in”. Furthermore it is understood as a life style associated with a more sophisticated and rational attitude, a higher degree of universalism and anonymity; some scientists even use the term interchangeably with modernity. Simplified one may think of the two terms as quantity and quality. Although not necessarily connected and not exclusively causing each other, urbanism and urbanization have been strongly intertwined, and both are related to modernization. For Arab countries however Ibrahim detects a large historical gap between the two where the rapid urbanization has not caused the same degree of urbanism or modernity.

In her essay on urbanism in Cairo Janet Abu-Lughod distinguishes life styles by the dimensions of time and technology and derives four different types: 1. the traditional rural, 2. the modern small-town dweller, 3. the traditional urbanite and 4. the modern urbanite. Only the last shows the characteristics of urbanism, whereas the third type refers to migrants from rural areas who keep up their traditional life style. Strikingly, half of Cairo’s population consisted of these people in the 1970s and the trend is still similar today. The “ruralism” they bring along with them to the city and the lack of economic opportunities causes their low socio-economic status. The "traditional urbanites" are not participating in the education system and official work force and inhabit the old quarters of the city such as Bulaq, old Cairo, the medieval city and Shubra; similar trends have been examined in Baghdad and Moroccan and Algerian countries where the lifestyles of the migrated do not adopt to the urban and people stay in isolated parts of the city. A correlation index between urbanization and urbanism, whereas the latter is considered features of modernization and wealth, shows that the one of the Arab World is much lower than that of other regions of the world. Consequently the growth of cities in the Arab world does not contribute to modernization but rather causes significant problems within the cities.

The reason for this rather inverted development are on the one hand that most Arab cities are not prepared for the rush on them, houses are old and infrastructure of schools, hospitals or transportation is missing. Maintaining their buildings and providing infrastructure cost Arab countries disproportionately more. On the other hand urban growth – due to natural population increase and rural migration – is twice as high as the increase in job opportunities. Thus where does the surplus labour force disappear? The results are typical of developing and of Middle Eastern countries: First of all there is a high rate of un- and under-employment without compensation through state welfare. Due to this lack of support however the Western understanding of unemployment cannot be applied in the same way. In order to survive the zero-income people are forced to invent small jobs with the consequence of the emergence of an informal sector, a phenomenon social scientist began to isolate in the 1970s. Secondly, and this is characteristic of states such as Egypt, the public sector employs largely more workers than needed. The desire to ease the unrest in the population due to underemployment causes the state to inflate its bureaucracy. Altogether the high and rapid growth of cities in the Arab countries neither enforces urbanism, modernization and a well-distributed rise in living standard nor is it even capable of responding to infrastructural problems, first and foremost, job opportunities.

IV. Informality

The trend indicated by the case study of Cairo and the discussion of urbanism hint at a correlation between informal housing and an informal working sector, not simply linked by the obvious factor of poverty but moreover by the speed of urbanization. J. S. Birks and C. A. Sinclair confirm this impression in their essay on urban employment structure in the Arab world. “Capital-poor countries”, here Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, show little industrial, but high public and tertiary employment, and a significant informal sector as opposed to the “capital-rich countries” of the Gulf. The informal sector has emerged with the growth of urban conglomerations, due to two main factors; the first of which resembles the people’s response to housing shortage and is typical of developing countries: The speed of urbanization in Syria, Sudan or Egypt did not correspond to that of the productive sector of economy thus the population was forced to invent job activities such as selling matches, tissues or vegetables in the streets. The second factor is specific for the poorer Arab countries in connection with work migration to the Gulf states. Birks and Sinclair argue that this type of migration contributes to urban growth in the donor countries and to the increase of informal work. Returning migrants usually acquire both skills and attitudes that mainly correspond to urban life so that they move to cities on their return; even though there might be no job opportunity and they end up in the informal sector. Furthermore, international migration is performed in steps from villages to towns to cities and finally abroad, however some never take the last step. Lastly, international migration is highly selective. As more skilled workers move abroad the economy of the donor country faces the loss of qualified work and the opportunity to expand the productive sector, thus causing further unemployment. Despite the beneficial character of work migration it directly contributed to the growth of cities and of the informal sector.

Ananya Roy and Nezar al-Sayyad elaborate on the topic of the informal sector from a slightly different perspective by referring to “urban informality” as a “manifestation of informal processes in the urban environment” and even a new way of life. Thereby al-Sayyad detects a significant difference between the informal housing sector of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries which he associated with some kind of cultural specificities. While informality in Latin American countries caused strong political interaction between squatters and the state, informal dwellers in the Middle East remained rather apolitical and distant from the state in order to best secure their opportunities. This attitude results from the fact that political activism in urban Latin America supported the achievement of rights, in the Middle East however it was advisable to refrain from any formal or public sphere if land was to be illegally subdivided and built on. Struggle in the informal sphere meant to find a way to survive rather than political protest and follows two goals, the “redistribution of social goods and opportunities, and attainment of cultural and political autonomy”. Relating this attitude back to the question of a connection between informal housing and work, one can conclude that the “culture of informality” evoked by the housing situation is reflected by the same characteristics of labour. Being marginalized on the housing market as well as in the official economy the mostly poor population responds by creating their own flats and jobs. Although these lack sustainable development they are on the other hand very durable when it comes to planning an in-depth-improvement of the economic situation of the marginalized urban population.

V. Conclusion

The Middle Eastern region faces an enormous growth of cities at a rapid rate without enjoying the same economic growth, rising living standard, equal distribution and political participation as it is usually found in cities. Instead there is a high degree of informality which is clearly visible in the architecture of cities such as Cairo and in the labour of the informal sector. Birks and Sinclair have highlighted factors of the correlation of these informalities and al-Sayyad has added the component of political invisibility of the “informal population”. From an optimistic point of view one might argue that facilities have largely improved; even more so if one does not distinguish between formal and informal solutions. However, urbanism how Ibrahim depicted it has not grown as much. That corresponds to Abu-Lughod’s concept of the “traditional urbanite”, the non-integrated city dweller who still keeps up his rural life style. Or to put it in Georg Simmel’s words, the “marginal personality [is] a manifestation of cultural hybridity – of living on the margin of two cultures without being a full member of either”, although in a city like Cairo where the percentage of informal housing and labour accounts for approximately fifty percent the term of marginality assumes a slightly different dimension.


Abu-Lughod, Janet: Varieties of Urban Experience: Contrast, Coexistence, and Coalescence in Cairo. In: Ira M. Lapidus (ed.): Middle Eastern Cities. A Symposium on Ancient, Islamic, and Contemporary Middle Eastern Urbanism. Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969. pp. 159-187.

Blake, Gerald Henry and Richard Ivor Lawless (eds.): The Changing Middle Eastern City. London: Croom Helm, 1980.

Ibrahim, Saad Eddin: Over-Urbanization and under-Urbanism: The Case of the Arab World. In: International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 6, No. 1. January 1975. pp. 29-45.

Issawi, Charles: Economic Change and Urbanization in the Middle East. In: Ira M. Lapidus (ed.): Middle Eastern Cities. A Symposium on Ancient, Islamic, and Contemporary Middle Eastern Urbanism. Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969. pp. 102-121.

Meyer, Günter: Wohnen in der Megastadt Kairo [Living in the Mega-City of Cairo]. In: Günter Meyer (ed.): Die Arabische Welt im Spiegel der Kulturgeographie [The Arab World from a cultural-geographic perspective]. Mainz : ZEWAF, 2004. pp.128-149.

Richards, Alan and John Waterbury: A Political Economy of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996. pp. 251-274.

Roy, Ananya and Nezar al-Sayyad (eds.): Urban informality. Transnational perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003. [ 12-18-2004]

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