The Middle East's graveyard cities

The Middle East's graveyard cities
6 min read
30 May, 2017
Comment: As the battle for Mosul reaches its zenith, it's worth considering the huge scale of the reconstruction challenge ahead, writes James Denselow.
The rebuilding of Mosul will be a critical test for Iraq's future [AFP]
When the news cameras move on, Mosul will join a long list of Middle Eastern cities that have suffered huge levels of destruction, requiring mind-boggling levels of investment and urban planning.

Cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Kobane and Aleppo are just a few of those to have been battered by explosive weapons during protracted battles and await reconstruction.

As satellite and increasingly drone footage has shown, once proud and bustling urban areas have become graveyards of shattered rubble sentinels presiding over roads packed with burnt-out cars and the detritus of conflict.

Beneath the rubble lies not only the unrecovered dead but also an infrastructure system gutted of its electrical and water supplies; a broken shell of what was once here.

A return to the status quo ante may never come. There is not a Marshall Fund of trillions of dollars available and awaiting those looking to help refugees and the internally displaced to return to homes that are no longer there.

Meanwhile the politics that surround these conflicts mean that it is not in the interests of the powers that be to simply restore the past when they imagine a radically different future.

Often people spend an age waiting to return home to a refugee camp. In Lebanon, the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared was largely destroyed in fighting a decade ago this month. Today only half of it has been rebuilt, a standing testimony to the old adage that it is far easier to destroy than it is to create.  

An initial and important context to this urban challenge is the wider trend towards a move to cities felt around the world. 
The cities of the Middle East were struggling with the burden of urbanisation even before the added component of conflict

Today more than half the world's population live in cities, and this number is predicted to rise to at least 70 percent by 2030.

In 1950, about 80 percent of the total population of the Middle East lived in rural areas. Today, 31 percent of people live in the biggest 30 cities. A combination of changing economics, increasing connectivity, a youth population bulge and climate change affecting rural areas has accelerated a push towards the cities.

Such a rapid movement has often overwhelmed city infrastructure that has lacked both the resources and the imagination to cope.
In Cairo, thousands live between the graves
of the city's vast cemetery [AFP]

Perhaps most famously, images of Egyptian families living in graveyards in Cairo - as many as a million people are estimated to live in the four-mile-long cemetery known as the "city of the dead" - or the shanty-like homes in parts of the southern slums of Beirut, a manifestation of prolonged internal displacement caused by conflict and pressures on rural living.

The cities of the Middle East were struggling with the burden of urbanisation even before the added component of conflict. Once we factor in the costs of years of bombs and bullets the practical and political difficulties of urban reconstruction in post-conflict settings become clearer and more immense.

Thousands of tonnes of concrete, laced with unexploded munitions and other dangers await the builders of a new Mosul, and that's just the clearance phase. Beyond that lies the sensitive local politics of urban planning and securing resources against a volatile ethno-sectarian backdrop characterised by the legacy of forced-Arabisation and fears of present day forced-Kurdisisation.

In Syria it's important also to acknowledge that, for many Syrians, the idea of rebuilding is irrelevant as long as Assad is still in place. Indeed, efforts to rebuild risk legitimising his continued rule. Back in 2012, Assad signed legislative decree 66/2012 to "redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]".

The scale of destruction in Aleppo is staggering [AFP]

Critics argue that what appears on the surface to be urban reconstruction is actually a more complex demographic manoeuvre with grants given to pro-government loyalists and perceived "opposition" families denied the chance to return to where they once lived.

It seems churlish to say this, considering that conflict is still ongoing - but without a properly funded and strategic approach to the reconstruction of cities such as Mosul and Aleppo, the seeds of still further future conflict will be sown.

To look at it from a different perspective, the Syria of tomorrow could become a playground for cutting-edge urban design and architecture, as planners take advantage of the destruction to start from scratch in building new, green, energy-efficient cities.

Where public transport systems replace the ubiquitous Middle East traffic jam, the rapid rise of unsustainable urbanisation is checked with connected and developed rural areas. New schools will need to be set up with the latest thinking on education helping to reintegrate the tens of thousands of children whose learning has been violently interrupted.

Yet for this theory to be a reality, a fundamentally different approach to reconstruction would need to be embraced rather than the current "to the victor, the spoils" model.

In places such as Baghdad, reconstruction shows how a fundamentally different urban identity can emerge from the ashes of conflict. Blast walls, checkpoints and security measures nominally protect residents from continual threats yet maintain the divisions of the civil war that followed the 2003 invasion.

In Beirut, the Green Line that demarcated east and west is harder to see physically manifest but remains an imagined boundary in a country whose divisions bubble beneath the surface.

The future of Mosul will be a critical test of Iraq's ability to continue as an effective unitary state. It's one thing to win the city without destroying it - it's quite another to bring back the kind of hope as well as practical support that will prevent the country's second city from again falling prey to the Islamic State group or whatever incarnation follows in its wake.

The euphoria and relief of the end of IS rule grants the Iraqi authorities and their allies a critical window of support into which they need to surge to win the "hearts and minds" of the population, and to show a genuine commitment - not only to rebuilding Mosul, but to making the city even better than it was in the past.

When the attention of the world moves on after the fighting, the real battle for the future of the city will begin.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.