Destruction of Public Space, the Right To The City, and Authoritarian Durability in the Middle East

Many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are uniquely resilient in their ability to resist and pre-emptively stop change. The scholarly consensus generally resides in the understanding that these regimes operate under a rentierist modality. In essence, rulers make an inordinate amount of money from rents, such as oil. Rentierist states operate in one of two ways. Kuwait demonstrates “popular rentierism,” meaning the use of revenue for ostensibly benevolent reasons such as creating and maintaining robust welfare, healthcare and civil service agencies. Alternatively, as Bahrain showcases, rentierism can manifest in a more securitized approach, in which the state maintains such a powerful security apparatus that opposition to its rule becomes too costly for dissidents. Clearly, rentierism is a significant factor in the resiliency of Middle East regimes, but rentierist scholars overlook the importance of a population’s spatial dispersions. Merely reducing depoliticization to the effects of rentierism, while a credible lens, fails to explain why once cohesive societies atomize, a key component in the process of depoliticization.

To really understand why some Arab states did not succumb to the same democratic pressures of the Arab Spring we should apply Henri Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la ville, or, The Right to the City. If we intersect Lefebvre’s understanding of how cities foment a more cosmopolitan and democratic outlook with the pressures and effects of global capitalism, then we can illuminate the depoliticized nature of populations and why the oppositional wave of the Arab Spring failed to materialize in some parts of the Middle East.

Integral Components To The Story

Theorist David Harvey aptly defines the “right to the city” as the essential human right to remake ourselves through our experience with the social relations within a city. We become more dynamic– emotionally and in terms of our comprehensions– when we live in a more diverse space. The urbanite lives in a more vibrant, multifaceted, and complicated space than those who are more rural, typically resulting in a more cosmopolitan outlook. We can see this process manifest by examining spatial determinants of voting in the United States. Urban constituents tend to vote for Democrats, the more cosmopolitan and diverse of America’s two parties, while those in more rural areas tend to vote for Republicans, the more parochial and conservative party. The unavoidable social interactions between individuals in the city means that one cannot live in isolation of differing perspectives. Sooner or later, urbanites stumble into something like a Chinatown or other enclave, immigrants, or in general, people radically different from themselves.  These encounters are unavoidable, the spatial layout of the organic city mandates constant inevitable challenges to one’s worldview, generating a less hierarchical outlook more conducive to one of the fundamentals of Liberal democracy (that is, openness to those that are different).

The right to the city has an integral component: the existence of easily accessible public space within the city. The classic case of this in Middle Eastern politics is that of the Iranian bazaar. The bazaar is an engine of political dynamism. Key in the dissemination of information, wealthy bazaaris (the Iranian merchant class) who opposed the Shah’s control of the economy might facilitate the production of opposition leaflets, to be handed out by the Iranian city’s subaltern. The fundamental understanding of the bazaar as an entity that allows interaction without the stratification of class or gender is what the right to the city subsists upon. Overcoming intra-societal differences is the key benefit of the right to the city. These interactions generate a more open society that is comfortable and even happy with dynamic zeitgeists and political change. In this manner, the cosmopolitan urbanite self-energizes democracy. The urbanite becomes a more politically responsible member of society, and the sum of a more open society creates a more robust body politic.

Why, then, might these public spaces be destroyed, gentrified, or reimagined? One one hand, any authoritarian leader worth their salt will destroy engines of political dynamism, understanding that a powerful civil society is a threat. The problem with this method is that it is obvious. Aristotle famously stated that man is a political animal. Any rational individual fundamentally wants to participate in their society in a manner that will benefit the body politic. Creating barriers to political dynamism, such as the destruction of protest camps or the cordoning off of certain areas for inexplicable reasons are clearly not designed for the public’s benefit, but rather for that of the empowered. Without some type of reasonable rationalization for impediments to the right to the city the populace will see the effort for what it is, an authoritarian power grab. The alternative to this rather transparent endevor is to provide digestible reasons, often claiming the need for development or investment.

Herein lies the authoritarian intersection with the facts of global capitalism. One reality of capitalism is that it operates under the frontier mentality. The frontier mentality can be understood as the constant desire to seek new territories and constantly push boundaries with the ultimate teleology of expansion. Karl Marx most accurately pinpointed Capitalism’s frontier mentality,  contesting, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” Capitalism as a system always seeks new markets to exploit for profit; it is an inherently expansionist system. Understanding this key facet of capitalism is integral to comprehending the modality of destruction toward the right to the city and access to public spaces in the Middle East.

Succinctly, we can understand this destruction through the idea of financial conjuring and the economy of appearances. Financial conjuring is the process of imbuing natural resources, a city, a population, or essentially anything, with qualities that can be exploited for profit. So, for example, an important waterway, the Nile River, is integral to regional trade. Access to the Nile River is important to industries seeking to trade in the area. Landlords in Cairo will charge rent for businesses seeking a base of operation close to the Nile River. The Nile River is thus monetized and exploited for profit.

The other aspect of this is the economy of appearances. The economy of appearances should be understood as an entity’s mode of business attraction. Understanding that business is always seeking expansion, those in charge of property might make the property more appealing to business. Offering high-end shopping malls, grandiose motorways, movie theaters, worldwide food chains, etc, are key to attracting global business. Without an attractive location, employees will not want to settle and the space will not lure the same quality of worker (consider the attractiveness of Silicon Valley’s proximity to San Francisco). This is a fundamental process to global capitalism. While these relationships and processes generate significant amounts of money, they sanitize the city, replacing authentic public spaces with genuine histories with gentrified cookie cutter buildings and businesses. The bazaar, where one could intermingle with those beneath and above their class and purchase genuine products becomes the supermall, where one can shop at Brooks Brothers or eat at McDonalds.

Kuwait demonstrates how global capitalism depoliticizes a population through atomization, or, the disunification and individualization of the collective. At its founding, Kuwait was a port city. Travelers and traders would bring their own cultures, views, conceptions, products, spices, and foods. The intermingling of multitudes of identities manufactured a more open population. Of course, open populations are more receptive to democracy. They tolerate other views, appreciate similarities and celebrate differences while disavowing hierarchy. In a more open society, myriad identities do not cause democratic decay through the dissolution of semblances of unity. A more open society can celebrate these differences. The right to the city is the driver of this phenomena. Through the unavoidable interaction with differing ideas, a zeitgeist more amenable to democracy manifests.

Recognizing that Kuwait’s more cosmopolitan society was a threat to authoritarianism, in that a society less inclined to support hierarchy would be less agreeable to limited political agency, Kuwait’s rulers initiated a major societal reorientation. Because Kuwait’s rulers had such a good understanding of the relationship between democracy and the right to the city, policies of de-urbanization and suburbanization were heavily enforced beginning in the late 1950s. At the same time, immigration rates spiked. Simultaneously, Kuwait’s parliament redefined its citizenship laws and narrowed citizenship requirements to approximately 30% of the population.  

The reasons for the massive influx of immigrants should be understood dialectically with discourses on Kuwaiti citizenship. To be a Kuwaiti citizen meant having a cushy position in the civil service or governing bureaucracy, excellent healthcare and education, and a guaranteed life of luxury. Kuwait’s popular rentierism was designed to superordinate a specific group of people–those with the capacity to influence politics– to depoliticize them. Kuwaiti citizens expected to live easy lives and to work white collar jobs. Additionally, an emphasis on living in the suburbs, with the space, the cars, and the tempered lifestyle as main attractors. As Kuwaitis suburbanized, they lost their right to the city. No longer at the mercy of forced interaction with those different, Kuwaiti citizens could live in their own bubbles. If Kuwaiti society was at one point a cosmopolitan molecule comprised of myriad atoms, suburbanization smashed the molecule into individual atoms. The result, of course, was a disunified and atomized collective of individuals where a cohesive body politic once resided.

Obviously, any healthy economic system needs blue collar jobs. Migrant workers were heavily recruited as Kuwaiti nationals left the city for the suburbs. Migrant workers moved to the city and lived in slums without many rights. Obviously, poverty and inadequate access to necessary resources beget crime. Migrant workers became associated with criminality by the increasingly more closed-minded Kuwaiti. The once cosmopolitan Kuwaiti now viewed the outsider as a potential threat rather than a chance to expand or challenge a worldview.

Spurring this change in mentality, Kuwait’s polity oversaw a destruction of public space. New emphasis on car ownership, a hallmark of suburbanization, forced roads to widen. Al-Safat, a center at which many smaller towns converged, was replaced by a traffic circle. Areas where disparate groups of individuals found commonality was transformed into a mechanism to control movement. Space around al-Safat became a nexus for parking lots. Likewise, urban “beautification” schemes were designed to modernize the city. Authentic working-class neighborhoods adjacent to bazaars and upper class spaces were eradicated and replaced with gardens or modern buildings. Any authenticity was lost in a guise to make the city a better place. In light of urban beautification, al-Safat’s parking lots were converted into a supermall. If we trace al-Safat’s history to its origins as a center of convergence to where it is today, we can begin to understand the “privatization of urban life.” To enter a mall, one must be a Kuwaiti citizen. To be a Kuwaiti citizen, one must have money. Essentially, the supermall is a center for consumption rather than a space for interaction.


In Kuwait, we have seen  the effects of capitalism as a depoliticizing agent. Once cosmopolitan Kuwaitis suburbanize and atomize only to return to the city that at one point had given them dynamism to find it a space for consumption. Indeed, the main rationalization behind this transition was the need to attract business and industry. Businesses and skilled workers flock to “developed” areas, Kuwait’s leaders would argue. Of course to the upper crust, the influx of foreign investment would benefit them. Landlords would collect rents and state owned enterprises would see new customers and business partners. Industry came at the expense of the authentic Kuwaiti neighborhood and public space. The result of this, however, was a disunified population less amenable to democracy and content with hierarchy so long as they could be satiated. Rather than orienting our understanding of depoliticized Middle Eastern populations around the two types of rentierism, we should understand the ostensibly benign process of urban development and the need to attract business as an authoritarian modality to cement power.

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.