Intro to Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued

View of Sheikh Zayed Road interchange, Dubai, 2009. Photo: Todd Reisz

When we first conceived a second Al Manakh, the global crisis was not yet reality. ‘An eventual correction’ loomed over every new development plan in the Gulf, but it would be difficult to find anyone today who predicted the crisis’ onset and in what form it would come – a liquidity shortfall that started far away, then spread globally, and relentlessly exposed real estate bubbles in the Gulf.

In January 2009, we started Al Manakh 2 in the midst of a terrible cloud of no-information and misinformation. Crisis had bungled our initial plans and given us a new assignment: to follow its course and look for the ideas that might suggest the Gulf region’s way out of it. Several times elucidation seemed near, but almost every lead proved a ruse.

In the end, crisis was just part of the story. Al Manakh 2 had to take the next step. It had to begin uncovering the structures and networks that lay underneath the images easily found. To do that, we asked people living and working in the region to contribute.

And as is the nature of the region, we couldn’t rely just on voices in the Gulf cities; we reached out also to people who felt the Gulf in other corners of the world: Malaysia, China, Egypt, India, the US and the UK. More than 120 people contributed to this book. Al Manakh 2 assembles voices that sometimes unknowingly collude together and other times contradict one another. Distinguishing the voices ‘on the ground’ from those offering an outsider’s commentary is not difficult, and therefore it is clear that more work is to be done in stimulating the exchange of ideas and opinions over supposedly porous boundaries.

The first Al Manakh was a photographic documentary, in text and images: Gulf cities were what you saw, and what you saw was undeniable. The book relied on a process of collecting facts and figures that up to that point had not been gathered in one place. If Al Manakh was the first book to assemble an urban history of this region, Al Manakh 2 could be the first that explores the cultural linkages among these cities in regard to their ambitions, predicaments and needs. Our attempt here charts an experiment to show congruence and contradiction – both mutually inclusive to any collaborative effort. And both are reconceptualizing the Gulf.

After this book goes to print, some ideas will be surely proven wrong or obsolete. That’s how it goes in this region. To publish a book on the Gulf is a risky endeavor because the region moves at a rate more suitable for other media outlets. But the Gulf does need books about it. And in the midst of a financial crisis – when much time has passed and more time must still be endured – the Gulf is at a point where the information available at this moment should be considered and examined.

United?

A book that covers six cities in five autonomous countries – no matter how much it tries to underline their differences – assumes they share something in common. Each of the countries has elected to collaborate to some degree through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).1 There is relative ease in moving over GCC borders (especially if you are a GCC citizen), and with that ease, there has been a seeping of ideas and expertise from one place to another. One idea of 2009 loaded with considerable social implications for the GCC countries was the return of the GCC railway proposal.

Huge infrastructure projects – Guinness World records for engineering feats, thousands of kilometers of highway (and some rail), vast seaports and airports – have characterized the region’s modernization over the last 60 years. Physical infrastructure is worth more than its weight in concrete and steel; it lends the space for other kinds of infrastructural development: educational, healthcare, economic and cultural. Highways, telegraph technology and a postal system all have their roots in a twentieth-century idea of a unified Gulf. And if the 1970s were characterized by legions laying roads and pipes, the 80s, 90s and 00s were about harnessing those systems in order to build societies.

As with many other good ideas, the rail project is not a result of the crisis, but current economic conditions have certainly given the project resuscitation. In addition to the proposed GCC rail network, other countries are developing their own national rail plans. Saudi Arabia is fueling its economy by expanding upon the region’s sole rail line between Riyadh and Dammam. Abu Dhabi is also pursuing rail to connect its oil industries to its cities and port. The bridge connecting Bahrain to Qatar (auspiciously called the ‘Friendship Causeway’) will not only serve automobiles but will also include a rail corridor. In addition to rail connection, the GCC-wide electrical grid went online in 2009, aiding the region in sharing energy resources and paving the way to overcoming the paradoxical electrical blackouts some areas suffer in this oil-rich region. The energy link also suggests further unity as oil runs out and some governments move toward developing alternative forms of energy with export potential.

Not to be undervalued, infrastructure also aids in the imaginative process of understanding a common cause. Cities that seem far apart might suddenly be drawn together, physically and psychologically. Right now going from Abu Dhabi to Doha requires one to go through the same routine as from Abu Dhabi to London. Simplifying a travel routine would draw the two cities together, more than ever before.

The GCC does not spark the popular imagination. It elicits a trail of political setbacks, especially this past year – disputes over the location of a central bank; the decreasing likelihood of a monetary union; deflated claims for an ‘Arab agenda’; images of droves of UAE trucks trapped at the Saudi border. It might be infrastructure’s role, once again, to demonstrate how the physical can generate ideas and ignite a regional enthusiasm.

It’s a cruel joke to ask a newcomer: ‘What do you think of Abu Dhabi?’ To be asked the question is paralyzing, especially if compared to being asked the same question in Paris or New York. There, ‘Great.’ would suffice. How do you answer – acknowledging the socioeconomic conditions, yet not dwelling on them entirely? How do you talk about the ‘speed’ without oversimplifying or missing the point? If it’s cruel to ask the newcomer, it is laborious to ask the resident or citizen about his or her city. Globalized media have made these cities grow under international scrutiny. The oversight aids in some regards, others not, and in every regard creates complex issues of self-awareness. Each writer here, putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, is thinking how that word just written relates to a whole network of global opinions. It can be dizzying, discouraging and stimulating all at the same time.

Words and visions are not reserved for the power base. In the Gulf, the written and spoken word is a serious endeavor. This is a region where poetry recitations are televised, where blogs provide evidence of complex and non-complacent societies, and where debates happen in living rooms and cafes. Western critics might miss the voting booths, but the level and magnitude of discussions are by no means lacking. Trade data reveal that each of these cities is more connected to places beyond the Gulf than to each other. Al Manakh 2 argues that there is a united Gulf, united in resilience but distinguished greatly in details and far from unison. A united GCC is not just around the corner, but the ideas, however latent, are there to support its becoming. While cities in the West remain stagnated in the face of the global crisis – looking for ways to bring things back to the way they were, these cities move forward.

There is a propelling energy that aggravates any tendency toward enervation. Grave errors have been made, and leaders will address them, but critics will also be asked to see these mistakes in perspective. One can disagree with leaders’ arguments, and chastise their lack of transparency, but the pace and the perseverance of these cities require that the world take note. We hope that Al Manakh 2 helps you in the process.

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