11th April 2019


Mohammad Asfour
Muin Khoury
Dr. Nuha Eltinay
Zahra Khalifa
Zena Ali-Ahmad

The peace and prosperity of increasingly multicultural Arab cities depends upon the ability to create urban environments that welcome diversity. How can urban planners engage with the needs of the community to build resilience and approach reconstruction in a sustainable manner? How can the practice of openness improve community participation, define a city’s identity, and build a stronger shared future? “The topic of resilience and tolerance is complex,” Ms. Ali-Ahmad said. ”I think the Arab region is very diverse religiously and culturally, but we do not always use this diversity and richness to our benefit. How can we strike a balance between providing necessary services and being sustainable?”

The answer to many of these questions is adopting a “green” way of thinking, Mr. Asfour argued. But, he said, “green” does not just mean environmental concerns, but rather a state of harmony with our surroundings. This includes tolerance towards different groups, which historically was a trait of the great Arab cities. “We should be looking at the history of Cairo and Baghdad,”he said.“They got brains in from around the world. Part of preserving our identity is the way we address cultural diversity.”

There is also a lot of conflict in the region, so reconstruction will be a major issue. Mr. Asfour’s group is trying to develop guidelines for sustainable reconstruction and is currently working on a project that encompasses all these green values. “Societies are fed up with terror and the destruction of the rights of others,” he said. “This could be a good climate to restate that diversity and tolerance were very prominent in Arab cities of the past.”

The UAE has a rich history, but not necessarily as an urban space. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have only recently become large cities. This presents challenges, as citizens figure out how to adapt from their rural past, but also opportunities, as the history of these cities are relatively free of major conflict. One unique feature of the government is that it features a Ministry of Tolerance, which offers programs to reach people of different backgrounds. The UAE government designated the year 2019 as the Year of Tolerance and has introduced many initiatives to mark the occasion.

“At the end of the day we all have emotions and feelings,”Ms. Khalifa said. “Collectively we can have a good impact and we can put our cities in a win-win place. We want sustainability and to think of a future that offers a space that is tolerant.”

She cited the Burj Khalifa as an example of an iconic building that has become a symbol of peace. It celebrates the accomplishments of the UAE, but also brings people together to celebrate special occasions from other cultures. UAE National Day in December is another example of an event that has taken on new meaning as the number of nationalities living here has increased. “When we see other nationalities celebrating with us, it is beautiful,” Ms. Khalifa said. “This kind of thing helps build peace, it helps fight terrorism, and reduces negativity in society.”

The other issue that the panel tried to address was resilience, that is, the ability of a city or a system within that city to overcome a problem or a disaster and absorb the negative fallout or change for the better. Dr. Eltinay’s organization just completed a project three weeks ago that met with representatives of 20 cities over a two-year period. They reported their findings in an “Assessment of Resilience”.“We found that while the Arab region is diverse and governments are working towards achieving development targets, there is a disconnect when engaging with many at the grassroots about sustainability,” she said. “Their issues are migration and poverty, losing access to public transportation and land distribution. How do we manage these challenges? Our assessment is based on the theory that if it’s not measurable it is not manageable, but there are qualitative issues to those measurements.”

One of her suggestions was to look at how Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the country, embedded sustainability into his vision for the future many years ago. “We envy the UAE on progress,” Dr. Eltinay said. “It does not come from nowhere.”

The future of Arab cities will rely on the youth of today, who comprise a majority of the population. Many of these youth are vulnerable because they are marginalized. Mr. Khoury argued that youth is suffering because of the failures of older generations.

“There has been an erosion of trust and legitimacy between the state and its constituents, between tribal elders and youth, between religious leaders and their followers, between men and women, and between the community and the environment,” he said. “This mismanagement has led to conflict, a lack of access to justice, elitism and corruption, a disintegration of the rule of law. We have lost our collective memory, which has led to sectarianism, a lack of identity, and failing services.”

The solutions to these problems will not be easy, but Mr. Khoury recommended that the first step was contextualization. Citizens’ perception of reality needs to be fixed so that they focus on real problems and peace building instead of sectarianism. Governments must also engage in more conflict forecasting, so that negative outcomes can be prevented. Finally, Mr. Khoury said that governments must work towards rebuilding trust between their constituents and start serving the public good. “There has been a mismanagement of diversity, he said. “We need to nurture connectivity between social groups. Reinstate methods that have worked in the past and look to our heritage and collective memory for peace building.”

Audience comments

A debate ensued after Mr. Khoury said that society needed to return to the pillars of “the father, the imam, and the teacher.” He noted that because men are working two or three jobs, they spend less than 10 minutes a day interacting with their children. “They have been disgraced by this low-level of life. They have no time to engage, and if they are not empowered they will not do the job of peace building.” One audience member noted that the mother is also important for peace and that the traditional values that Mr. Khoury wants to return to do not resonate with people anymore. “For the past 10 years it has been very cool and modern to trash traditional values,” Mr. Khoury responded. “The mother is replacing the father. The mother becomes a marriage counselor, a career counselor and a religious counselor. We need men to help out. And are women enabled? In Jordan, 10% of women have an ATM card but no password.”

Another audience member noted that they thought there is a weakness in the social fabric of the region, including the nurturing of values such as tolerance and adaptability. “There is a direct relation between urban space and the social fabric,” Ms. Khalifa said. “The Ministry of Tolerance is the fruit of this attitude. We work to spread this virtue. We need to work more on building for human beings.”

One audience member thought the word “tolerance” was problematic and suggested “diversity” as an alternative. They brought up an anecdote about a black activist at a town-hall meeting who said in response to the question: “How can we have more tolerance?”“I do not want you to tolerate me. I would rather be embraced.” Resilience does not occur in a vacuum, they argued,  and the United Nations has identified the drivers of violent extremism as socio-economic. The underlying cause has to be addressed. They also noted that the first report on Arab sustainability showed one third of countries did not have any indicators, while others only had one or two.

Last thoughts

Ms. Ali-Ahmad asked each of the panelists how Arab cities can better embrace diversity. “Remember the story, the history, and the culture of our cities,” Mr. Khoury said. “Otherwise we are not going anywhere.” ”Enable green leadership in communities”, Mr. Asfour said. “The idea of harmony with everyone and everything will empower citizens to be more tolerant. “We have legislation, policy and agendas, but we do not have strong implementation,” Dr. Eltinay said. “We need to move from theory to practice.” “Find out what people’s needs are, then work together,” Ms. Khalifa said. “If we all focus on this objective we can achieve it.” “ Diversity is our strength,” Ms. Ali-Ahmad concluded. “Use it or lose it forever.”