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Nostalgia for the golden days of the Gulf

All Gulf countries and cities underwent major changes as a result of oil wealth. But there is a certain nostalgia for the old times

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

Is it the right time to talk about a mutual Gulf vision that restores happiness to Gulf cities after modernization swept through, dividing people and disrupting demographics? Yes. Such a talk is a lot better than talking about disputes which were manufactured outside the Gulf by non-Gulf citizens and which ended up dividing us.

All Gulf countries and cities underwent major changes as a result of oil wealth. We now live in massive cities and transformations are ongoing as all cities compete in the field of construction. They view Dubai as a model and all cities want to be like Dubai.

But there can only be one Dubai in the Gulf. Congratulations to Dubai for this success. We consider Dubai’s success as our success. To anyone attempting to build another Dubai in our small Gulf, we tell him “they’ve already beaten you at it.” I am here talking from an economic perspective.

GCC cooperation

As some complain about the Gulf Cooperation Council’s incomplete unity, they fail to notice that some sort of unity has been in fact established and applied. That would be the customs union, the freedom of travel and the act of unifying a series of economic systems and legislations that created one economic working environment for business.

It would have been better if GCC countries organized its renaissance after the cooperation was established. But this didn’t happen because it’s the nature of free “capitalism” and because we are still independent governments which “sometimes fiercely disagree” among one another. But it’s time for everyone to address certain issues like those linked to the environment and the citizens’ happiness. It’s better if this is a popular movement which intellectuals, authors and those concerned about public affairs call for. It’s not a political issue. Someone must raise this question: “For how long will our cities continue to expand and our airports continue to receive thousands of foreign workers?”

It’s time to demand our right to a “happy life” and restore the spirit of the old town which the Gulf once enjoyed

Jamal Kashoggi

It’s time to demand our right to a “happy life” and restore the spirit of the old town which the Gulf once enjoyed. This can be achieved by re-planning our cities and economy. We begin by halting the exaggerated expanding of our cities. For example, the area of a city like Riyadh has doubled several times during two decades, and it’s still expanding. Let this stop. Then we can begin by returning to downtown. One may wonder: What will happen to neighborhoods in the surroundings and to new plans? Let’s let the economy and demand and supply control this and decide their fate. Let’s eliminate the cancer of malls which spread in the cities’ veins. Let’s take into consideration the Urban Planning 101 course which engineers studied in American universities but then forgot the minute they were assigned heads of municipalities. All Gulf cities have witnessed what I mentioned, except for Oman which cities still expand while preserving local identity.

I settled in Bahrain at the beginning of 2013 for work reasons as I am head of Al-Arab news channel. One of the country’s good habits is their gatherings during Ramadan where each family has a council where it hosts guests during certain nights of the holy month.

Overheard in Bahrain

While attending one of these gatherings, I heard Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman converse with a Bahraini citizen about the old days in the country’s old neighborhoods. There was nostalgia for these old days. I witness such conversations whenever I sit with men who lived through this past era. So, why all this nostalgia for these old neighborhoods when we have gotten sick of them and abandoned them? We got tired of these neighborhood’s narrow alleys, high ceilings and wooden doors after we became convinced that modernism and development lie in cement blocks and wide roads that have no trees or shade. We abandoned our old cities where buildings provided us with shadow and cold breeze and where a green tree stood high in the center. We have even abolished these old neighborhoods from some Saudi cities. We mercilessly abolished them without taking into consideration that they have a history or a sweet memory, and we left whatever was left of them to complete strangers.

The Bahraini prime minister’s conversation with the citizens answers the question of why we miss our old neighborhoods when we willingly abandoned them. It’s because we long for a beautiful relation which the most beautiful of buildings and the widest of roads cannot replace. It’s the emotion which takes over you when you step outside your house and run into your neighbor who you know and whose parents and tribe you know. These emotions were the core of the conversation between the prime minister and the citizen. What we love is not the neighborhood itself but rather those who resided in it.

We no longer have old neighborhoods in Madinah and Mecca. We expanded in the extremities of the two holy cities, establishing neighborhoods that have no links to the past. We thus established something distorted and called it a place of residence. Residents of the capital and the rest of the cities abandoned their old neighborhoods willingly. They first left them towards new neighborhoods which were established in the 1960s then they left the latter for newer neighborhoods, and they are now leaving the latter for even newer ones. Foreign workers replaced them whenever they migrated from a neighborhood. Neighborhoods thus lost their history and identity and memories of life and death alike withered away.

So far, Bahrain survived this sweeping “development” as many of its families still live in the 1960s and 1970s neighborhoods. A few of them still live in older neighborhoods like al-Mahraq neighborhood. The latter’s municipality did well as it attempted to revive it by developing it to make it appealing to new restaurants and coffee shops. Bahrain’s tourism minister, May al-Khalifa, is also trying to transform the city’s historical buildings into cultural landmarks in an attempt to save the city from being occupied by foreign workers or from becoming a warehouse.

It’s time to call on heads of municipalities, especially those who studied urban planning and development at American universities, to open their schoolbooks and come up with a plan on how to give back citizens their old neighborhoods with a touch of modernity.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 8, 2014.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.