Public spaces and everyday practices of migrant labour in Gulf cities

Ashraf M. Salama, Florian Wiedmann, Smona Azzali

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Restructuring historic centres in Gulf cities has been a trend in recent years. Yet, a large share of these centres is still populated by lower income migrant communities, particularly male labourers from South Asia. Qatar’s capital Doha and Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates are important examples, where the local identity of their city centres including the particular urban life and spatial settings have been highly affected by the everyday practices of migrant groups over several decades. The continuous exchange of migrants led to a continuous import of new ways how public spaces are perceived and used. Multicultural realities are therefore increasingly prevailing and have led to local decision makers experiencing a conflicted local identity. Due to the fact that national citizens have moved to suburbs and have usually been avoiding these central public spaces, urban life is to a large extent defined by migrants. This contribution presents findings on lived public spaces of central city districts and on the characteristics of urban spaces and the way in which migrant communities appropriate them. The methodological approach of this study includes structured field surveys, systematic observations as well as behavioural mapping techniques.

Due to current tendencies to replace deteriorating areas within central districts, many Gulf cities are facing the potential loss of very distinctive neighbourhoods, which have however not been recognised as important factors for a local urban identity. Instead, migrant networks and practices are often seen as less important in developing place-making strategies due to their limited economic impact. Thus, historic parts of Gulf cities are mainly explored for their potential role as touristic and commercial centres instead of integrating various measures to connect public spaces and to enable an overall local economic development. Subsequently, major developments have been launched to entirely replace old building stock and to reconfigure urban fabrics. The Souq Waqif or the Msheireb projects in Doha are only two examples of a tendency to commercialise spaces rather than to preserve spatial and economic ties between existing communities. This paper focuses on two specific districts, known as Al Asmakh in Doha and Al Muraba’a in Al Ain, in order to illustrate both the general characteristics of dynamics between traditional public spaces and low-income migrant communities, which have to be acknowledged for any attempt to integrate spatial and social diversity.

The outcomes reveal stimulating dynamics between migrant communities and their environments. It also postulates that city residents have the capacity to recover swiftly from difficulties and resilience in spite of an impeding spatial context. The paper concludes with projections of how contemporary transformation processes in Gulf cities will benefit from social inclusion. Such a transformation should stem from the recognition that migrant communities need to have access to develop their own settings that relate to their routine spatial practices while securing the economic basis of those communities.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes
EventTranscending Boundaries: Global Flows and Spatial Justice: - Queen's University Belfast, United Kingdom
Duration: 11 Sept 201713 Sept 2017


ConferenceTranscending Boundaries: Global Flows and Spatial Justice:
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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