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Architectural Trends in Middle Eastern Cities Essay

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2020


Orientalism refers to the imitation and the depiction of various aspects of Eastern cultures, which include Middle Eastern, South and East Asian, and African cultures. Artists, designers, and writers from the West are involved in the depictions. Orientalism is mostly common amongst scholars in cultural studies, literature, and art historians (Saleh, 1998a). This synthesis paper explores the trend in Middle-East urban development as criticized by architect Reem Alissa. The paper will also offer a stand on whether to uphold Reem Alissa’s rejection of the orientalist architecture coupled with demonstrating the positive aspects associated with the alternative.

The architectural trend in the Middle Eastern urban development

In her view concerning the architectural orientalist, Reem Alissa holds that Islamic architecture started as an orientalist construction. The trend, which Reel criticizes in her quote, is the traditional architectural elements that have been popular in the re-invention of cities in the Middle East. This new trend has the objective of ensuring that the Gulf remains a particular identity. Therefore, mega projects that possess symbols that represent the heritage and culture of the Arabic people have been established. Traditional architecture elements have been imposed when constructing modern buildings so that the attempts to assert the Arabic identity can be achieved.

Reel Alisha criticizes the traditional architectural elements that are emerging in the building of modern cities in the Middle East because they focus on upholding the Islamic principles without considering the current trends brought about by globalization. Besides, the construction of most Islamic cities was based on the ideologies of the Western authorities that made up small samples of pre-modern Arab cities during the period of Westernization.

Moreover, Reem Alissa criticizes this approach because the Arab countries, which are trying to recreate their cities by incorporating traditional architectural elements, focus on the outcomes but not on the processes. This aspect is inappropriate because the cities are processed but not products. The idea of planners to build cities based on the Islamic patterns will lead to failure, thus coinciding with the grounds that Reem Alissa has based her criticism (Abu-Lughod, 1987).

Reem also criticizes the re-invention of Islamic cities based on traditional architecture elements because the historic cities were developed during the pre-modern times in the Islamic lands. These reinventions were highly subjected to non-Islamic factors that included terrain, technology, political variables, and production among other factors that were shaped by varying circumstances.

An example of the traditional architectural trend in the Gulf

Various traditional architecture trends have been incorporated in Middle East urban development. One of these trends that have taken preeminence in the Gulf is the theming of cities and especially Dubai. Theming entails the association of a narrative to some given institutions or destinations whereby the origin of the theme is externally oriented. Theming has the sole motive of remanufacturing and re-inventing the heritage of the Gulf. Built-up environments are thus themed to construct spaces that enshrine symbolic meaning from regions around the Persian Gulf thereby communicating some meaning to the inhabitants by using architectural elements that are deliberately selected (Saleh, 1998b).

This paper will focus on the theming phenomenon as evidenced in Dubai to narrow down the trend of theming as exhibited in most Middle East cities. Dubai is a global city that has employed architecture designs in shaping its iconic image. This destination has mega projects that comprise symbols that communicate its heritage and culture. Most of these symbols originate from religion, thus rendering Dubai trading, business, and tourist hub for the entire Gulf region (Sakr, 2008).

Dubai has various themed environments that bear huge visual impacts with the example of the Jumeirah Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa, which is themed with the traditional Arabic fort setting. The resort has designs that imitate different references that were borrowed from the history of other Persian and Arabic cities. The re-invested style employed architectural skills and art history to bring forth its association and affinity with the local inheritance.

Another project in Dubai that seeks to exhibit theming as an architectural trend is ‘the cultural village’. The project seeks to advance culture and create an illusion of local heritage through the incorporation of architecture. Theming has resulted in the emerging trends by bringing about significant changes in the physical structure of Dubai city, thus creating the standardization of the contemporary global tourist cities. These architectural practices aim to attract numerous tourists by enhancing local legacy and the formation of authentic experiences (Adham, 2008).

Additionally, to recover the identity of Dubai, new architectural elements that entail an Arabic style have recently been stressed in urban development along the Gulf. Most buildings are burdened by various decorative motifs, thus creating a national identity for Dubai among other cities that have embraced this architectural trend in the region. (Sakr, 2008).

Positive aspects affiliated with re-invention of cities based on the trend of traditional architectural elements

Building new cities while incorporating traditional architectural elements is a significant milestone for achieving prosperity in urban development in either the Middle East or elsewhere. The trend has resulted in a construction boom in the Gulf region with Dubai being one of the cities where the effects have been intense (Adham, 2008).

Theming as one of the trends in the reconstruction has enabled many cities to conjure up some images that have attracted business people and tourists. Due to the competition emerging from the current global capitalist system, the re-invention of architectural heritage has become mandatory in the conveyance of message that converts the design into some emotional impacts resulting in entertainment (Mubarak, 2004).

Furthermore, the building of new cities based on this trend either for work or leisure purposes has promoted the privacy and isolation of places in the Gulf from other existing cities. The scenario has helped the cities acquire a sense of identity due to their incorporations on traditional architectural elements. The uniqueness coming from the re-invented cities has formed the basis of attracting not only tourists but also global entrepreneurs who have established business gaps in such re-invented cities like Dubai (Adham, 2008).

However, most critics hold that the Dubai’s primary role is to attract investment from real estate and tourism industries, and thus outsiders enjoy the new architectural style at the expense of nationalists who are suffering from deprived national architectural identity in their native city (Mubarak, 2004).


Various trends have been witnessed in the Middle Eastern urban development. Reem Alissa criticizes the traditional architectural trends because they tend to uphold Islamic principles without considering the current trends of globalization. Besides, Alissa argues that the construction of most Islamic cities was based on Western authorities and the architectural trends focused on outcomes as opposed to processes.

An example of a re-invented traditional architectural trend is exhibited by the theming of Dubai to conserve its heritage and identity. Some of the positive aspects associated with the incorporation of the traditional architectural trends in the invention of new cities include the attraction of entrepreneurs and tourists in such areas alongside the preservation of privacy and autonomy of metropolises.


Abu-Lughod, J. L. (1987). The Islamic city–Historic myth, Islamic essence, and Contemporary relevance. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19(2), 155-176.

Adham, K. (2008). The Theming of Arabia: Cultural Capitalism and the Re-invention of Tradition in the Persian Gulf. IAESTE Working Paper Series, 221, 1-25.

Mubarak, F. A. (2004). Urban growth boundary policy and residential suburbanization: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Habitat International, 28(4), 567-591.

Sakr, M. M. (2008). Creating the ‘Arabian’ Architectural Style. In J. Al-Qawasmi, A. Moustafa & K. Mitchell (Eds.), Instant Cities: Emergent Trends in Architecture and Urbanism in the Arab World (pp. 145-160). Amman, Jordan: CSAAR Press.

Saleh, M. A. E. (1998a). The impact of Islamic and customary laws on urban form development in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Habitat International, 22(4), 537-556.

Saleh, M. A. E. (1998b). The integration of tradition and modernity: A search for an urban and architectural identity in Arriyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Habitat International, 22(4), 571-589.

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