When it was first published at the height of the boom in 2007, Al-Manakh arrived with little fanfare. But the title – an innovative mix of history, photography, statistics and design – quickly became invaluable to historians and other observers of the Arab Gulf. Now the compendium is back in a second edition that, over 500 pages, seeks to chronicle the Gulf states’ urban experience amid the global financial crisis.
Using essays, graphics, pictures and historical documents, the first edition narrated the Gulf’s development from a series of fishing villages to urban centres at a time when they were relatively unknown on the global stage.
Al-Manakh 2, which will be launched this week, uses the same formula but it comes after the region has rooted itself in the global consciousness.
Rem Koolhaas, the high-profile architect and philosopher of urbanism, is the driving force behind Al-Manakh’s. The hyperactive Mr Koolhaas is not afraid to think big, having just drawn up a plan to redesign Europe on more environmental lines.
In the Arab Gulf, he casts an eye forward to see how the common experience will cope with modernism amid demographic and societal imbalances.
Where the earlier edition was an almanac – note the derivation of that word – that recorded the past to extrapolate the future, and represented foreigners as looking into the world’s latest plaything, the 2010 version represents a plurality of local voices, both expatriate and Gulf nationals.
“We wanted to let locals speak and describe their issues and realities,” says Mr Koolhaas, principal of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in the Netherlands. He argues that the region is united in a common drive for development using common blueprints and models, as well as being unified by infrastructural developments, from roads to the recently announced GCC rail project. Common themes emerge in Al-Manakh 2: the impact of the global financial crisis; urban redevelopment; and the Gulf’s ties with its neighbours, as well as an obsession with consultants and questions over the sustainability of development in the desert.
Nor do the 140 articles shrink from covering subjects the Gulf states and their rulers are traditionally less eager to explore.
Human rights in Bahrain, the plight of the stateless Bidoon of Kuwait and questions over whether Abu Dhabi relies on importing culture from the west, all receive an airing.
The first edition was sponsored by a now-defunct Dubai government entity, while this volume has been funded by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council.
But Mr Koolhaas is no Dubai basher. “This decade has given Dubai a comparable advantage in terms of services and the completeness of modernisation and social composition,” he says.
“Whatever one can say about it now, Dubai is metropolitan and I think that in itself is a status that nowhere else in the Gulf has achieved yet . . . My belief is that it will be continued to have this strategic advantage.”
Mr Koolhaas’ OMA may no longer be working on as many Gulf projects as it once did, but this pause has given the region time to ponder its future, he says.
“Dubai is now assessing and enjoying its own situation,” he says. “For the time being, we don’t talk about projects, and maybe in itself that is an exciting new condition.”
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