Masterplanning Arabia: Uncovering the Overlooked History of Urban Design and Planning in the Arabian Peninsula

The history of urban design and planning in the Arabian Peninsula is a fascinating tale of British involvement and influence. While well-known case studies in urban planning often focus on Western cities, the Arabian Peninsula played a significant role in shaping its cities through British and American firms. From oil discovery to the master planning of new towns, this article explores the forgotten history of Arabian urban planning, shedding light on the impact of British colonial architecture and Modernist principles.

Between World War One and 1970, the Region saw the formation of states, oil discovery, and urban planning, all under British influence. The region’s earliest institutions were established with British oversight, primarily to protect British oil interests and ensure revenue benefits for British companies. Historian Elizabeth Monroe coined this period as “Britain’s Moment in the Middle East,” emphasizing the significance of British involvement in shaping the region.

Oil discovery in the Gulf region led to the establishment of modern institutions, with British and American oil companies leading the way. In 1938, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company (later ARAMCO) initiated the Gulf region’s first western-style city planning project, creating a Texas-in-Arabia image. Similarly, the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) and American-owned Gulf Oil joint venture established the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) in 1934. British firms were appointed to design Kuwait’s Al-Ahmadi town, which introduced detached villas as the dominant housing typology.

The Western-inspired city planning projects in the Arabian Peninsula were often racially segregated, similar to camps in Aramco or Corbusier’s master plan for Algiers. Al-Ahmadi was divided into sections, reflecting racial divides. This housing model, with segregated laborers, continued to shape the Gulf region for decades.

Throughout the 20th century, British, American, European, and Japanese firms significantly contributed to city planning and architectural design in the Arabian Peninsula. Masterplans for cities like Kuwait City, Ras Tanura, Abuqaiq, Dammam, Riyadh, and Dubai were created by these firms, blending Modernist principles with British colonial architecture. British architect John Harris, Lord Richard Llewelyn-Davies, George Candilis, and French consultancy Metra were among the prominent figures involved in shaping cities like Dubai, Doha, and parts of Saudi Arabia.

The influence of British and Western firms in the Arabian Peninsula’s city planning extended beyond the 20th century. Modern infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, airports, and government institutions, were built based on their design guidelines and regional plans. Recent mega and giga projects, such as Neom and The Line, continue this tradition, with renowned practices like HOK, BIG, and Morphosis contributing to the region’s urban development.

The Arabian Peninsula‘s overlooked history in urban planning and architectural design is a testament to the significant role played by British and Western firms. The masterplans they created in cities like Kuwait, Dubai, and Doha shaped the region’s urban landscape and laid the foundation for its continued development. Understanding this forgotten history highlights the Arabian Peninsula’s contributions to the New Towns movement and Modernism and its impact on the cities we see today.

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