Urban areas: West Asia

The majority of the West Asian population lives in urban areas, with the notable exception of Yemen, where the predominantly rural population is expected to grow by 2.7 per cent between 2000 and 2015 (UNCHS 2001). The past 30 years have brought about significant economic, political and technological changes, which have influenced the way urban areas are structured and function in West Asia. Three crucial factors have shaped the urban landscapes of the region (UNESCWA 1999):

  • the 1970s oil boom and the sharp fluctuations of oil revenues during the following two decades;
  • the large-scale movement of people within the region because of armed conflict and civil strife; and
  • the forces of globalization that have played and continue to play a vital role since the beginning of the early 1990s, integrating West Asian nations into the global economy and increasing the role of information technology.

Rapid economic growth, which occurred in most countries in the region over the past three decades, was accompanied by population growth and increased urbanization. There has been a massive migration of the population from rural to urban areas in nearly all countries as well as immigration of foreign workers into urban areas, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Between 1972 and 1980, the total urban population increased from 17.8 million (44.7 per cent of the total population) to 27 million (55.8 per cent of the total population). The average annual growth rate of the urban population in this period was 5.6 per cent, substantially more than that of the general population, which was 3.6 per cent. Urbanization has continued to increase at a faster rate than the total population (United Nations Population Division 2001a) although there are marked differences in the level and pace of urbanization between the subregions and among the countries of the region.

Spectacular growth and urban transition occurred in Oman, where the urban population increased from 11.4 per cent of the total population in 1970, to 84 per cent by 2000. All the countries of the Arabian Peninsula now have a level of urbanization above 84 per cent, except Yemen with a level of urbanization of only 24.7 per cent (see map). By the year 2000, almost the entire population of Bahrain (92.2 per cent), Kuwait (97.6 per cent) and Qatar (92.5) were living in urban areas (United Nations Population Division 2001a).

The average annual growth rate of urban populations in West Asia has slowed over the past three decades, from 6.1 per cent in 1972 to 3.7 per cent in 2000. The impact of the Second Gulf War on urbanization rates was particularly significant, resulting in the repatriation of millions of foreign workers.

Urbanization level (%): West Asia
Urban population (millions) by sub-region: West Asia

Map and graph show high level of urbanization in West Asia, with the exception of the still largely rural Yemen

Source: compiled from United Nations Population Division 2001a


Rapid urbanization in West Asia is occurring at the expense of both rural lifestyles and smaller-scale village settlements, such as this one in Iran

Source: UNEP, Mohammad R. L. Mofrad, Topham Picturepoint

Although urban areas are increasingly home to most of the West Asian population, the proportion of people living in cities with more than 1 million residents is still small. In 1975, only two cities (Baghdad and Damascus) had a total population of more than 1 million, accounting for a quarter of the total urban population of the region. The number of large cities has doubled every ten years, reaching 12 in the year 2000, but their population as a share of the total urban population has still remained between 25 and 37 per cent. The absolute number of people living in these cities, however, increased from 3.88 million to 23.8 million between 1975 and 2000.

Urbanization is inextricably linked with the economic transition that is taking place in the region from agrarian and nomadic societies to one that is based on manufacturing and services. Economic development has brought dramatic improvement in the well-being of the West Asian people including longer life expectancies, higher incomes and decreased child mortality rates (United Nations Population Division 2001b). However, despite these positive impacts, many cities are now going through a transition process marked by some negative influences. In parts of the region (Mashriq), the pace and scale of change often strains the capabilities of national and local governments to provide adequate services to the urban poor. In such situations, human health and well-being are at risk (UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and WRI 1998). Growth of urban populations is also synonymous with growth in urban poverty. Most of the large cities are crowded and have high levels of air pollution from increasing traffic, energy consumption and industrial production.