Melbourne Cambridge Conversation on urban poor and global city aspirations in Middle Eastern cities

Middle eastern scenes

Japanese Room, Level 4, Glyn Davis Building, University of Melbourne, or attend online.

ABP Research Seminar Series 2022: Melbourne Cambridge Conversation on urban poor and global city aspirations in Middle Eastern cities

This seminar series covers two seemingly contrasting but interrelated aspects of contemporary cities in the Middle East: the urban poor and global city aspirations. The first two talks reflect on the experience of the urban poor. While the first one offers a gender perspective on an informal settlement in Karaj, Iran, the second talk presents an ethnography of the urban poor’s interpretation of property rights in a gated community in Cairo, Egypt. In contrast, the third talk presents an elite ethnography of ‘global cities’ interpretations in Dubai.

Presentation 1 - Sombol Mokhles

Women’s personal mobility patterns and social infrastructure in informal settlements in Iran

The impact of different places on women’s mobility and social has not been much explored in the context of informal settlements in Iran, where they face many restrictions due to socio-cultural norms. Using a qualitative approach, this research investigates how different geographies of place affect women’s practices for social interaction and physical activity. Focusing on an informal settlement in Iran, this research shows that unlike mainly western studies that emphasise the benefit of parks, in this case women’s social life flourished on streets and in private and semi-private everyday places such as shops, areas around houses, and workplaces. The results show a considerable difference in the impact of different urban fabrics on women’s practices.

Presentation 2 - Assistant Professor Nicholas Simcik Arese

Sayi‘: Cairo’s Urban Outlaw as Property Rights Experimentalist

In a gated community on the outskirts of Cairo, a group of former slum-dwellers invade 500 hundred homes, build a bustling street market, and use rights language to organize and protect their occupation. However, to navigate the intricacies of private covenants and policing, amidst extreme hostility from a housing corporation and homeowners, squatter leaders must reframe the notion of property rights all together. In doing so, they proudly appropriate the sharpest insult that homeowners use against slum-dwellers: sayi‘, an Egyptian term meaning ‘lazy, immoral bum.’

Based on 16-months of participant-observation with the occupiers, research shows how they re-fashion the sayi‘ as an ‘honourable outlaw,’ a figure that is enchanted by the prospect of dispossession, cultivating a near-alchemical power to experiment with property ownership for the common good. In practice, the sayi‘ inverts the common law notion of ‘property as a bundle of rights,’ instead imagining ‘rights as a bundle of properties’ to enact a duty-based system of micro-property rights that can be easily parsed, blended, and brokered.

Presentation 3 - Professor Michele Acuto

What we speak of when we speak of ‘global cities’ in Dubai: an elite ethnography.

Dubai has been much discussed as a meteoric rise in the echelon of ‘global cities’ and an equally contested paradigm of deeply unequal urban development. Drawing on a comparative study of how the ‘global city’ is interpreted by urban development elites, this short research brief offers a snapshot of how global urbanism plays out in the Emirate and how it could be better attuned to a cosmopolitan imagination


Dr Julie Tian Miao is an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on the ‘intrapreneurial state’ and ‘innovation-space’, which explore the interfaces between planning, property, governance, innovation and the knowledge economy. She has published over sixty research outcomes on these themes from multidisciplinary approaches.

This event is part of the ABP Global South Research Seminar Series.