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A blueprint for making MENA cities more resilient

By Dr. Raed Kombargi, Dr. Yahya Anouti, Dima Sayess, and Melissa Rizk


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a severe test of the ability of countries and cities to withstand the unexpected, placing strain on economic, health, social, and urban infrastructures. Beyond the pandemic, natural and human-caused hazards have been increasing in frequency and scale, and that trend could continue, depending on climate-change mitigation efforts. To prepare for the future, cities should build their urban resilience to anticipate and respond to shocks, recover quickly, and transform themselves innovatively in the face of adversities, disasters, and stresses.

Natural and human-caused hazards are increasing in frequency and scale. The number of natural disasters per year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has tripled since the 1980s, affecting over 40 million people. For example, in 2019-2020 there was one of the largest locust infestations in the Arabian peninsula in recent decades, which threatened food security. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, when locusts cover a square kilometer, they eat the equivalent of food for 35,000 human beings. Climate change and rapid urbanization are intensifying the impact of these events. In the MENA region, the urban population quadrupled between 1970 and 2010.

“The World Bank estimates that every $1 put into natural disaster-resilient infrastructure in developing countries will yield $4 in returns.”

Cities need to adopt a holistic and evidence-based framework to guide the building of resilience. Such a framework would enable decision makers to assess their city’s exposure to hazards; their vulnerabilities in terms of basic, social, economic, and urban environment needs; and their institutional capacities to respond, recover, and transform following shocks.

Based on this framework, cities can better target their investments in resilience. While resilience does not come cheap, the benefits of these investments outweigh the cost of inaction. For instance, the World Bank estimates that every $1 put into natural disaster-resilient infrastructure in developing countries will yield $4 in returns. Similarly, more resilience against cyber-threats also yields returns, because the cost of preventing a cyberattack can range from just 9-26% of the damage inflicted by the attack according to the Ponemon Institute.

“MENA residents have positive health indicators, including high life expectancy at birth, low mortality rates, and broad vaccination coverage.”

An analysis of nine major MENA cities and 11 other cities indicates that MENA cities have considerable exposure to natural threats. They suffer extreme weather conditions. Some are at high risk of drought. Most of the region’s cities have a higher risk of landslides than comparison cities due to soil erosion. Over 60% of people in the MENA region dwell in areas with high surface water stress, compared to just 35% of the world’s population. Furthermore, some MENA cities have pollution hazards, with elevated nitrogen oxide emissions in some urban areas.

Most MENA cities display various degrees of vulnerabilities. MENA residents have positive health indicators, including high life expectancy at birth, low mortality rates, and broad vaccination coverage. Most MENA cities have high literacy rates and have high internet and mobile penetration rates when compared to benchmark cities.

However, many cities are at risk of being unable to secure emergency care for their inhabitants. MENA cities should use urban resilience as a means of improving cohesion, inclusion, and social protection. Urban resilience can allow Middle East cities to strengthen public finances. They can spend more on R&D, thereby unlocking the potential for innovation. Moreover, urban resilience can help make consumption and production levels sustainable by stressing circular economy models.

Institutional capacities should enable cities to respond to hazards and vulnerabilities. MENA cities’ institutional capacities are mixed. Most cities have reasonable response capacities, but their recovery and transformative capacities are weaker, which contributes to their broader lack of resilience preparedness.

These shortfalls make it urgent for MENA governments to adopt urban resilience blueprints. Governments should start by understanding each city’s exposure to natural and human-caused threats. Also, they should identify any structural vulnerabilities that could intensify the impact of a disaster. Most importantly, governments should build their recovery capacities—the ability to adapt and recover fast from a shock.

They should also build transformative capacities which will allow them to innovate and advance economically and technologically, thus preventing or minimizing the effects of future crises. They can achieve these capacities with a mixture of strategies, policies and regulations; foresight and early warning capabilities; contingency and innovative financing; agile governance and partnerships; and through the utilization of real-time, big and open data, and integrated whole-of-government e-systems.

Through proper investments and strengthening of their institutional capacities, MENA cities can anticipate and respond, recover, and transform—creating the urban resilience they will need for any disruption to come.

This article originally appeared in Gulf Business, September 2021.

About the authors

Dr. Raed Kombargi and Dr. Yahya Anouti are partners with Strategy& Middle East. Dima Sayess is partner and director of the Ideation Center, the leading think tank for Strategy& in the Middle East, and Melissa Rizk is a senior fellow at the Ideation Center.

Contact us

Dr. Raed Kombargi

Dr. Raed Kombargi

Partner, Strategy& Middle East

Dr. Yahya Anouti

Dr. Yahya Anouti

Partner & ESG Leader, Strategy& Middle East

Dima Sayess

Dima Sayess

Partner, Strategy& Middle East

Melissa Rizk

Melissa Rizk

Senior Fellow, Ideation Center, Strategy& Middle East