June 7, 2018

No Cricket, No Play: Regulating Public Space in Gulf Cities

Cricket in Dubai
Cricket being played in Dubai's Satwa neighborhood, near Sheikh Zayed Road. (Michele Nastasi)

Richard Sennett, renowned sociologist and urbanist, in his 1970 classic “The Uses of Disorder” called for an embrace of disorder, noting that it has a positive value and needs to be increased in city life. Moreover, he criticized planning principles on the premise that they advocate mono-functional zones and aim at establishing control over city spaces with the intention of minimizing conflict. In his view, disorder is “better than dead, predetermined planning, which restricts effective social exploration.” At the time, modernism in architecture and planning was being criticized for all sorts of things, with numerous social ills ranging from violence to urban crime attributed to its principles. Not much has changed since.

Many cities throughout the world are increasingly sanitized from any signs of urban disorder, their spaces homogenized to cater to a wealthier populace. The undesired and unsightly are relegated to city fringes and ghettoes – or at least that is the aim. Activities that were deemed to be subversive such as graffiti, skateboarding, and informal gatherings are being co-opted by activist citizen groups, corporations, and city officials to make them part of the neoliberal economy and thus contribute to globalizing efforts. Public spaces are often privatized and controlled by developers who, in the case of Zuccotti Park in New York City for example, have barred “skateboarding, in-line skating and bicycling.” Gulf Arab cities are not immune from these trends and have in some instances taken the notion of control in their public settings to new heights.

The city of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, recently banned playing cricket in undesignated areas. The municipality has imposed a 500 UAE dirham fine, approximately $136, for anyone caught playing in a place that has not been designated as a park to play cricket. A team of 50 inspectors from the City Cleanliness Section at the municipality fan out on a daily basis across the city to catch transgressors. The main justification is safety as the game involves throwing tennis-sized balls that may impact traffic and subject the players to danger as well. People, according to officials, need to use designated areas – sports clubs, parks, stadiums, and the like. However, recent media reports have pointed out there is a dearth of proper facilities. According to one expert: “Today the availability of affordable grounds is at a minimal with only a handful of schools and academy-based facilities being available.” Thus, in the absence of any viable approved options, children and adults alike seek streets, open spaces, and parking lots to practice the sport.

Interestingly, similar bans have not been instituted in the neighboring cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where such games – also known as street cricket in local parlance – are prevalent and take place in all sorts of settings and spaces. However, the very fact that Sharjah has introduced such an official ban does not bode well for this activity and its future, especially when considered within the larger scope of restrictions on the use of public spaces across the UAE and elsewhere in the region. Increasingly efforts are underway to improve the “aesthetic appearance” as is typically noted in official pronouncements – in essence meaning removing signs of disorder. For example, the Asematy (my capital) campaign in Abu Dhabi aims to rid streets of practices that distort the urbanized appearance of the city and “undermine its security, safety, health and environment.”

Children play cricket along a sidewalk in Abu Dhabi. (Yasser Elsheshtawy)

Children play cricket along a sidewalk in Abu Dhabi. (Yasser Elsheshtawy)

The campaign includes: the removal of old trees, under the pretext that they pose a danger to unsuspecting pedestrians as they can fall down; commercial signage regulations; design guidelines unifying the appearance of grocery stores; a ban on hanging laundry on balconies (which can incur a fine of up to $270); and restrictions on satellite dishes on rooftops (which are mostly ignored). A more recent regulation stipulates that buildings overlooking Dubai metro lines need to “beautify their exterior.”

Preventing street cricket and other outdoor sports is just another variation on policies aiming at minimizing public disorder. In Bahrain, a local municipal council proposed a law to ban cricket because it blocks movement, is noisy, and can be construed either as a form of “illegal gathering” or a “sports activity,” which would require that it take place in a proper venue. Additionally, “players could molest passing children,” which was suggested without citing any supporting evidence. The ban was also meant to extend to fishing from bridges and highways as is often the case in Western cities. Similar regulations have also been introduced in some regions of Saudi Arabia.

With such restrictions these activities have the potential for acquiring a subversive character that aims at challenging rules and authorities. This has been depicted by anthropologist Pascal Menoret in his ethnographic account of car culture in Riyadh, in “Joyriding in Riyadh.” Car drifting, Tafheet, is described as a form of thrill seeking on the immaculate highways of Riyadh and its suburbs. According to Menoret, by evading authorities, youths sought to claim the city’s urban spaces. Drawing comparisons to surfers and skateboarders in California who transformed the spaces of suburbia he argues that similarly in Riyadh “joyriders transfigured [its] modernist superblocks by turning the freshly asphalted tracks from signs of capitalist accumulation into expressions of escapism and defiance.”

Children play soccer in Abu Dhabi's Mina Seyahi neighborhood. (Yasser Elsheshtawy)

Children play soccer in Abu Dhabi’s Mina Seyahi neighborhood. (Yasser Elsheshtawy)

Clearly, playing any kind of sport along and on highways is dangerous and should not be tolerated. However, if the activity takes place in an abandoned space or an empty parking area it does not pose a threat. Moreover, accepting such forms of play in city spaces, even if they are not specifically sanctioned for such activities, introduces an element of disorder, which urbanists such as Sennett consider essential for a healthy urbanity. In encountering different activities people are challenged, which is critical for growth and creating a sense of tolerance; the alternative is a withdrawal and isolation and thus the perpetuation of intolerance.

Furthermore, and within the context of Gulf cities, cricket is a particular form of utilizing public space that is unique to the region due to the large population of South Asian expatriate laborers. Urban scholars have argued that such different ways of claiming public space challenges Western conceptualizations of urbanity as Saskia Sassen articulated in “Cityness in the Urban Age.” Street cricket is an activity that is deeply embedded in South Asian culture, considered a rite of passage of sorts in countries such as Pakistan. Thus, the very presence of the sport in the Gulf imbues the region’s cities with a uniqueness distinguishing them from other Arab urban centers. It defies the notion of Gulf cities as artificial entities devoid of an outdoor life. For many residents, watching people playing cricket evokes memories, reminding them of their home countries, an important aspect of life in the Gulf. It is also a venue for coming together, forming bonds, and sustaining cultural traditions. To that end, in some cities such as Abu Dhabi, parking lots are transformed over the weekend to accommodate leagues for street cricket. This attracts people from across the city who form teams and compete for prizes such as a plane ticket to return home over the summer.

Cricket in Dubai

Cricket being played in Dubai’s Satwa neighborhood, near Sheikh Zayed Road. (Michele Nastasi)

Aside from these organized leagues and full-blown games, smaller forms of play occur in streets, squares, and parks. Children, lacking any other option, take advantage of these sites. While this sometimes conflicts with pedestrian movement, it nevertheless facilitates a sense of vitality and excitement. Deepak Unnikrishnan in his novel recounting the travails of residents in the Gulf, Temporary People, captures these qualities of transgression and danger. He describes a game of soccer as it takes place in a municipality parking lot, where children are mindful of the police’s looming presence:

By then, the parking lot would have transformed into dozens of makeshift playgrounds, swaths of asphalt claimed by gangs of boys speaking multiple tongues. For a few hours we were all temporary inhabitants of Moonseepalty [municipality], an ephemeral, football-mad province of many complex cultural parts powered by nationality or race, where all of us pretended to be footballing warlords, ruling with our feet, manically protecting our tarred kingdoms.
Every now and again, red-and-white patrol cars drove by.
“SHURTHA! [Police!]” we hissed.”

He narrates a form of place making, a claiming of city spaces, that is absent from the typical depiction of the Gulf city. Here it becomes a setting that accommodates a diverse group of residents. But it also shows why such activities can be unsettling. They stand in defiance of how the Gulf Arab city is envisioned by its more conservative local Arab population, which traditionally prefers a lifestyle of privacy behind walls – an orderly place, where everything follows a carefully constructed script. Any activity has its proper and allocated place; all forms of public informality are frowned upon. It is, in other words, a perfect embodiment of the neoliberal city. It captures an urbanity that is becoming pervasive throughout the world – Singapore’s meticulous downtown or New York’s Soho district, for example. The power of capital in the gleaming metropolis of the West is such that seemingly subversive acts such as skateboarding, its practice typically considered as a form of defiance against the hegemonic city, are now entering the mainstream. Skate parks, sometimes designed with the active participation of skateboarders, are proliferating throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. And it is perhaps here where Gulf cities need to take note. What can be seen as a disorderly act could be adapted and integrated into their urban fabric. Rather than recreating a bland version of a Western metropolis, a humane city can be established instead: a city that has its own unique identity derived from the very presence of multiple nationalities who strive to call it home.

Yasser Elsheshtawy is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.