Gentrification and urban heritage under authoritarian rule : the case of pre-war Damascus, Syria
Sudermann, Yannick Tobias
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This thesis examines gentrification in the historic centre of the Syrian capital Damascus prior to the civil war beginning in spring 2011 and to what extent the authoritarian regime facilitated and benefited from gentrification and urban heritage as means of regime maintenance. In so doing it critically engages with and brings into dialogue bodies of literature that, on first sight, have not much in common: first, gentrification, the production of urban space for the better-off, a process which can now be observed globally; second, urban heritage (i.e. its use for economic, political or identity-related purposes); and third, authoritarian resilience, with a focus on the Middle East, a region where authoritarian regimes remained resilient to internal and external pressures for economic and political liberalization. The thesis identifies the advance of neoliberalism and alterations in Syria’s elite composition as the contexts in which the literatures as well as the processes under scrutiny overlap. Qualitative interviews with private and official stakeholders in gentrification and heritage preservation in Old Damascus form the empirical foundation of this study, complemented by the analysis of newspaper articles, internet sources and works of fiction. Until 2011, gentrification emerged mainly in the form of commercialized historic property, a trend mainly driven by members of the upper and upper-middle classes, who were both producers and consumers of a gentrified Old Damascus. Beside the sheer interest in capital accumulation, stakeholders “used” the old city as a source of identity and an element of a Damascene heritage discourse. In addition to upper-class Damascenes’ economic and identity-related interests this thesis argues that authoritarian resilience, and thus the interests of the authoritarian state, developed into an additional aspect of gentrification and heritage promotion in Old Damascus, as the regime benefited from and facilitated both processes. Providing affluent parts of the population with a commodified landscape of consumption enabled the regime to domestically gain the support of consumers and those co-opted by privileged access to lucrative business opportunities in the old city (i.e. regime cronies and loyal entrepreneurs). Additionally, the promotion of a gentrified Old Damascus and its heritage as a tourist attraction functioned as an opportunity to upgrade the country’s negative image abroad. In conclusion, approaching authoritarian resilience through the analytical lenses of gentrification and heritage contributes to a broader understanding of urban transformations in authoritarian states. However, in the face of coercion through urban warfare, destruction and ethnic cleansing, it is unclear to what extent gentrification and heritage are still of importance for regime maintenance in Syria’s cities.