Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf
The son of an Egyptian Grand Mufti was a harbinger of modernity for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Abu Dhabi. So why were his ideas about Arab cityscapes paved over?
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Urban history is often told through great structures or their ruins. If history is the story of the victors, then urban history defaults to the story of the built. The towers, bridges, and kilometers of tarmac do not go the way of faded memories and yellowing archives. But it is these memories and archives that may reveal why we are left with the buildings and infrastructure we obligingly inhabit.

In my ongoing work with the architecture and urbanism of cities in the Gulf, I am constantly struck by how history is slipping through our metaphorical fingers. I put hope in meeting Abdulrahman Makhlouf, an Egyptian planner and long-time resident of Abu Dhabi. Our first encounter was in 2010, after I had seen that he was associated with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium, one of the most beautiful buildings in the UAE. Our conversation generated a list of topics that multiplied the longer we talked. He studied under professors including Georg Werner at Technische Hochschule Munich1 in Germany in the years after the Second World War. He worked as an architect and urban planner in Cairo as the city tried to handle a population boom. There, he crossed paths with well-known Egyptian architects like Hassan Fathy and Sayed Karim. In the late 1950s, the United Nations appointed him to formulate the first master plans for Saudi Arabia’s cities. And then he moved to Abu Dhabi as chief town planner at the moment the city was catching up with modern expectations. Over the course of these experiences, Dr. Makhlouf participated in and witnessed a terrific age of urban history in Egypt and the Gulf region. He negotiated the meeting of so-called “Western modernism” with local and regional expectations.

Decades of practice by this one man could help inform a larger region’s urban history largely unrecorded by a generation that is leaving us. Raised by a grand mufti and trained in European planning principles, Dr. Makhlouf seemed well positioned to give us some perspective on urbanism in the Arab world. Nearing his eighty-ninth birthday, he is genial, but his eyes are still those of the calculating man in the many photographs with sheikhs and dignitaries. In these pictures he wears perfectly tailored suits and oils his curly hair back. He played the part of the agile, shrewd, ambitious architect.

Dr. Makhlouf says that he constantly reminds himself that God punished Qaroun for his arrogance by having the earth swallow him up. The Quran story serves as a reminder that God gives and God takes. Memory is part of this equation. To his great frustration, memory often fails Dr. Makhlouf, a fact he does not easily admit. He doesn’t want to forget as much as he doesn’t want to be forgotten. Therefore, he does not shy away from claiming credit for his work. He knows it is unlikely anyone will do so on his behalf. The roads he drew and the residential blocks he designed have all been razed and replaced by wider, taller, and sometimes better structures. For the planner, the next building boom is the equivalent of Qaroun’s swallowing earth.


Architect and urban planner Dr. Abdulrahman Makhlouf points to an aerial photograph of Abu Dhabi dating from 1973. Within five years of working in Abu Dhabi, the modern grid he was hired to set in place was already evident. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.

Dr. Makhlouf invested a great deal of effort into our meeting. He converted his conference room into an exhibition of informational boards he has made over the years. The boards’ combination of text and images presented his biography: his grandfather and father, the teachers at Al Azhar, his time as a student in Germany, and his presentations of master plans on palace floors in Abu Dhabi. These panels surrounded us as we talked. In addition, the conference table was covered with a grid of stacked documents, the organization of which he rigorously maintained. All this effort made it seem as if urban history were within reach. However, the piles amounted to a mere fraction, at an oblique angle, of the story. The boards and documents functioned more as crutches of postponement than easy access to history.

Urban history is once again escaping us. We look at Jedda, Mecca, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, and by reacting to, say, a constructed clock tower, a mega-highway, or a ski-slope, we think we can interpret what happened. But we have lost the chance to know the personalities and the transcultural interactions that laid the complicated path to such urban testimonies. We have lost the stories not only of the places but also of major chapters in the saga of modernity.

New Ideas for Port Said and Cairo


Drawing from Dr. Makhlouf’s study of expanding the Suez Canal at the Port Said/Port Fuad entrance. Image courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

Dr. Makhlouf receives me in his conference room. He begins to present his boards. I am drawn to a board about his work in Egypt.

Abdulrahman Makhlouf: Yes! That was my project for Port Said. I designed it. Port Said is at the entrance of the Suez Canal. When traffic through the Suez Canal continued to increase, it became necessary to widen and deepen the canal. But at the entrance, there are actually two cities, two ports. So if you widen it, you would destroy one of the two ports. We had to keep both ports. So what I thought of – it was my idea personally – was to extend a second branch beyond Port Fuad [on the opposite side of the canal from Port Said]. So it’s like when you are planning a city and you need to widen the road, but you cannot because of buildings. Therefore, you have to direct traffic elsewhere. It was not adopted immediately, but around 1974 President Sadat opened the new branch. Nobody thought of this before me.

Todd Reisz: Did you work with the architect Sayed Karim? I believe he also worked on Port Said.2

AM: Oh yes, he was the director at Cairo University when I taught there. He was a great man, and he liked me very much. He noticed that I was going to be something as early as my second year of studies at the university. Because of this, he encouraged me. When I came back to Cairo with my PhD, he hired me as an assistant in his office. At that time, he was working with the United Nations. That connection would later result in his recommending me for an expert planning position in Saudi Arabia. Maybe Sayed Karim wrote about Port Said, but this design was mine. He did not work on it.

“Cairo’s expanding was swallowing all of the agricultural land. It was growing in rings, like the cross-section of a tree.”

TR: This looks like Cairo. (I refer to another corner of the same board.)


Drawing from master plan for Greater Cairo. Image courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

AM: This is the plan for Greater Cairo. I made it in the mid 1960s. This is Cairo, and [pointing to another image] this is Cairo’s first multi-level traffic intersection. I participated in the design, though I wasn’t director of planning at that time. That’s my idea, my thoughts. I thank God that this is my history. I thought of it before anybody else thought of it. At the time, the city was growing fast out of necessity. My thinking was that if we left things to happen as they were happening, the city would grow where we didn’t want it to grow. Cairo’s expanding was swallowing all of the agricultural land. It was growing in rings, like the cross-section of a tree. We had to direct where growth could happen, namely into the desert.

TR: So planning for Cairo was about directing the forces of growth.

AM: And to make settlements and townships. I designated the first area of Cairo strictly for industrial use, what one might call today an industrial city. But I made a plan for it this way. I shall tell you why I made it this way … because I am adopting the theory of the golden section, the proportional relations. The theory comes from the Greeks, where it is said it is based on the proportions of the human being. My idea was adopted. At the beginning, they were as usual hesitant. Since I was coming from the university, people thought I was trying to apply academic ideas onto Cairo and Giza. I did not have a personal interest in it. I just wanted to help my country. And I was somebody with good experience.

Planning as an Ordering of History

(Dr. Makhlouf gestures for me to sit. He begins to relate his prepared points about his life.)

AM: I grew up in what I call “The House of the Three Generations,” in the Cairo suburb Abbasiya. Three generations lived together in one building. Later, it was a group of buildings, like a compound. I lived on the ground floor of a two-story building. We had a reception area for the men and one for the women and the servants. And there was a garden.

“I had to arrange everything around me, and not just on paper. I cannot tolerate disorder.”

My grandfather was the rector and a teacher at Al Azhar.3 From him I learned the Quran and the Arabic language. He insisted on correct pronunciation, not the colloquial. This helped me become a good writer. Part of becoming a good writer is to learn, but a bigger part is God’s gift to you. To write well you have to know the Quran and the Hadiths. The Quran is written at a level higher than the human way of thinking. It is more than whatever you can think about.

My writing was aided by my innate sense of order. I had to arrange everything around me, and not just on paper. I cannot tolerate disorder.

TR: Was it an obsession with order that brought you to architecture?

That has to do with visiting my grandfather’s village. When we went to the village, I would see that the houses were built with mud and not with bricks. Eventually, some people began to build with brick. I said, “Okay, I want to do this. But even if we can do it for our house, what about the neighbors’ houses?” As a boy, I realized, we cannot increase the standard of living with individual buildings. It has to be through the whole village.

It seems then that from early on you were more a planner than an architect.

A city planner, yes. I always say, “Planning is a social mission.”

When I reached the architecture department at Cairo University, I was part of a group of students studying town planning. I chose a branch of engineering that would help me learn how to make a better environment. This was my dream.

“You cannot say there is only one solution. There are always multiple options.”

And after I graduated, I was eventually also teaching at the university. There are two parts to teaching planning: The first is the history of planning from ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, etc. We must study it and teach it. That is what I did. The second part is the planning process, which we determine because of the past which we have studied. You cannot say there is only one solution. There are always multiple options. You might see one but others see six.

You seem to be saying that the history of cities provides us with an encyclopedia of options. Do you think we learn from history?

We learn out of it. But you cannot say that we follow it exactly. (He continues explaining his history.) To go further, I needed higher learning, a PhD. I told the head of my department that I wanted to study in England, where most people went for graduate studies. He told me to go to Germany. This was in the early 1950s. He said I needed to see how Germany was rebuilding its cities after the war.

Was your decision to go to Germany also a kind of resistance to British ideas?

At the time of the Second World War, we Egyptians were looking for independence. Who was occupying our country? The British. Many of us were praying that the Germans would win, wishing that Rommel would clear the British out of Egypt.4 The British were against King Farouk, and we loved him.

You left for Munich in 1953, so the British were still there as you were leaving. Even though it made political sense to go to Germany, did your colleagues find it an odd decision, considering that Great Britain had the more established tradition in planning?

On the contrary. My professors in Cairo were British, so the lessons were in English. By the time I was teaching, most of the faculty had studied in England or America, that is true, but everyone thought my decision to study in Germany was a way to see the new developments in urban planning. But it came at a great expense for me. My university salary, which was extended to me while I was away, could hardly cover my living expenses in Munich. And my father was living on his pension. We were not a rich, landowning family. My elder brother who was doing well was able to help me. I wrote down every month what he paid me, and when I could, I paid him back.

You describe your time in Munich as the happiest moment in your life.

Oh, yes, I lived with a family. After the war, many families needed to make money. And they did this by renting out part of their house in Hirschgarten, a suburb of Munich.


Dr. Makhlouf presents his doctoral thesis, which explores the history of the neighborhood unit theory and proposes its application in Giza, Egypt. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.

I’ve reviewed your Ph.D. thesis. You studied the theory of the neighborhood unit by means of studying cities and urban planning in Europe. You showed me earlier a document where your advisor, Georg Werner, praised you for the broad sweep of your studies, from ancient times up to contemporary planning models.

I read about all cultures, Italian, Greek … I read books covering every historical period, the history of everything. And in three languages: Arabic, English, and German. The title of my thesis, translated from the German, was “The Neighborhood Unit and the Analysis of its Sources, Plans and Designs.” I focused on Europe because that is what I could learn there, not just from books but also by traveling.

“I studied Hilbersheimer, Camillo Sitte, and Corbusier’s Chandigarh.”

So while I was looking at old city centers and faraway places, I was doing this because I wanted to make something for us, the Egyptians. I studied urban planning in Scandinavia. I looked at Abercrombie’s plans for London, Stevenage, and the other British New Towns. I looked at the German and American roots in the neighborhood unit theory and ideas about road hierarchies. I studied Hilbersheimer, Camillo Sitte, and Corbusier’s Chandigarh.

So you were always planning on returning to Cairo after your studies?

My plan was to return to the university in Cairo.

An Islamic Neighborhood Unit

But you also wanted to come back to design cities.

Of course, from the very beginning I focused on this science, the practical side of planning. Just the word “planning” is essential. Planning is an action that has to be done. It starts at the individual level. When you wake up, you plan your day. If you are a good planner, you have to do that the day before. For instance, I prepared for your visit. If I hadn’t done that … But how do you plan? That is the next step after realizing planning is necessary. It comes from several sources, from teaching or designing for instance. To plan means thinking before acting. And this means everybody is a planner.


Photograph of Dr. Makhlouf’s final model for an Islamic neighborhood unit for Giza as part of his PhD thesis at Technische Hochschule Munich.

So you went to Germany to learn about planning so that you could use that knowledge in Cairo.

My thesis ends with a project proposal in Giza, on the opposite shore of the Nile from Cairo. Then, there was already a bridge to Giza from Cairo to take tourists to the pyramids, but there was little else. I called the area Dar Al Amman, the house of security. I made a design that makes you feel that you are at your house when you arrive at the neighborhood’s entrance. People who lived here would feel they belong to the place and to each other. The social relations among the people are very important. Nowadays, one hardly knows his neighbors. Maybe you see them at the elevator, but you don’t know their names. We have to design with a sense of neighborhood. That is the social target of the neighborhood unit theory.5

Your proposed site was bordered by the Nile to the east, the road from the bridge to the north, another major road to the west. What is to the south?

This neighborhood unit is bordered by another one. Yes, my thesis includes a district plan with six neighborhood units, each planned for five thousand residents.6 Each neighborhood unit included row houses and multi-story residential buildings. I calculated how many families would live here. Here is a kindergarten. This is a primary school because the theory says that the population would require one primary school. And this is the neighborhood center. I made it this way because it is a traditional Islamic formation of the city. This dome in the center is a mosque. These are other elements, the services for the people, including the shopping.

What makes it traditional and Islamic?

The souk and the shops and manufacturing are clustered together around the mosque. And the size of the neighborhood is expressed in the size of the mosque, within walking distance for the neighborhood’s residents.

And this is a park, which I designed like an Islamic garden or the Taj Mahal. And notice the streets. There are no through-traffic streets, because they would have destroyed any pedestrian life. More details about my study are in my thesis.

Where do the cars go?

The design included garages at the beginning of the lanes. But at that time car ownership was much less. Now, unfortunately, one cannot get around Cairo without a car.

“I wanted to return to Cairo to teach and I wanted to teach in Arabic, and that meant not just translating English terms.”

After completing your thesis, you returned to Egypt to begin applying Western planning principles.

I wanted to return to Cairo to teach and I wanted to teach in Arabic, and that meant not just translating English terms. I needed to talk to the hearts of my students.

What did you have to incorporate into planning principles to make them work in Cairo?

In Islam, the right of the neighbor is very important. That means I cannot do whatever I want. I have to consider of my neighbor’s well-being.

How do you incorporate such an idea into a city plan?

It is there in law, as a principle.

But do you see it in the way in which the city is built? Do you see that idea take physical form?

There are two parts to planning: the buildings themselves and human behavior. Still, if I design a residential complex in which everyone can see into his neighbor’s house, then I am affecting residents’ privacy. This is something we have to consider. Still, the ethical and the social parts of planning are the most important.

Then it’s about training people how to live?

Yes, of course. It’s not like animals. Animals are maybe better sometimes. (He laughs.) But laws help. For instance, the law says you cannot build on an entire plot. You have to leave thirty percent as open space. This helps secure a better life.

After returning from Munich, you didn’t remain long in Cairo.

After a year, I was nominated to work for the United Nations in Saudi Arabia. They wanted a Muslim expert who could work in Mecca and Medina. Sayed Karim recommended me, but it also helped that my father was Egypt’s Grand Mufti.7

“I had a dream based on these drawings of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. I was hoping that I would be the planner of these cities, and it happened.”

Dreams of Mecca and Medina

AM: During my stay in Munich, I had a dream based on these drawings of the two holy cities. Every morning in Munich before school started, I prayed in the direction of Mecca. I was hoping and dreaming that I would be the planner of these cities. And it happened.

(Dr. Makhlouf shows me a copy of his United Nations identification papers printed on the same board as the drawings of the two holy cities. He asks me to read the title.)

TR: “The bearer of this document is an official of the United Nations holding the title of ‘Expert, Technical Assistance.’” It’s like a passport.

Almost a real passport. The time of building had already started in Saudi Arabia, and I directed it.

In 1958, was Mecca already experiencing a real estate bonanza?

Oh, yes. There were many people looking to become millionaires. That meant there were many who wanted to get rid of me.

Within a few years, you made the first plans for the expansion and redevelopment for which cities?

For all the cities.

Not just Mecca, Medina, and Jedda?

All of them. Yanbu, Jazan ...

Also Riyadh?

No, not Riyadh.

Did the greed affect your approach to urban planning in Saudi Arabia?

Greed was not just in Saudi Arabia. It was throughout the region because these countries needed experts from abroad. They needed expatriates at all levels, so then there was competition among expats coming from various places including Britain, America, Iraq, and Egypt. There was a lot of jealousy. Some were upset I did not follow their ways. I could have become a millionaire too.

Could you tell me more about what you were actually doing in Saudi Arabia? For instance, how did you manage the competing influences on the cities’ development?

I made the general plan for Saudi Arabia and then plans for these different cities. In my mind planning is determining whether an idea is either good or bad for the town. But this was a long time ago. Unfortunately, the human being forgets. There are so many things …

After a few years in Saudi Arabia, you returned to Cairo. Now you had a Ph.D. and significant planning experience. By this time, Cairo was certainly growing at an uncontrollable rate. How could these planning ideas you had been studying have anything to offer such a city?

Of course. I have written about this, about the problems we have, about what we have to do. The target must be to increase people’s income. This can only come from economic production, and everybody must recognize his responsibility in this. A man who is cleaning streets needs to be as honest as a government leader in doing this. During the time of Mubarak, only a few had the means to make money and become wealthy, just making use of their positions, but not by producing.

“‘Planning’ is essential. Planning is an action that has to be done. It starts at the individual level. And this means everybody is a planner.”

Egypt has a great past. The Egyptian people are very precious people, even the poorest of us. There is something in them. The Egyptian has tradition in his blood and the feeling of responsibility. Who was it who defended Islam and helped to spread it? Who supported Salah Al Din? Even the prophet praised us.

So what is the way to make modern planning principles work in Cairo?

People just need the means.

More money?

Yes, but it doesn’t take much to raise the per capita income. Different governments have tried to do this, with positive and negative results. But what are they doing for these people? Why did the Islamists win the majority? Because who was there educating and helping people? Islam gives; therefore, nobody can claim that there is something beyond that which is in Islam. For instance, during this financial crisis, I read comments from certain bankers who believe we need to consider [a more widespread use of] Islamic finance.

Let’s go back to Cairo, one of the world’s greatest cities, no doubt. But it seems planning has failed in Cairo. No one even knows how many people live in Cairo because demographics are not reliable. How do we plan, then, when it’s impossible to plan?

There is no impossibility.

Can Cairo be planned?

Yes, Cairo can be planned. It happens partly on paper: the principles and basic elements. We first have to know the problems. Then, we can find the solutions in between. But the means of doing it is another matter. For example, one solution was to promote birth control. But is that really a solution? No. Because birth rates go down on their own when people are more educated. People who go to school learn how to think. They think about having a family. They have a plan.

So in the end, modernization leads to a sustainable urbanization?

This word “sustainability.” I say this is the most cheating word. What does it mean? It means “no change” at a time cities need to be able to change. Through change is how we take care of our cities.

I heard this word already in 1976, when I was in the US. I was visiting universities, companies, etc. I discovered they were using this word to avoid saying “planning.” Planning is what we need.

Sustainability is like a dance. The word is a fallacy. Nobody is buying it except for rulers. They are saying “we are making things sustainable.” I say sustainability is only for God. We can go at anytime. Does anyone know when he is going to die? There are two things we do not know: what we will earn tomorrow and where we will die. Plan for whatever you plan. But nobody can know what will happen.

Neighborliness as the Foundation for a Changing Environment

TR: Islam seems to have a significant role in your life. What kind of role do you define for Islam in urban planning?

AM: Islam gives us the rules of living. There are two Hadiths concerning the neighbor that come to mind. The first one, on the authority of Aisha, is when the Prophet says one should treat a neighbor as a family member. The second Hadith, according to Abu Hurairah, tells that in addition to having good feelings about the neighbor, you should not do anything that annoys him or disturbs him in his own house. He who violates this does not have the merciful God in him.

“When I was studying in Europe, I never thought that we would simply copy these ideas in Egypt.”

As town planners, we are trying to provide everyone with what he wants within the given means. We are making the plan to make the city a place of living among neighbors.

If one part of your planning education comes from a religious or moral education and another part from the planning ideas you studied in Munich, can you tell me then how you brought the two parts together?

When I was studying in Europe, I never thought that we would simply copy these ideas in Egypt. We belong to a civilization that we cannot ignore. We have to understand Western planning concepts and see what is good in them. But we should also know what we should not take from them. Islam tells us what is good and bad: halal and haraam.

Are you saying that there are elements of Western planning principles that are unethical?

We have to know where to stop. For instance, when I lived in Germany, I might go to a Kneipe, but I would not drink alcohol. Our personal decisions affect our personal character. Our personal character affects our professional decisions.

So, it seems that you are saying that how one interacts with halal and haraam affects how you are as a person which subsequently affects how you work.

Yes, and everything else.

Abu Dhabi


Sheikh Zayed (center) consults Dr. Makhlouf in the ruler’s majlis to discuss Abu Dhabi’s extended development along Airport Road. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.


Ruler and architect discuss “Conference City” proposal designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in the mid-1970s.Photographs courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

TR: Why don’t we move on to your experience in Abu Dhabi? You arrived there when you were forty-four, still young but with much experience.

AM: Yes. This photo shows me with Sheikh Zayed.8 I came to Abu Dhabi to replace Katsuhiko Takahashi,9 who was Sheikh Zayed’s first planner. Sheikh Zayed had decided he wanted someone to help him who didn’t always need a translator. So when a representative from the United National Program for Technical Assistance came through the Gulf, Sheikh Zayed asked him if he could find him an Arab planner.10 The UN representative was a Sudanese man I knew during my time in Saudi Arabia. At the time there were many Sudanese working in the region. And the Sudanese often called on Egyptian experts. He sent me a cable that said that Sheikh Zayed wanted to see me.

Why did you say yes?

This was 1968, so it was just after the defeat.11There was not much happening in Cairo. I was already thinking about trying to find projects elsewhere.

I can’t imagine it was a good time to be an Egyptian in Abu Dhabi.

There were a lot of Iraqis here because the British had brought them here. After the 1958 coup, many Iraqis didn’t have anywhere else to go. Egyptians, however, were not accepted. I founded Abu Dhabi’s planning department. There were opponents to my arrival who did not even know me.

So what happened when you arrived?

Sheikh Zayed was not there, and he wouldn’t return for another month. I had to wait. At the time of my arrival, there was a department called Planning and Coordination, as part of the governmental system the British had developed for Abu Dhabi. There was an Iraqi leading the office, and everything was under his control, including the allocation of government salaries. He did not approve of my presence in Abu Dhabi. Therefore, I was left with the choice to stay or go. I decided to stay. Sheikh Zayed had said he wanted me to come here, so I would wait. I decided to stay until they told me to go. Because I was not receiving a salary, I had to borrow money to stick to this decision.

“Abu Dhabi needed more than making something visual like a master plan. Planning is not something that an expert will give you as drawings. There must be an institution responsible for the planning of the city.”

During this time, I did something very useful. I prepared what I call “Report Number One,” in which I described the task at hand as I saw it. Abu Dhabi needed more than making something visual like a master plan. Real planning was necessary. My idea is that planning is not something that an expert will give you as drawings. There must be an institution responsible for the planning of the city. I gave this report to HE Ahmed Khalifa Al Suwaidi, an important advisor to Sheikh Zayed. And then I waited for a response.


Plan of water distribution project by Arabicon, a British architectural and engineering consultancy which opened an office in Abu Dhabi to oversee discrete housing and development projects. Plan courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.


Land use plan of Abu Dhabi, from February 1968, by Japanese architect Katsuhiko Takahashi who worked in the emirate as a consultant for Sheikh Zayed. Plan courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

At this point, Abu Dhabi already had a master plan, right?

Yes, there was one from Halcrow12 and one from Takahashi. And Arabicon13 was busy with construction projects according to these plans on Abu Dhabi’s northern shore, near where the corniche is today. The original homes on Abu Dhabi’s coast were already cleared.

During your one month of analyzing the planning materials, you reviewed the Halcrow plan. What did you think of it?

I thought that it was not the answer. Halcrow’s plan assumed Abu Dhabi’s full build-out with a small population. According to Halcrow, Abu Dhabi would never be a large city. However, there is no city that can provide services of a modern city (schools, hotels, hospitals, etc.) without having a population that provides or allows for such services. For example, you cannot make a school for ten children. A school has a minimum size to justify a staff of teachers. So the services have to be justified by a certain population number. The minimum population for a modern city is 250,000.14

What was the reaction to “Report Number One?”

There were big debates and quarrels about my proposals, behind closed doors and in public. I have the minutes for a meeting about the plan. They asked me where I had gotten these numbers. You can read about it yourself.15

While you were critical of the Halcrow plan, you were supportive of the plan by your predecessor, Takahashi.

I wasn’t there when Sheikh Zayed approved Takahashi’s plan. But when I saw it, I thought it was clever, good, and correct. Whenever there was somebody who wanted to build a city and they had to achieve it fast, they built it with straight lines.

It was very well known that Sheikh Zayed wanted his roads laid in straight lines. And I agreed with him on this matter. Later on, though, I asked him why. He said, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. We want a capital city for Abu Dhabi. Therefore, we need to get there as quickly as possible.”

And the earlier plan, drawn by Halcrow, relied more on curved lines and roads.

Of course. It was based on the British New Town. They have the right to choose for themselves what is right. But not everyone would agree. The Germans would have chosen straight lines. The Romans and Greeks also used straight lines. The Renaissance cities also. With a grid, you can easily add to it as a city grows.

“I even had to make a map of what existed in Abu Dhabi. There was not even a map of Abu Dhabi.”

(He searches for a copy of Takahashi’s plan.) Here it is. No one in Abu Dhabi could give this to me. I had to search for a copy of it on my own. When I arrived, previous communications and documents were not to be found. I had to dig for the information. I even had to make a map of what existed in Abu Dhabi. There was not even a map of Abu Dhabi. Much of this I had to get from England.

So you had to get the information from the British consultants?

No not even from them. There was a lady – I can’t remember if she was British or American – who helped me in finding these materials. She went to London and got me many of the things I used to write “Report Number One.”

After you submitted “Report Number One,” what kind of influence were you able to have on Abu Dhabi’s development?

I told you how I finally met Sheikh Zayed, right? We were sitting in the Intercontinental Hotel, and then after some conversation, he asked me, “What are you going to do? Are you going to give us plans and say, ‘This is it,’ and do it? Or will you do what we want?”

I told him, “I will give you alternatives, and you choose what you think is the best.” But of course this was my response. It would not be polite for me to tell him what to do. At the same time, I couldn’t tell him I would do what he wanted.

He told me, “I don’t have a map of Abu Dhabi.” I told him that I knew that and that I had to make one. He asked me how long it would take. I answered, “Give me two weeks.” An advisor to Sheikh Zayed began talking to him in the Bedouin dialect, which I could not understand. I tried to follow the conversation, but I could only sense the advisor’s disbelief. It seemed that others before me had said such a project would take two years! But I did it. (He finds the map.) So this shows Abu Dhabi as it was when I arrived. I drew this all by myself, by hand of course.


Dr. Makhlouf’s drawing of Abu Dhabi from December 1968, when he first arrived in the emirate. It is arguably the first comprehensive map of Abu Dhabi’s ongoing and proposed development. Drawing courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

Halcrow and other companies involved in Abu Dhabi’s development had their own plans for their project, but no unified map of Abu Dhabi existed. And everything was drawn with the imperial scale, so in feet and inches. I had to convert everything to the metric system.

Did you have a drafting table in Abu Dhabi?

I had to make one.

(Dr. Makhlouf locates a copy of the map he drew for Sheikh Zayed.) This is the map. The original map was huge, multiple sheets of A1, but all that is left now is this small version of the map. Unfortunately, the one who came after me destroyed everything that showed what I had done, including these large maps.

(He points to a photograph.)This photo was taken when Sheikh Zayed went to see construction of the new souk.


Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (fourth from left), the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966 until 2004, tours the construction site of Abu Dhabi’s modern souks as designed and managed by Dr. Makhlouf (second from left). The souks have since been demolished and replaced by the Central Market complex designed by Foster + Partners. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

A Souk for Abu Dhabi

TR: The central souk was based on your design, right?

AM: Yes. After I presented Sheikh Zayed his first map, I started on a plan to fill in the road network on the northern part of the island. The plan was for residential and commercial uses. I made a cardboard model myself and presented it to the ruler.


Sheikh Zayed and other officials pay close attention to Dr. Makhlouf as he presents his cardboard model of his proposal for Abu Dhabi’s northern shore. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

When we were examining my model, he pointed to a complex of buildings and asked what it was. I explained to him that it was my proposal for Abu Dhabi’s new souk.16 He asked me how much it would cost.

I gave him an estimate. He said, “Let’s start with this.” I thought it would be the last part we would do. I was so happy he wanted to start there.

But I suspect you were proposing a traditional souk with modern materials. Can you tell me about the design?

My idea was that it should be like the traditional souk. Shaded so that you could walk from shop to shop. Like the traditional markets, specialties were grouped together.

It all had to be developed at a reasonable cost. Sheikh Zayed had decided that he would give the shops to his people. They would rent them out to earn an income.

He had a greater plan to help his people on three fronts: First was to provide local families national housing. These houses were built for them; later, they could build their own houses according to published building codes. Second was to offer each family a commercial space, so he started this by offering them two hundred by one hundred foot plots for building. This is how Al Hamdan Street was first developed. The government provided locals low interest loans for developing their plots, and I made the designs for many of these commercial buildings. The souks were part of this project. Sheikh Zayed’s third front was offering each family an industrial plot.


Conceptual sketch of the full build-out of Abu Dhabi Island by Dr. Makhlouf dated December 22, 1968. Drawings courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

So based on this larger plan, I made the souk and asked him to visit the site. When I thought we were finished, I said, “Assalaam aalaikum,” to signal I was leaving.

He said, “No, come with me!” We went to his home, and we talked for three or four hours. He wanted me to explain everything. It was like a lecture on city planning, so that he understood I wanted to do more than just give him drawings. The real task of a planner is to provide options for the problem, measured within the means and time available. And it was from that conversation I wanted him to support opening a town-planning department.

So the central souk projects helped to establish your role in Abu Dhabi?

Up until then, there had been so much resistance from others about my ideas. There had been so much fighting …With everything I did, his confidence in me grew.


Aerial photograph of the northern end of Abu Dhabi Island which reveals realized planning efforts of Dr. Makhlouf including the modern souk (center) and the landscaped roundabouts of Airport Road. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.

Sheikh Zayed became interested in urban planning. And he seemed to think that with planning he could ensure his people had opportunities.


But then something seems to change. The plan didn’t go as it should.

I will come back to that later. (Dr. Makhlouf shows more pictures of him meeting Sheikh Zayed.) I used to see him everyday. That was my duty, my job, day and night. 24 hours. It was very interesting. (He laughs and moves on to another map from 1968 with some of his designed extensions of the road network and building massings.) I did all the planning and design for these new areas.

(He shows me another picture and grins.)

You with Kenzo Tange!17 Did you approach Kenzo Tange to work in Abu Dhabi?


Dr. Makhlouf receives Kenzo Tange and his translator at his desk in Abu Dhabi. Image courtesy of Dr. Makhlouf.

I did not hire him. An Iraqi company invited him here. When we met, he invited me to come visit him in Japan.

What did he come here to do?

They had heard that Sheikh Zayed wanted a government center. I had proposed one for Airport Road, but all the chairmen wanted to have their offices on the corniche. This was 1960-something. There were people here trying to help other people make business relations. So, he came and suggested what he would make.

He came and said that he can make a design. They asked me what I thought about it. At that time, we didn’t even know what sort of government Abu Dhabi was going to have. So, my idea was not to engage anybody or not to start the idea [until there was a clear program]. But I told them to let him come and be a guest or whatever, give him whatever you want to give him. That wasn’t important to me. What was important was what the project was. Even if he makes the best design, it would not be useful, because how can he or anybody make a project, when you don’t know how it should be. So, waste of time.

It’s back to what you said earlier. You have to have a plan.


Were you teaching Sheikh Zayed to be an urban planner?

I cannot say I taught him anything. But when anyone meets with an expert, you learn something.

The Best Laid Plans

TR: What was the biggest challenge of being Abu Dhabi’s chief planner?

AM: As I told you, planning is a mission. Planners are like doctors. They are happy when people arrive sick and leave healthy. When it is just your home, it is easy because you can control it, but when you are dealing with a city, the challenge is how to make everyone happy.

When you were Abu Dhabi’s chief planner, it was an optimistic time for planning. It was before there was a thick bureaucracy, and you could engage in decision-making directly. Is Abu Dhabi a happy place today?

I think when you read what is written about Abu Dhabi, you will find it gives the answer to your question.

“I made a social plan for how we would fill Abu Dhabi’s grid with housing. Each unit had seven houses. Neighbors from the same block could sit together after evening prayers.”

(He goes to search for something. He returns with a plan for an Abu Dhabi neighborhood unit.)

I made a social plan for how we would fill Abu Dhabi’s grid with housing. Each unit had seven houses. The plan was made so that neighbors from the same block could sit together after evening prayers. My plan reflects their traditions. You don’t have to walk far to visit your family, and you had all your services, including the mosque and school, nearby. I made thousands of these for Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.18 Imagine if the grid system was filled with this kind of neighborhood.


Dr. Makhlouf’s rendered plan for an Abu Dhabi block, also according to his variant of the neighborhood unit.

But what has happened since then?

Instead of being the two-floor buildings that I had proposed, my successors decided to make the buildings apartment towers.

Is there a place in Abu Dhabi I should see, where I can see built evidence of your planning?

No. There is nothing left. So much has changed. Some road networks might be the same.

(He pauses.)

I am happy I achieved something despite all the resistance. I had to resign as Abu Dhabi’s chief planner because others wanted me to leave. At first, Sheikh Zayed refused to let me go and told them, “Use your heads. Learn from him!” No one could say I was a thief. The only thing that one of them could say to Sheikh Zayed was, “You asked for this, and Makhlouf said, ‘No.’”

In 1975, I submitted my resignation to Sheikh Zayed. For four months he did not accept it, but others finally convinced him to do so. I stayed in Abu Dhabi to start my own architecture and planning firm. Fifteen years passed. One summer, Sheikh Zayed was staying near Geneva. His advisor rang me and said, “Sheikh Zayed has been talking about you ... good things.” Two days later the same man called me to tell me that Sheikh Zayed had mentioned me again and regretted accepting the resignation of an honest and clean man. (Dr. Makhlouf pounds his hand flat-palmed on table.)

Are you surprised by what Abu Dhabi has become. When you came in 1968, there was a road network but not much else. And now there are towers in every direction.

I won’t give you my opinion of what Abu Dhabi has become, but I am not surprised. I have been living here. I was expecting that this would happen. When Dubai started to develop in the way it has, we were hoping it would not happen here. But it is difficult to express what I mean.

“I am just an observer, a historian.”

Now I am sitting here thinking, “What will happen with Egypt?” Things will happen. I expect the good and the bad. I did not choose this. I could not have prevented this, nor could I have made this. I am just an observer, a historian.

We have spoken a lot about the Arab city and the Islamic city. Do you think Abu Dhabi is an Islamic city?

So far? That is a big question.


In Dr. Makhlouf’s office, Sheikh Zayed hears about plans for Sheikh Zayed Stadium designed by Henri Colboc as part of the Sports City complex. Photograph courtesy of Abdulrahman Makhlouf.


1 After working in various ministries in Berlin under Hitler’s Germany, Werner eventually oversaw the rebuilding of the city of Augsburg after the war. He began teaching at Technische Hochschule Munich in 1951 and held the town planning professorship when Makhlouf was studying there.

2 Sayed Karim was the first Egyptian to earn a PhD in architectural engineering and was a well-known modernist in Cairo. His proposals for Cairo and work for Port Said were the topic of an article in the autumn 2012 edition of Portal 9. See Mohamad Elshahed, “Port Said 1957: Egyptian Modernism Unfurled,” Portal 9, no. 1 The Imagined (2012): 101—16.

3 Al Azhar is a mosque in the medieval quarter of Cairo. It has been considered a center of Islamic learning since it was founded in the tenth century. Dr. Makhlouf claims that his father introduced mathematics to the theological studies during his time there.

4 Erwin Rommel led the Axis troops in the North African campaign during the Second World War. His nickname was Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs).

5 Clarence Perry (1872-1944) is often cited as the author of the term “neighborhood unit,” a planning concept that conceptualized the city as an assemblage of self-sustaining neighborhoods. The concept would be borrowed in twentieth-century planning in Great Britain and beyond.

6 Though official numbers are not easily obtained, a conservative population density for this area of Cairo would be 20,000 people per kilometer. This is at least four times the density Makhlouf had in mind.

7 Dr. Makhlouf’s father, Sheikh Hussein Mohammad Makhlouf, was the Egyptian Grand Mufti from 1946 until 1950. Later, coinciding with his son’s working abroad, the elder Makhlouf traveled throughout the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a founding advocate of the Muslim World League.

8 Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan came to power in Abu Dhabi in 1966, with the British-supported deposition of his brother. Dr. Makhlouf met Sheikh Zayed in his second year as Abu Dhabi’s ruler.

9 In 1967, the same year he graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia University, Katsuhiko Takahashi arrived in Abu Dhabi to work on planning projects for Sheikh Zayed. The Japanese ambassador in Kuwait had recommended him. Upon leaving Abu Dhabi, Takahashi began a planning career with the United Nations.

10 The United Nations Program of Technical Assistance came into existence around 1948 to respond to the UN Charter’s directive “to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all people.” This also included the hiring of planning experts to aid in early planning efforts in Saudi Arabia. Source: David Owen, “The United Nations Program of Technical Assistance.” The Annals of the American Academy 270 (1950): 109.

11 Dr. Makhlouf is referring to Egypt’s resounding defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War of June 1967. The defeat is often considered to have been a major setback to Nasser’s pan-Arab movement.

12 Halcrow is a British company founded as a civil engineering firm. It was one of the first engineering firms to find work in the Gulf region, arriving in Kuwait in 1952. Eventually, the company had a planning department, providing studies and proposals for several of the emirates that would become the United Arab Emirates.

13 Arabicon was a British architectural and engineering consultancy, which opened an office in Abu Dhabi to oversee housing and development work. See: Todd Reisz, “Master Planning with a Land Rover – John Elliott, Town Planner of Abu Dhabi,” Volume, no. 12: Al Manakh (2007).

14 Today, the city’s population is over 630,000.

15 Dr. Makhlouf later provided the document. The minutes to the meeting of mostly British consultants and officers reflect more a questioning of the ability to finance a larger plan. The developers in the room would have likely responded positively to more construction.

16 The souk that Dr. Makhlouf designed has since been demolished and replaced by a multi-tower shopping mall designed by Foster & Partners.

17 Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (1913-2005) is considered a father of modern architecture in Japan. He had a number of proposed designs for cities in the Gulf, including the Kuwait International Airport. His work on Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is featured in Portal 9’s second issue.

18 Al Ain is the second largest city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Todd Reisz is Urbanography editor for Portal 9 and the Daniel Rose Visiting Assistant Professor in Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture.
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
Surrounded by memories of past achievements, Dr. Makhlouf stands in his conference room in Abu Dhabi, on November 6, 2012. On the upper left appears a satellite image of the emirate that has been his home since 1968. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.
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