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Ramallah: Palestine’s Bustling Metropolis

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.08.2007:

By Samir Hulileh, Erin Cunningham, and Hani Dajani

“Ramallah is odd. Many cultures, many faces. Never a masculine or a solemn city. Always first to catch on to some new craze,” wrote Palestinian novelist Mourid Barghouti of modern-day Palestine’s bustling de facto capital.

Odd and vibrant it is. Located in the central West Bank, the Ramallah-Al Bireh province is currently host to an array of international NGOs, four-storey villas, United Nations’ (UN) aid workers, world-famous ice cream, trendy restaurants, and government ministries.

Global banks tower over the city, while a quick stroll in either direction from Al-Manara will take you to the office of the Palestinian president, or the headquarters of the Red Crescent, demonstrating well the district’s delicate balance of occupation politics, international presence, and economic growth.

Reluctant capital

The Ramallah-Al-Bireh governorate has thus ably assumed its most recent role as Palestine’s administrative, commercial, and cultural capital. Not only is it the current seat of Palestine’s government but also the region’s wealthiest province, as the district’s core municipalities – Ramallah, Al-Bireh, and Beituniya – have revitalized the commercial and financial importance of the area as the West Bank’s primary economic hub.

With a population hovering around 300,000, in addition to another 100,000 serviced by the district’s municipalities from Jerusalem’s northern suburbs, the governorate is one of eighteen in the Palestinian Territories and is located north of Jerusalem and south of Nablus. It encompasses 78 localities as well as the Qaddura, Al-Amari, and Jalazoun refugee camps, among others.

Ramallah and Beituniya lie west of Al Bireh, and the three municipalities constitute the geographical centre of the West Bank and 28 percent of the governorate’s population, with a combination of urban, residential, and industrial sectors. Despite operating as separate entities, however, the long-standing interdependency between the cities is great, and they are often considered to perform as one urban unit.

The Ramallah-Al-Bireh-Beituniya triad is thus the chief business and trading focal point of the region, boasting the highest number of newly registered companies (301) in 2006.

The headquarters of almost all of Palestine’s insurance and telecommunications companies are based in the governorate, including the head offices of 15 of the 21 regional, national, and international banks that operate in Palestine, according to the Palestinian Monetary Authority (PMA). Other private-sector organizations reside here as well, including PalTrade and the Federation of Industry.

Al-Bireh not only showcases the headquarters of PalTel, Palestine’s foremost telecommunications provider and parent company of Jawwal – increasing regional connectivity in the West Bank area through the provision of mobile phones and high-speed internet – but also Jawwal’s primary competitor, Al Wataniah, the West Bank’s up-and-coming mobile provider. The district additionally houses the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, transmitting the West Bank’s “Voice of Palestine” and Palestine’s only satellite television to regional viewers.

The district’s service industry, including commerce, hotels, and transportation, holds an important position as well, employing 59 percent of Ramallah’s workforce in at least 15 percent of the West Bank’s service institutions. Currently, the number of people working in the private sector in the Ramallah-Al-Bireh province stands at 70.5 percent, as opposed to the 21.6 percent who work in the public sector.

Despite the thriving commercial prosperity of the region, however, the area’s agricultural importance still remains, and olive oil production in the Ramallah district was nearly 15 percent of the total olive oil production in 2006 in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The region also boasts the only micro-brewery in Palestine, in the village of Taybeh, which hosts the annual Taybeh Oktoberfest showcasing the village’s famous beer and other regional agricultural products.

Educational hub

Such a flourishing environment of heightened commercial and financial activity is undoubtedly linked to the district’s role as a primary educational hub, where universities, vocational training institutions, and private schools consistently produce highly-educated Palestinian graduates equipped to contribute to the regional economy.

Whereas the West Bank currently maintains several Palestinian-run universities – in Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus, respectively – the Ramallah-Al-Bireh province is home to the West Bank’s most cosmopolitan educational institution, Birzeit University, which is seven kilometres from Ramallah’s centre.

Ranked third among the world’s Arab universities and fifth in the Middle East, its educational offerings span from applied statistics and environmental science to gender development and Arabic poetry, injecting an average of 1,250 graduates per year into the regional economy, over half of whom are women, and attracting students from all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The district also maintains a handful of important vocational schools, including the Qalandia Vocational Training Centre and the Ramallah Women’s Training Centre, helping produce a highly-skilled and professional labour force that meets market needs. Thirty-five percent of the employed Ramallah-Al-Bireh population currently occupy high-level positions as professionals and senior legislators, and the labour force participation rate among women stands at nearly 18 percent of the total female workforce distribution for the West Bank.

In addition, religious institutions have played a significant role in establishing both elementary and secondary educational facilities in the region, most notably the co-ed Ramallah Friends School, which operates with a K-12 curriculum and was founded by Quaker settlers in 1889. The Friends School primarily attracts wealthy families in the area, whereas St. Joseph’s Girls’ School, among other private institutions, enjoys high enrolment.

The economic reality

Access to such quality educational facilities has produced an intelligent and cultivated population of managers, executives, and senior government officials, contributing to an overall higher standard of living in the province, and the highest in the West Bank.

On the one hand, the percentage of those population who earn over 5,000 NIS per month is currently at 19.8 percent, the highest of all eighteen governorates of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in addition to East Jerusalem. On the other hand, only 10.3 percent earn less than 1,500 NIS per month, the lowest of all Palestinian governorates.

The chart above represents the percentage of income distribution per household for the Ramallah District in January 2007.

On the whole, the majority of the employed Ramallah-Al-Bireh-Beituniya population (93.4 percent) live and work in the same governorate, in contrast to those who commute to work in another province (1.5 percent), in Israeli settlements (5.1 percent), or even in Israel itself.

Large sections of the professional and business populations of Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron are making the internal migration to the Ramallah-Al-Bireh governorate as well. This is certainly a consequence of the region’s constantly developing infrastructure which sufficiently provides the five major urban services of water, electricity, waste water, solid waste, and telecommunications to the Ramallah-Al-Bireh population.

At present, 99 percent of the Ramallah-Al-Bireh population has access to 24-hour-per-day electricity, as well as water, with Beituniya not far behind. The governorate also boasts the only water-waste treatment plants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – in Ramallah, Al-Bireh, and Bir Zeit – as well as a 100 percent coverage rate of solid-waste service. The district maintains the lowest percentage of informal housing areas as well, with the highest number and concentration of villas.

In another demonstration of both infrastructural and economic growth, the number of registered and non-registered private vehicles in Ramallah (22,617) is the highest amongst West Bank governorates in comparison to that of Nablus, which stands at 18,075, Hebron at 20,461, and Tulkarem at 9,488.

The area also benefits from the highest availability of banking and financial services, telephone and internet access, and adequate health services, where Ramallah maintains eight of the twenty-nine West Bank hospitals, with the rest mainly concentrated in the northern cities of Jenin and Nablus.

Proximity to Jerusalem

Ramallah’s increased wealth and metropolitan nature can be attributed to its position not only as unofficial capital of Palestine and regional centre of the West Bank, but also as the “northern door” to Jerusalem.

Although there is heavy Israeli settlement between the two cities, Ramallah maintains consistent geographical and economic proximity to Jerusalem and its Palestinian population, despite the ongoing construction of the Separation Wall.

Palestinian Jerusalemites seeking to escape the city’s high cost of living and difficult business regulations often flee to the Ramallah, Al-Bireh, and Beituniya area to benefit from the commercial-friendly environment.

In addition, the some 98,500 residents of the Jerusalem suburbs of Samir Amis (Kufur Aqab), Daheyet Al-Barid, Umm Al-Sharayet, and Ram have found themselves effectively severed from the city by the Wall and have turned to Ramallah for various amenities and economic survival, thus adding to its fiscal girth.

Cultural depth and cosmopolitan breadth

Such a population substantially adds not only to Ramallah’s financial and commercial wealth but also to its cultural vibrancy as both a Palestinian and international capital.

In addition to its mosaic of cultural heritage sites – ancient ruins, historical architecture, churches, mosques, and crusader settlements – the governorate houses a number of popular Palestinian activists, artists, and musicians, and easily serves as Palestine’s cultural epicentre.

Aside from Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre and Al Kasaba Theatre, the Ramallah Cultural Palace was built as “the only venue of its kind in the Palestinian Territories” in 2004, and its 736-seat auditorium is host to international dance festivals, plays, and a myriad of other cultural activities.

Hosting the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and 24 foreign representative offices, the Ramallah-Al-Bireh district is also home to an overabundance of international NGOs and donors.

Contributing greatly to the governorate’s economy through expatriate remittances, international donors and NGOs also play a vital role in the development of the region’s infrastructure, funding key projects and increasing the area’s multicultural elements.

The strong international presence in Ramallah has undoubtedly fostered a climate of tolerance toward foreigners, and the regional economy and cultural institutions have obliged, producing 14 hotels with a total of 533 rooms, numerous restaurants, and other facilities designed to cater to foreign NGOs and their employees.

And the dynamic of the growing governorate continues.

Areas of Ramallah licensed for new construction rose nearly 3 percent to 17.12 percent between March and May of this year.

The table above is a comparison among the total licensed areas for new construction purposes for the three major districts in Palestine.

Bir Zeit produced over 1,000 graduates in June, and a joint-venture between the UNDP, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and USAID, among others, is repairing Ramallah’s primary link to Jerusalem – Municipality Road.

Al Manara is as bustling as ever, with its constantly departing service taxis, loitering Palestinian youth, and informal money-changers meshing in Ramallah’s ever-growing metropolitan fervour.

Last but not least, the Muqat’a still stands as a symbol of the Palestinian Authority, where the late President Arafat was laid to rest; and the neighbouring Palestinian Businesswomen’s Association as well as the Securities Exchange signify that the position of the city and its governorate as the heartbeat of the West Bank remains uncontested.

Samir Hulileh, Managing Director of the Portland Trust-Palestine, a Senior Economist and entrepreneur, and former cabinet secretary to the Palestinian Authority, is dedicated to the development of the Palestinian private sector.

Erin Cunningham, an international politics graduate from the American University of Paris, is currently working as the communications and administrative officer for PlaNet Finance in Palestine.

Hani Dajani, an economist who is currently working as the Senior Project Manager for Portland Trust-Palestine, and a former Project Management Officer to the UNDP/PAPP, has extensive national and international financial and project management experience.


This Week in Palestine

September 2007

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