The term ‘second-tier city’ has a judgemental ring, signalling those cities are inferior to the capitals or mega-cities. In truth, in many countries and for different reasons, second-tier cities are experiencing a boom.

Some citizens are forced to leave these mega-cities as high housing and living costs make it difficult for even the middle class to own a property, get suitable education for their children or create wealth for the future. Others choose to leave, rather than suffer air and noise pollution, heavy traffic and other problems affecting general living standards.


While some Western countries fear the long-term consequences of losing young talent and becoming less attractive to tech and start-up companies, other countries such as China support this trend to diversify its urban development programme.

Looking at the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, this trend could be a solution to highly centralised urban development in different countries leading to high population in capital cities while neglecting those in the second tier. The main reason is a centralised governance structure that concentrates political, economic and cultural power mainly on the capitals, creating giants with overpopulated metropolitan areas such Lagos (21 million), Cairo (20.4 million) and Tehran (15 million).

Rather than decentralise its governance structures – which would lead to more effective allocation of investment, a faster and more customised development of smaller cities and would make them more attractive for investors and the population – Cairo has decided to build a huge suburb called New Cairo. Meanwhile, Tehran has invested heavily in its public infrastructure, building new highways and a metro line to its satellite Karaj – which most probably will merge both cities within the next 10 years, creating an even bigger chaos.

Kenya is a good example where the government’s courage and wisdom of granting self-determination to rural areas has proved to be the right strategy. Since the devolution into counties that have their own budgets and local government in 2013, the country’s second-tier cities have attracted a lot of attention from investors. This has led to better infrastructure and new jobs – making them more competitive while taking the pressure of the overloaded capital, Nairobi.

Now the only question is: how many other countries in the MEA region are able or willing to allow this type of change?

Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME adviser to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce. E-mail: