Briefly reviewing the history of urbanization in the Arab world, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present, this article argues that comprehensive heritage preservation did not obtain until the late twentieth century, in tandem with mounting economic and urban pressures on historic cities, which threatened not only their architectural monuments but also their entire social fabric. Analysing the situation since these transformations, the article concludes that the rampant real estate capitalism of the last quarter century, fuelled by investments from the Gulf region, worsened the conservation conditions of these old cities and unravelled their civil qualities. The article posits that the Arab Spring was partly a response to these dismal conditions. It brought to the forefront the value of civil rights, whose Arabic equivalent, al-huquq al-madaniyya, combines in one semantic field the notions of city, civil, civilization, law and religion. This makes it possible to re-conceive heritage preservation as a civil right that is meant to serve both the cities and their citizens.