The centerpiece of successful (i.e. long-term, organic) town and city development is usually a community enterprise or institution, concretized by a structure that declares the community s primary need or intent. For example, a harbor serving fishermen, a marketplace for farmers or craftsmen, a place of worship serving a spiritual ideal, a university serving the acquisition of knowledge, or a town hall, where citizens can agree upon their priorities for growth. In Egypt, however, the prevailing belief is that the centerpiece of urban development is the luxury resort, serving tourists, or gated residential communities, serving the rich.
Although developing relatively empty tracts of desert requires a decision regarding a future town’s raison d’être, choosing to cater to foreigners or the wealthy, limits the town s growth from the outset by its exclusionary nature. But the choices of Egypt’s decision-making elite are not designed to be inclusive, and are therefore neither organic nor wise.
Instead of responding to the needs of the larger community (for good schools, medical facilities, affordable housing, proximity to viable employment) the decision-making elite that has successfully monopolized Egypt’s direction for decades, tend to choose the quickest, most self-enriching path. Moreover, it tries to sell its self-aggrandizement to the public as altruistic, economic progress. The most commanding feature of Egypt’s real-estate development since the onset of the 1990’s reform, is the fact that it couldn’t be less real.
It started with a series of compounds in Cairo s satellite cities whose names reflect their aspirations (e.g. Dreamland, Utopia, Beverly Hills) many still awaiting a prosperous clientele. Concurrently, a burst of seaside building resulted in the aesthetically and environmentally disastrous development of the mainland Red Sea and Sinai coasts. The last intifada slowed or stopped many of the smaller Sinai projects; their concrete shells dot the coast from Tabaa to Sharm El-Sheikh. But the deeper pocket investments are works in progress, luxurious resorts with residential elements, none of which appears to have achieved 100 percent (tourist) occupancy or sufficient (local or foreign) permanent habitants to justify claims of town-building.
Last year, President Mubarak endorsed tourism-related development, since tourism is Egypt s biggest hard currency earner, and it employs 10 percent of the work force. This year, Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garranah announced the commitment to adding 15,000 new hotel rooms annually, since every room under construction yields 5-7 jobs; once built each represents 2-3 direct, and numerous indirect, employment opportunities.
But these jobs are mostly menial, and top management positions often go to foreigners. The tourism sector involves only a third as many workers as agriculture, which contributes 25 percent of Egypt s GDP and exports, yet there are no plans of equal enthusiasm to develop that.
Presumably the many subsistence farmers obliged to sell their land as real estate, can serve foreigners or rich compatriots as chambermaids and bell boys. Half of the country s poor live in the ramshackle villages of Upper Egypt, the area with the country’s highest infant mortality rates (36 percent above the national averages). Will tourism help salvage these towns, indeed any of those in provincial Egypt?
Admittedly, the possibility of developing vast tracts of pristine coast is more alluring than addressing the messy problems of existing urban settlements. But when the choices for development ignore the latter to such an extent, one wonders if it deserves to be called development at all. Tourism relies on uncontrollable factors, i.e. foreign visitors who may or may not come by the millions. But supposing they do, it’s hard to see how more beach resorts will benefit the Egyptian majority, or create attractive living alternatives for the population of approximately thirty million concentrated around Greater Cairo.
Nevertheless, a new wave of luxury resort building, billed as town development, is under way. It differs from the previous one in that the targeted land includes the northern Mediterranean coast and Greater Cairo, and it is being sold in large parcels, not to Egyptians, but Gulf investors. The latter need new destinations, not only for their surplus wealth , but for themselves. Gulf tourism in Egypt is up around 20 percent over last year. Gulf investments valued at $200 billion have been withdrawn from the United States post- 9/11, and aside from Europe, Egypt offers a comfortable alternative.
A Dubai-based group called Emaar recently acquired over six square kilometers of prime coastal land around Sidi Abdel Rahman for $28 per square meter, with plans to invest $6 billion. Investment Minister Mahmoud Moheiddin says the project will include two five-star hotels, a marina, a golf course (Egypt has at least 14 already), a shopping center, mosque (no church?), helipad, and sports facilities. Emaar also acquired several other major parcels slated for upscale development, one in Katameya (east Cairo) and one in the city center.
The Qatar-based Barwa Real Estate also has city-building plans for 2000 acres in Katameya, with an investment of over $1 billion. The Saudi-financed City Stars Mall (designed to evoke the temples of Luxor, with upscale hotels and residential elements) occupies almost a square kilometer of Nasser City (east Cairo) and represents $800 million in investment. The Kuwaiti Kharafi Group had the jump on the above mentioned investors. It purchased an 18-kilometer strip of Red Sea coast (two third s the size of Jordan s coastline) near Marsa Alam in 1998 for just $2. per square meter and its five-star town called Port Ghalib is already receiving guests.
Minister Moheiddin says that other important sales will soon be announced. He also tells us that part of the proceeds from the Emaar sale will help fund restorations of Egypt’s historic hotels. Great. Assumedly, they will also help fund the removal of some 12 million landmines left over from WWII, whose presence, paradoxically, protected parts of the Mediterranean coast until now.
Although the government trumpets these investments as economic achievements, it is nevertheless selling a priceless patrimony out from under its citizens feet, as if it owned this land by sovereign right. Its willingness to award high-bidding foreigners with key developments that cannot significantly better the lot of average Egyptians, betrays a failure to prioritize, conceive and finance its own infrastructure improvements. These major sales and their proposed developments should be seen for what they are: not seedling towns or economic cure-alls, but the last resort of an ethically and imaginatively bankrupt elite.
Maria Golia is author of a book on Cairo titled “City of Sand. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR EGYPT.