thumbnail text

Battle of the hubs

Saudi Arabia

The inquiry into the car bomb attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 21 others two years ago, has grown into one of the most contentious issues in the Middle East. It has created a tug-of-war that pits Iran, Syria and Hezbollah against the Lebanese government, most Arab states and the UN. In part, it may have prompted Hezbollah’s reckless attempt last summer to silence rising criticism by capturing two Israeli soldiers. The result was the savage 34-day war that devastated Lebanon.

While the late president’s son Saad has entered the political fray, Saad’s brother Bahaa al-Hariri has eschewed the geopolitical battles and focused on the family’s extensive business empire.Yet while running Saudi Oger (a construction, telecommunications and logistics conglomerate) and Mustaqbal (a communications group that includes a Lebanese newspaper and a regional television station), Bahaa has also found time to nurture his own company, Horizon Development Holdings.

This Lebanon-based property company is now the driving force behind several regional mega-projects, among them a €1.1bn urban regeneration project in Amman, a €3.67bn luxury resort outside Aqaba and, most recently, the construction of a new city near Tabuk on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.

One of the kingdom’s five new “economic cities”, it is envisaged as an industrial and logistical hub to service the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. With the Gulf currently awash with oil money, almost everywhere wants to be a regional hub of some kind. Dubai and Qatar are competing with each other to become the region’s air-transport hubs, Amman and Kuwait are set to become the service points for Iraq, and Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are gearing up to be the Gulf’s education and recreation centres. Tabuk will have plenty of opposition.

Armed with a remit to build a deep-water port, an international airport, road networks and a state-of-the-art telecommunications network – all the infrastructure a well-equipped modern business city of one million would need – Hariri believes that Saudi Arabia has at least one major advantage: it has the deepest pockets.

“The Saudis have decided to spend almost €735bn on infrastructure over the coming 10 years – I don’t think anyone else can match that,” he explains during an interview at his home in Riyadh. “As for other hubs, let there be competition. I’m more than happy to see that – I think competition means diversity.”

What a spectacle



This month in our regular series decoding the power dressing of the political elite we look at Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Despite his rants against the British – and ruining a once prosperous nation – he has a fondness for English-gent style and big glasses.

Of all the anguished words written and spoken in recent years about the collapse of Zimbabwe, and about the man responsible for it, none has improved on the terse summary offered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2002. “It is a great sadness what has happened to President Mugabe. He was one of Africa’s best leaders, a bright spark, a debonair, well-spoken and well-read person. But he seems to have gone bonkers in a big way.”

Archive footage of Robert Mugabe when he was elected Prime Minister of newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, aged 55, shows a model of a modern revolutionary turned statesman. Greeting international press in his garden, he sounded as smart as he looked: “debonair” was indeed the word. Now a maddeningly robust 83, Mugabe has single-handedly turned Zimbabwe from breadbasket to basket case – inflation is presently estimated at a Weimarian 1,700 per cent, and worsening, and 10 per cent of the population is now reliant on handouts from the World Food Programme. Mugabe still looks sharp, however.

“He must have a huge wardrobe,” says one veteran observer in Harare, who prefers not to be named. “His suits are always well-cut, British-style, mostly dark, a few with subtle pinstripes, with conservative shirts, worn with gold cuff links – and here, in the heat of the day, few people wear long sleeves or cuff links. But I’ve never seen him in short sleeves, or a safari suit. And I’ve known the bugger for 30 years.”

Mugabe’s less formal attire is no more suggestive of an orderly mind. In 2005, in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s most recent elections – or, to use the correct technical term, “elections” – Mugabe mounted the hustings on behalf of his Zanu-PF party in a lurid green shirt decorated with heroic portraits of himself. Such garments are a common feature of elections, even unrigged ones, throughout Africa, but the un-ironic wearing of pictures of yourself is a short step from the final proof that a dictatorship has become irrecoverably demented – ie, the commissioning of self-glorifying public art. Funnily enough, in 2007 the Zimbabwean government announced plans to establish a shrine to Mugabe in his hometown of Zvimba. In bankrupt, collapsing, drought-stricken Zimbabwe, this demonstrates a quaint sense of priorities.

Such Antoinettish profligacy is hardly surprising, though. Before she was subjected to the same EU travel sanctions as her husband in 2002, Mugabe’s undeniably stylish second wife, Grace – 40 years his junior – was so infamous for her spirited ransacking of European boutiques that she acquired the nickname “The First Shopper”. Possibly under Grace’s influence, Mugabe has acquired a taste for extravagance in other arenas. In July 2006 he presided over the opening of Harare’s lavishly refurbished parliament chamber from a leopard skin-draped throne, overlooked by stuffed antelope heads and set off by mounted elephant tusks. His retinue, at least, is buying into the spirit of things. On his 83rd birthday in February, Mugabe’s Minister for Policy Implementation, Webster Shamu, presented him with a four-metre-long stuffed crocodile in recognition of his “maturity, distilled and accumulated wisdom, and majestic authority”.

At this point, Mugabe could become a more complete stereotype of the crackpot African despot only by declaring himself King of Scotland. His insistence on flashing his medals is symptomatic of the wilful cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain one’s ego in a ruin of one’s own making. Not that anyone near him is likely to point this out: under Section 16 of Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act, passed in 2002, it is a criminal offence to “engender feelings of hostility” towards the President.







  • The Big Interview