Africa/Middle East - Issue 96 - Magazine | Monocle

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Swamp thing


The marshlands in the south of Iraq, a haven of biodiversity that was drained by Saddam Hussein and almost bled dry by Turkish dams, have been added to Unesco’s World Heritage list.

“There is still no legal basis that Iraq can use to force Turkey to give more water to the marshes,” says professor Azzam Alwash, founder of Nature Iraq, an ngo that has been working to protect the marshes for more than a decade. “But I celebrate the fact that Iraq has agreed to an international obligation to maintain the marshes for future generations. They are still the only verdant, life-encouraging area in a barren desert.”

Watered down


Libya’s government continues to struggle to keep control of the country, which is making it even harder for the EU to curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. “For the moment all we are allowed to do is work outside of the Libyan sovereign state in international waters,” says Rear-Admiral Gilles Humeau, second-in-command of Operation Sophia, the EU’s anti-trafficking mission. Sophia aims to disrupt crime networks in the central Mediterranean but so far the combined air and naval force has been able to apprehend fewer than 100 smugglers. That said, they saved the lives of some 20,000 migrants in the process.

Unlocked potential?


On the highway from Cairo to Suez a billboard proudly declares that this old port is home to “the first Chinese city in Egypt”. It’s a sign of where Egypt is headed: a year on from the launch of the new Suez Canal, the projected doubling of traffic through its waters hasn’t materialised and the country is looking to China to kickstart the canal and reverse its dismal economy.

The new canal was billed as an “artery of prosperity” but figures quietly released in May show that crossings grew a mere 2.7 per cent in the past year. China has promised €4.5bn in investment for the Suez Canal Economic Zone, a cluster of industrial plants around the canal, in the hopes of making the strait more productive. It is also funding another 18 projects around Egypt across everything from transport to housing, as well as a new coal-fired power plant.

The country’s large areas of undeveloped land in the desert, as well as untapped resources, are proving to be enticing for Chinese investors. “China sees an opportunity in Egypt that they’re keen to exploit,” says HA Hellyer of the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based think-tank. “Neither have particular concerns about the politics or rights records of the other.” Meanwhile, Chinese investors are charming Egyptian president Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi by helping to fund his flagship mega-project: a controversial new administrative capital, announced in 2015, that is being built in the desert 45km outside of Cairo.

Egypt has a long history of failed mega-projects; critics have previously referred to them as the country’s “desert dreams”. But El-Sisi pledged to refresh creaking infrastructure across the country when he assumed office in 2013. Many Egyptians are hoping that China’s recent surge of interest will come to something more substantial than just a series of mirages.

And the crowd goes wild


When the new football season kicks off this month, some of the English Premier League’s most passionate fans won’t be found in Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge – instead they’ll be packed into bars and cafés across Africa. Fans here are obsessed with English football, with more matches shown live on TV in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa than England itself. A new film, African Premier League, aims to explore why English football is so beloved and is being made by the team behind popular blog Africa’s a Country.

Alas, the popularity of English football has had a detrimental effect on leagues across Africa, where attendances have traditionally been low if big teams aren’t playing. The canniest league organisers now schedule matches to ensure they don’t clash with their English counterparts.

Foot off the gas


A campaign in the small city of Arak, led by citizens fed up with air pollution, is encouraging commuters to go car-free every Tuesday. It is gaining support nationwide, with senior ministers getting in step.

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