SOM Plan for New UAE-Backed Egyptian Capital Sparks Controversy and Questions
During the Egypt Economic Development Conference held in March at the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, the Egyptian government unveiled a vision for building a new capital city, a project unimaginatively christened The Capital Cairo. The master plan, designed by Skidmore Owings, & Merrill (SOM), was touted at the conference as one of several megaprojects that promise to transform Egypt’s economy, create jobs, and attract international investment. Heads of state, including Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, stood around an architectural model of the proposed capital and marveled at the prospect of a new city in a stretch of military-controlled desert between present-day Cairo and the Red Sea.
Given Egypt’s recent turbulent politics and dire human rights record, the relationship between the existing metropolis of Cairo and the proposed capital city is ambiguous: will the development be an independent twin city to the present-day Cairo less than 75 miles away? Will the proximity of the two cities risk turning the new capital project into yet another desert expansion like its two existing satellite cities, New Cairo and 6th of October City?
Renderings of the new $45 billion capital released by SOM show a sprawling 270-square-mile metropolis—approximately the size of Singapore—of low-rise buildings surrounding a cluster of skyscrapers. According to a Capital Cairo press release, the city will accommodate more than 7 million inhabitants in over 100 neighborhoods and boast such amenities as a theme park six times the size of Disneyland. Despite Egypt’s water shortage and increased power outages, the desert landscape is rendered as green and promises one of the world’s largest networks of urban parks. The street-level renderings show a modern city that could be anywhere—only the addition of palm trees and veiled women hint that this city of the future might be in the Middle East.
This kind of design is nothing new for SOM: the firm has been active in the Middle East for 50-plus years, with more than 180 projects ranging from airports and corporate towers to landmark structures such as Dubai’s ½-mile-tall Burj Khalifa. The firm has also been involved in providing master plans for large-scale urban developments, most notably Bahrain Bay in Manama and the King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, an estimated $90 billion investment under construction along the Red Sea coast.
These proposed cities aim to relieve congestion, control urban sprawl, and generate investment. But this wave of Middle Eastern cities comes at a time when major historic centers in Syria and Iraq have been seriously damaged by war, wide-scale human displacement is taking place, and mass-protests have erupted against dictatorships across the region and been silenced by authorities.
In Egypt, plans for a new administrative district have circulated before, most notably as part of the Cairo 2050 vision, a plan proposed in 2007 calling for the redistribution of the city’s population and the demolition of areas with unsafe buildings. However, there was no public knowledge or discussion regarding the recently announced new capital city prior to the plan’s unveiling.
Not surprisingly, reception of the project is marred by controversy. Arguments against the proposal contend that the Egyptian constitution, ratified in January 2014, clearly defines Cairo as the capital city of Egypt, and that planning and announcing a new capital city in the absence of a parliament and without public dialogue is a clear violation of the rule of law. Others argue that the government is simply escaping its responsibilities, allowing existing cities to continue to deteriorate and building new ones on a tabula rasa. Since the 1970s, there has been a policy of building desert housing developments to absorb population growth, but these efforts, in spite of huge expenditures, have largely failed because of poor planning, management, and lack of efficient transport.
The Capital Cairo also has the potential to become the world’s first privatized capital city. While the Egyptian government, with various ministries including the Housing Ministry, is providing legal and logistical support for the project, the Egyptian military controls the desert land where the project is to be realized. A 1997 presidential decree gave the military control over undeveloped land, with little to no oversight from civilian institutions. Since then, the military has made several deals with private companies to develop exclusive communities for maximum profit. President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi clarified in a statement that The Capital Cairo will not be built with public funds, clearing the way for the possibility of private capital to take over entirely.
In the case of The Capital Cairo, the private developer is a company in the United Arab Emirates. According to a spokesperson from SOM, the client is Eagle Hills, an Abu Dhabi–based company with Mohamed Alabbar (who, with his company Emaar, also developed the Burj Khalifa) on its board. A representative from Eagle Hills, Amira El Zoheary, however, told RECORD in an email that the company “has nothing to do with the project” and that another company, Capital City Partners Limited (for which Alabbar is also a founding partner), is the primary developer of the new capital.
There are also conflicting reports about the expected date of completing the proposed capital city. While the initial announcement promised that the city would be partially completed in seven years, the Egyptian minister of housing announced that the full realization of the city—and housing for the projected 7 million people—might take as long as 40 years. The feasibility of the project seems uncertain, given greater Cairo’s demographic realities—a population of 18 million set to double by the time the capital is completed.
More important, it is unclear if the SOM-planned city will provide low-cost housing to the majority who need it. Egypt’s government has signed a deal with Arabtec, another UAE company, to build 1 million affordable housing units across 13 sites at a total cost of $40 billion. The relationship between these immense projects, if any, has not been clarified.
When asked for comment on the project, a spokesperson from SOM wrote in an e-mail, “We are not pursuing interviews at this time, per our leadership’s request.”
Mohamed Elshahed is the founding editor of Cairobserver.com and a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transeregionale Studien in Berlin.