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Al Maabar turns Rabat's waste dump into prime property

Al Maabar of Abu Dhabi is leading the way in redeveloping the storied riverfront area of Morocco's capital, Rabat.

Just a few years ago, the area where the Bouregreg River pours into the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco's capital of Rabat was a rubbish dump. The area, despite a recorded history of more than 23 centuries that includes a time as a Phoenician colony, a Roman conquest and a naval base for the Almohad caliphs, had been neglected. The river, local people said, was so polluted that even the birds stayed away. Today, the rubbish is gone and a marina has been built. Construction cranes tower over the first project in a decades-long effort to rejuvenate the entire Bouregreg Valley, an area of more than 6,000 hectares stretching inland from the sea. The project at the mouth of the river is called Bab al Bahr, which is being developed in a joint venture between Al Maabar of Abu Dhabi and L'Agence pour l'Amenage de la Valee du Bouregreg (AAVB), the Moroccan government company that oversees projects along the river. Designed by the UK architecture firm Foster and Partners, Bab al Bahr will include high-end housing, a five-star hotel and seven museums that will attempt to revive the area's past as a market for arts and crafts. The project will cover 70ha. Rotana Hotels, an Abu Dhabi-based company, has signed a deal to run the hotel at the edge of the development facing the sea. The design of Bab al Bahr, Foster and Partners says, incorporates aspects of traditional low-rise Moroccan architecture with modern elements. Already, most of the utilities infrastructure for the first phase of Bab al Bahr has been completed and buildings are starting to rise. Completion of the phase, which will include 157 flats and 88 shops, is set for the start of 2011. The cranes and the work are welcome sights for Moroccans viewing the project from the Kasbah des Oudayas, the historic citadel. Much talk here lately has focused on planned projects that have not made any progress. These include multibillion-dirham developments announced by Emaar Properties and Sama Dubai, which have stalled in the wake of the global property downturn. At a press conference last week, local journalists were concerned about whether this project too would fall victim to the uncertain economic times. "How will the debt crisis in Dubai affect the Al Maabar project," asked a reporter from a business newspaper. Yousef al Nowais, the managing director of Al Maabar, expressed his confidence. "The money earmarked for the project is available and is going to be spent on this project," he said. "The challenge for us is building in a very short time, not financial issues." Even so, the perception of Emirati property companies abroad has become a concern in the past year. Most of the Emirati projects in Morocco have stalled, as have similar projects in Qatar, Oman, India, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. An exception is the US$850 million (Dh3.12 billion) Bab al Bahr project, which is about to launch off-plan sales of 500 of the 2,000 flats next month. "Reputation is very important right now," says Lofti Benchekroun, the director of development of Bab al Bahr. "We want people to know that we are making good progress. People around the world have seen what is happening in Dubai." Al Maabar had already transferred about Dh286m to the project for construction costs, Moroccan authorities say. The project is buffered from economic hard times in part by the unique set up of Al Maabar, which is the international development arm of Abu Dhabi's largest property and investment companies. It is co-owned by Mubadala Development, Sorouh Real Estate, Aldar Properties, Reem Investments, Reem International and Al Qudra Holding. At the same time, it operates as a quasi-government entity. The Bab al Bahr project was officially signed into existence by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, and the first stone was laid in May by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Most Al Maabar projects are the result of an agreement with a foreign government, rather than with a foreign company. Al Maabar has other large projects in Jordan, Libya and Iraq. The Bab al Bahr project is typical of this kind of arrangement. The project is the first phase of the massive redevelopment of the Bouregreg Valley that was initiated by King Mohamed VI in 2003. The project to make the valley into a world-class place to live and visit is "close to the king's heart", says Lemghari Essakl, the general manager of AAVB and the chief executive of Bab al Bahr Development. "There have been so many attempts over the years to fix this place," Mr Essakl says. "His Majesty's main purpose is to preserve the valley and open it up to more people." The location of Bab al Bahr is among the most scenic in the city, but the area is also fraught with challenges. The soil is an unstable mix of sand and silt that requires deep piling even for a three-storey building. More crucially, the area's historic roots make any design ideas a subject of political discussion. Several archaeological finds have forced parts of the project to be redesigned to preserve the history of the area. A car park was cancelled when in-house archaeologists at Bab al Bahr found ancient columns ­underground. "Sometimes, we may need to move entire buildings," says Mohamed Es-Semmar, who oversees the archaeology of the site for the government. Even the views from Bab al Bahr were a major debate, leading Foster and Partners to opt for a low-rise community that will be home to 7,500 people when it is completed in 2013. The project will have walkways along the waterfront and views of the Kasbah of the Udayas and the Hassan Tower, two of Rabat's landmarks. To make the project open to a spectrum of income levels, prices will range from Dh7,000 to Dh11,900 per square metre. Buyers will put down 15 per cent and make payments as the project reaches construction milestones, as required by Moroccan law. As for the other projects of Emirati companies in Morocco, Mr al Nowais takes the long view. "The achievements over the last few years in Dubai are completely unparalleled in the world," he says. "Ever since the 1930s, we have been through these economic crises - If there is a will, there is a way. "I am sure that the UAE will be able to handle these challenges." bhope@thenational.ae

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