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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Aspiring plans for new capital city put Egypt’s resources to the test

The old city of 20 million awaits its own revival

Cairo already suffers from creaking infrastructure and traffic gridlock that will only get worse unless serious financial resources are urgently tossed in its direction. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP
Cairo already suffers from creaking infrastructure and traffic gridlock that will only get worse unless serious financial resources are urgently tossed in its direction. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

Egypt's new capital, scheduled to receive the first ministries in less than two years, is being constructed on a truly grand scale.

My question is, what will happen to the present city of greater Cairo and its 20 million inhabitants? It already suffers from creaking infrastructure and traffic gridlock that will only get worse unless serious financial resources are urgently tossed in its direction.

Assume that Egypt is able to limit population growth to 2 per cent a year over the next ten years and there is no major influx of people into Cairo from other regions of the country. This would mean a population of roughly 25 million by 2027. The government anticipates that the new capital, which is being built 50 km to the east of Cairo, will eventually absorb 6.5 million people.

That means the bulk of Cairo's population is almost certain to stay put in the old capital.

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Major money is being spent on the new city, either by the government or by private interests who have been assigned plots of land to develop.

The city will eventually stretch over a staggering 490 square kilometres, with the first phase, which will take at least five years, encompassing 168 square kilometres. That alone would swallow up a major portion of Cairo's area.

The new capital hosted a small batch of journalists for a tour last week, and I was fortunate enough to be among them.

A new airport built specially for the capital has just opened, initially for domestic flights but eventually for international flights as well.

The new capital will boast the tallest building on the African continent. It will have a sports stadium, sports fields, an amphitheatre, an observatory, a museum of science and technology and an art museum. According to a map, a new amusement park with a 250 metre Ferris wheel is planned. This would eclipse the current highest Ferris wheel, the 168-metre High Roller in Las Vegas. The site for a new opera house is already under preparation.

The headquarters of the Coptic Church has been asked to move out there, and construction of a new cathedral twice the size of Cairo's main cathedral is already well underway. A grand mosque will be built across the street.

The Council of Ministers building and a parliament building are under construction at the head of a long concourse lined by 32 ministries.

The city will have its own financial district, where the central bank and stock exchange will relocate. Commercial and investment banks will be asked to transfer their headquarters there too. The supreme court will move there as well.

It will be a thirsty city. A 35-km-long central green belt covering 5,000 feddans (2,100 hectares) will wind through the city's centre. There will be a zoo and wildlife park, an aquarium with a dolphin show area, an arboretum and botanical gardens.

The city will also have fitness trails, a sculpture garden, an outdoor adventure park for mountain biking and rock climbing, a "healing and sensory garden", an "earth garden with canals and fossil trails", bicycle and pedestrian paths, horseback riding trails and waterways for canoeing and sailing, a "floating forest", meditation gardens, reflection pond, a manmade river and a wetland park. There will be 2.15 square metres of green space per capita, the planners say.

Howwill Egypt find water for all of this is a mystery. The project's planners say two pipelines will connect the new capital with the Nile, each with pumping stations with a capacity of 125,000 cubic metres per day. Eventually a third line will provide water from the Red Sea, presumably desalinated.

Two rail lines will connect Cairo to the capital, but not conveniently unless you live in one of the new upscale communities east of the present city.

An electric rail, already under construction, will use the existing Cairo-Suez rail line, but will only go as far as Adly Mansour station at the very end of Cairo's third metro line, itself well beyond Cairo Airport. That means 18 stops, or over an hour, just to get from central Cairo to the new train line.

A second line, an elevated monorail, will eventually connect the capital to Cairo's south eastern outskirts.

But a city this big will inevitably require automobiles. Currently only one in ten Egyptians has access to a private vehicle.

During the first five-year phase, 240,000 housing units will be constructed, 30,000 of them underway now, with many nearing completion.

How will the government pay for this all?

The officials on hand were not particularly enthusiastic discussing finances, but nonetheless gave a few figures. The government has set up a new company to oversee the project, The New Administrative Capital for Urban Development, which is owned 51 per cent by the military and 49 per cent by the state-owned New Urban Communities Authority. For the first phase it has an initial capital of 70 to 80 billion Egyptian pounds (14.6 to 16.6 billion dirhams) that will be subsequently be increased to 200 billion pounds for future phases.

The company will pay for much of the construction, including that of the new ministries. In exchange it will take possession of the property of ministries' buildings in Cairo and then either sell or rent them.

In the case of housing, private and public contracting companies buy land held by the New Administrative Capital Company then in return sell them to future residents.

However the new capital is being financed, it is clearly taking up a huge part of Egypt's meagre resources at the expense of traditional Cairo's infrastructure. Let us hope the government's interest in Cairo's wellbeing will not wither away.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 27 years