Libyan magic transforms banks of the Nile

September 1, 2008
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, KHARTOUM, September  1 – With its panoramic views of the Nile but also of mud homes sinking into flooded swampland, Sudan\’s flashest hotel brings the flair of Moamer Kadhafi and Italian luxury to a capital struggling to keep up.

Burj al-Fateh Hotel — 18 floors of steel and glass shaped like an egg or a sail — is a nine-year Libyan dream turned architectural icon that cost 130 million euros (190 million dollars).

Financed by Lafico, the Libyan Foreign Investment Company, and designed by Italian architects, its 230 rooms, conference facilities, mall, restaurants, sports centre and spa set new standards of luxury in Sudan, staff say.

"The high quality hotel is a landmark which is able to inject new economic and social life into the local community and, in particular, the service sector," waxed Lafico project director Emhemmed Ghula in an email to AFP.

The hotel has already been dubbed Kadhafi\’s ball by bawdy Khartoumites —  it has the same double meaning as in English — after the Libyan leader known for his wacky Arab nationalism.

That nickname is not appreciated by Ghula, who distanced Libya\’s state-run Lafico from one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa.

"There is no connection whatsoever with any member of the leader\’s family with this company," he wrote sternly.

In the nine years since Libya first dreamt up the project for its oil-rich north African neighbour, relations between the Kadhafi regime and Washington have undergone a seismic shift of the sort many would like Khartoum to emulate.

In 2006, the United States dropped Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — Sudan is still listed — two years after Kadhafi announced he was abandoning efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The final obstacle to full Libyan-US rehabilitation came just days before the Burj inauguration ceremony, when Tripoli and Washington on August 14 signed a compensation deal for US reprisals and American victims of Libyan attacks.

Libya\’s wings of foreign investment have spread wide, and the hotel\’s management describes the Burj as a "gift from the government of Libya to the government of Sudan" to strengthen ties between the two.

It stands adjacent to the Chinese-built Friendship Hall, another Nile-front gift from another government, controversial in the West but intrinsic to the Khartoum boom.
Sudan is on the cusp of a potentially turbulent storm, however.

President Omar al-Beshir, who cut the ribbon at the hotel opening, faces a possible international arrest warrant for alleged genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

Such a development would ensure his regime is treated as an international pariah, and Beshir warned last week that any International Criminal Court (ICC) proceedings against him would deter foreigners from investing in Sudan.

But the hotel\’s executives are not letting such matters dampen their prospects.

"We are so certain we\’re going to make so much money out of this. There is definitely a risk — a risk in the political stability — but those risks are calculated," said American-Lebanese marketing manager Wissam Khalek.

Sudan has been exporting oil since 1999, and for now at least there is little outward sign of a slowdown in a construction boom fuelled by Arab, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian investment.

Lafico has already begun work on a new tower of luxury serviced hotel apartments with an upscale family leisure centre and revolving restaurants budgeted at 45 million euros (66 million dollars).

The intricate web of unrest, politics and business opportunities is second nature to Khalek, steeped in a backdrop of civil war in Lebanon where Beirut\’s Commodore Hotel made a packet from journalists covering the conflict.

With the panache of a US marketing expert, he extols the virtues of the hotel rooms and of a burger he says cannot be beaten by the local competition, despite admitting that his wife and child may be better off in Lebanon.

The distinctive building has already featured as a backdrop to television news reports including on Al-Jazeera, and has become a benchmark for the country\’s post-oil economic development.

"I feel proud. It\’s looking good," said Giuseppe Freda, project manager from Italy-based company CMC, after an exhausting run-up to the opening. "It can be considered a landmark for Khartoum."

The presidential suite, occupied by Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi for the opening, costs 4,000 dollars a night, and a standard room — or in Burj parlance a "luxurious room and suite" — costs 250 dollars.

Despite logistic nightmares, the furniture and interiors were imported from Europe, mostly from that bastion of international style Italy.

"It was not easy at all. Sudan lacks the infrastructure," Ghula said. "Such building requires a lot of special trade and material and nothing can be found in Sudan. Everything had to be outsourced from abroad."

The Burj al-Fateh Hotel also has a French chef.

At Le Grill the steak comes from Australia and that burger will set you back 70 dollars. The Asian restaurant on the 18th floor, bizarrely called the Rickshaw after the cheap and flimsy transport, boasts breathtaking views.

The mall opens in December, and Khalek insists the shops will be top end only, "catering to a certain client base."

The Central Intelligence Agency factbook estimates that 40 percent of Sudanese live in poverty. Only a tiny elite can afford a coffee, let alone a hotel suite or 2,250 dollars for annual gym membership.

Certainly the hotel remains beyond the reach of those on Tutti Island whose homes flooded by the August rains can be seen from the top-floor restaurant. That land is earmarked for further Burj-style development.

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