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25 Mar 2024

The New Arab

Egypt: Concerns over environmental damage from "overdevelopment" to Ras al-Hekma from UAE deal

"Ras al-Hekma: How the UAE-Egypt deal dumps the UN in choppy waters"

... On February 23, Reuters reported that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates concluded a $35 billion deal for the development of Ras al-Hekma, a peninsula and tourist destination about 200 kilometres west of the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

The agreement has offered Egypt’s economy a lifeline as it continues to struggle with record inflation and a shortage of hard currency...

Much of the financing will come from ADQ, one of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds and the leader of the consortium behind the investment. ADQ outlined plans to turn Ras al-Hekma into a “next-generation city” featuring amenities from amusement parks to an airport and a marina. The site will span 170 square kilometres, with construction set to start early next year...

Concerns ranged from the possibility of overdevelopment to the choice of a foreign developer...

Whoever builds up Ras al-Hekma, criticisms of the cost to the natural environment are likely to grow. Egyptian officials, for their part, are well aware of Ras al-Hekma’s significance and the potential environmental issues.

Though scientists have ranked the peninsula as less biodiverse than other parts of Egypt, a 1999 report prepared by the United States Agency for International Development in cooperation with Egyptian leaders included Ras al-Hekma on a list of “proposed protected areas.”

Last year, a study by researchers affiliated with the Egyptian National Water Research Center, a government agency, also attributed “shoreline displacement” around Ras al-Hekma to “major activities of unplanned coastal development,” including “uncontrolled coastal urbanization, the lack of commitment to the setback regulations for building constructions, and the development of tourism resorts and recreational facilities which leads to habitat loss and the destruction of the natural protection system of the shore.”...

Egypt has given conflicting signals on its plans for environmental protection in Ras al-Hekma. The United Nations Human Settlement Program —better known as UN-Habitat — announced several years ago that it was working with the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities on an ambitious project: “a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable Ras al-Hekma water-front city” with a focus on “a new level of sustainable environmental-based development principles” to preserve the peninsula’s “exceptional environmental features.”

Yet the unprecedented scale of the ADQ project could portend the exact kind of overdevelopment about which Egyptians inside and outside the government have been warning...

The extent of environmental degradation from the Emirati-led overhaul of Ras al-Hekma is also a matter of conjecture. The damage to the environment, if any, will only come into focus after construction gets underway a year from now, assuming that it even starts on schedule.

But the opacity of the decision-making behind the deal has hurt Egyptian officials’ credibility. If they renege on evolving commitments to turn Ras al-Hekma into a model of sustainable development, Egypt will set a troubling precedent for cash-strapped countries across the Middle East: the immediate need for foreign direct investment outweighs the long-term preservation of the environment, which could suffer the consequences for decades to come.