Prestige projects in the Arab world

Summary: Autocrats love grandiose projects. Arab autocrats are no exception. Religion, railways, new cities and culture are favoured fields.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

Arab autocrats see high-profile projects primarily as a means of increasing their own prestige. They may also regard such projects as a way of distracting the attention of other governments and their own publics from their failure to institute reforms or introduce lower-profile policy measures that would benefit ordinary people more . Religion, railways, new cities and culture have been favoured fields for such projects.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo by John Weinhardt on Unsplash

As far as prestige projects in the field of religion are concerned, the trend in the post-colonial period was perhaps set by King Hassan II of Morocco. When the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca was inaugurated in 1993, it was the largest mosque in Africa and the third largest in the world. It was financed largely by public subscription rather than by the Moroccan treasury or King Hassan II himself.  

Like his father, the present monarch, King Muhammad VI, holds the title of Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), that is, the head of the Muslim community in Morocco. He has not, however, sought to outdo his father in the realm of religion but has nevertheless shown a certain proclivity for the grandiose: together with President Macron of France, he inaugurated a high-speed train service between Casablanca and Tangier in November last year. Critics of the project have pointed out that Morocco has had to borrow heavily from France and Gulf states to finance it. They also note that the under-funded educational and health systems in Morocco are badly in need of improvement.

The Grand Mosque of Algiers, which has been under construction for some six years, will be completed later this year. It is said by some to be intended as a bulwark against radical Islam (the mosque will have a government-supervised Quranic school, library and museum) but by others to be a legacy project on the part of Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s president since 1999.  (The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course.) Algeria is always keen to steal a march on its neighbour and rival Morocco, and the Grand Mosque will outdo in size the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca to become the world’s third-largest mosque. (Only the main mosques in Mecca and Medina will remain bigger.)

What appears to be competitive mosque-building is taking place at the other end of the Arab world, too. According to the Visit Abu Dhabi website, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi (built between 1996 and 2007) houses the world’s largest chandelier and carpet – a claim that Omanis had previously been able to make for the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat.

The grand mosques in Casablanca, Abu Dhabi and Muscat are open to non-Muslim visitors and have become major tourist attractions. (One visitor described the Hassan II mosque as “the only reason you should visit Casablanca”.) They are also popular with visiting VIPs and celebrities. Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, visited the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi in October 2018 (she was in the UAE for a judo tournament in which an Israeli team was competing). A visit to the same place of worship by pop-star Rihanna in 2013 did not go so well: staff asked her to leave after she posed (inappropriately, in their view) for a photo-shoot with the mosque in the background.  

Earlier this month, President Abul-Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated a new “mega-mosque” (the al-Fattah al-Alim) and a new Coptic cathedral (the Cathedral of the Nativity) in Egypt’s new administrative capital which is being built east of Cairo. The inauguration of both places of worship was meant to deliver a message of tolerance and co-existence between Muslims and Christians. The cathedral is the largest Christian place of worship in the Arab world. (The mosque is some way down the biggest-mosque rankings but, as his country is the home of the al-Azhar, Sisi does not need to compete with grand mosques elsewhere in terms of size.) On 10 January, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, visited the cathedral and referred to it as “a great symbol of hope” in “a special country. One US commentator (a Copt of Egyptian origin) thought Pompeo had been fooled, given Egypt’s poor record of resisting pressure on its Christians from Muslim activists.

Egypt’s new administrative capital is still under construction: ministries are scheduled to move there later in the year. The stated purpose of the project is to relieve congestion in Cairo. However, like all major infrastructure projects in the Arab world, it almost certainly has a strong prestige aspect as well.

The same could be said of Neom, a new city that Saudi Arabia is planning to build in the far north-west of the country, on the border with both Egypt and Jordan, as part of its 2030 Vision. Neom, the brainchild of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), is intended to be a “smart” city, using the latest technology and acting as an innovation hub. (The name is an invented one, combining “neo-“ and the first letter of the Arabic word for “future” (mustaqbal).) Progress will almost certainly be slower than MbS had initially hoped, following the postponement of the Aramco flotation (which would have released funds for Neom) and as international investors distance themselves from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of Jamal al-Khashoggi. According to the British media, MbS told a business delegation who met him late last year, “No one will invest [in the project] for years.” 

Culture has been another area that has proved attractive in terms of prestige projects. One example is the Royal Opera House in Muscat, “the leading arts and culture organisation in the Sultanate of Oman”, which opened in 2011. For its part, the UAE has the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a manifestation of a 30-year agreement between Abu Dhabi and the French government. Opened in 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the largest Art Museum in the Arabian Peninsula and displays the most expensive painting ever sold, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi .

In building prestige projects to glorify themselves or to demonstrate the advanced character of their countries, Arab autocrats are following the example of 19th century predecessors such as the Khedives Sa’id and Isma’il of Egypt and the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad III al-Sadiq. The indebtedness incurred by these rulers was one of the main factors in their loss of control to Britain and France respectively. For many of today’s modern Arab autocrats, oil wealth and the passing of the colonial era means that there is no such danger. For those without oil wealth, like Egypt’s Sisi, who need to borrow to implement their grandiose projects, there is a risk that political indebtedness to fellow Arab rulers will constrain their freedom of choice in foreign policy.


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