Mar 28 2013

The Atlantic: What Is an Expensive, Idyllic Resort Doing in Eritrea?

Newswire | Published 28 Mar 2013, 10:07 am | Comments Off on The Atlantic: What Is an Expensive, Idyllic Resort Doing in Eritrea? -

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There isn’t much going on in Dahlak Kebir, so long as you discount a Human Rights Watch report, and various corroborating evidence , about the island being home to a secret prison camp for political dissidents. Ignore that, and little else seems to be hidden away on Kebir, save for a few archeological sites, a dilapidating runway, some mostly-unpaved roads, and miles of untouched coastline. It is a remote place made all the more so by Eritrea’s political isolation: the country has feuded or warred with most of its neighbors, most notably Ethiopia, which still has a close, cooperative relationship with Europe and the United States.

Eritrea, on the other hand, is still subject to U.N. sanctions stemming from its one-time support for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate fighting the Ethiopian military in Somalia. Dahlak Kebir is a distant corner of an opaque and unpredictable country, a place that remains mysterious even for U.S. policymakers and diplomats — despite the fact that it borders a major global shipping lane , and sits between numerous political hotspots.

One would think that people wouldn’t want to vacation there. But chances are you’re not the emir of Qatar, whose state-owned real estate company spent $48 million building a resort on Kebir. Based on photographs circulated online, the Qatari-funded private resort is a glaring incongruity — a strip of bungalows and private swimming pools amid an empty and dust-choked plane, with a broad promenade just feet away from a calm, unspoiled beach. There is nothing else nearby.

It is essentially the emir’s Eritrean retreat: when reached by phone at his Beirut office, Jacques Shaheen of the construction firm Edessa said that his company had built a “private resort” on the island, although he would not tell me for whom. Considering the documented Qatari funding for the project, it’s possible to speculate: The Qatari royal family has built one of the world’s more expensive private residences on a virtually infrastructure-free island, in a country with media controls more strict than North Korea’s, and a long and troublesome record of meddling in its neighbor’s affairs. The resort testifies to the secretive yet consequential relationship between Qatar and Eritrea, which is itself a window into the fractious politics of both the Horn of Africa and the Middle East in general. It reveals Qatar’s vast geopolitical ambitions, as well as the forces that are frustrating them. And it illustrates the problems that arise when strategically crucial countries like Eritrea maintain such a thick and deliberate veil of secrecy.

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