Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Egypt's Nouveau Riche

I was absolutely shocked when I saw the new real estate developments going up on the edges of Cairo (these developments have names like "New Cairo," "Hyde Park," "Fern Valley," "Palm Sands," etc. At first impression they look like an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean. There's a huge main gate (comparable in size to the façade of a large grocery store) with the name of the development complex usually in stand-alone letters (ala the Hollywood sign) surrounded by perfectly manicured landscapes. The homes themselves are almost unbelievable. These aren't McMansions – they're compounds (usually in Spanish-Mediterranean or French-Rococo styles – the more ostentatious the better). They have armed guards stationed at regular intervals, and many of the larger developments have their own private schools for the residents' children (these buildings rival some of the grandest mosques I've seen during my travels – particularly Shrouk Academy in the new Shrouk development).

From the looks of it many of the houses remain empty. This is in contrast to the rest of Cairo - where overcrowding and population concentration around the Nile have been perennial problems for the government since the 1960s. Of course these homes come with all the most modern amenities, again in contrast to the rest of Cairenes, many of whom still practice un-mechanized cultivation (you can see them bent over in the fields along the Nile delta from the main Cairo highway).

Construction and real estate are two of the biggest growth sectors in Egypt – both dominated by the military (it buys most of the land from the government at subsidized prices, develops it and resells it for huge profits and it dominates the building materials industry (cement, etc.) I did notice that some sort of military complex was adjacent to one of the largest new developments – there were training fields, barracks and lookout towers (another ubiquitous part of Cairo's architecture: the panopticon).

The Star City Shopping Center is another sign of the rising class of uber rich. The huge structure (financed by Saudi investors) covers a few city blocks and is flanked by tall Pharonic Statues and various manifestations of the Sphinx. It's also gated – and anyone who doesn't look the part of shopper is quickly ushered away by armed security personnel. Inside you're greeted by a huge incense burner that fills the foyer with (a bit too much) perfume. Inside you'll find all the stores you would find in any shopping center in the US (and many European chains you wouldn't find – like the French company Vero Moda, Mango, etc). I didn't get much chance to peruse, but there's also many upscale coffee shops, home décor stores, electronics stores, a Virgin Megastore, and of course a prayer room (conveniently located next to the bathrooms – where many women were doing their ablutions in the sinks).

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