Sunday, May 11, 2014

Strange Bedfellows: China’s Middle Eastern Inroads

By Massoud Hayoun

World Affairs Journal - January/February 2013

In 2011, when Algeria’s Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdallah Ghlamallah awarded the contract to build the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third-largest such structure in the world, it did not go to a homegrown Algerian bidder nor to one based in a fellow Muslim-majority Arab nation like Lebanon, nor even to one in a nearby non-Muslim nation like Spain, with long connections to the Islamic world. The February 2011 contract-signing ceremony officially granted the $1.3 billion mega-project to a farther away and far less likely competitor—a state-owned Chinese enterprise.
Beijing’s infrastructure giant, China State Construction Engineering Corp. (CSCE), is expected to complete the Algiers mosque project—a complex that will span more than fifty acres with room for as many as one hundred and twenty thousand congregants to bow down in prayer at one time—in just under four years. It would be a follow-up to another CSCE mega-project in Algeria—the country’s $11 billion East-West Highway, a seven-hundred-and-fifty-mile, six-lane freeway stretching between Algeria’s borders with Morocco and Tunisia, built with oil revenues and billed as the world’s largest public works project.
Ten thousand Algerians will eventually work on the mosque. So will seven thousand Chinese. These imported workers will find a thriving Chinatown in the suburbs of the capital of Algiers, filled with shops, restaurants, and population densities that will remind them of home. They will also find a robust Algerian police presence protecting them from outbursts of local hostility that have broken out over the last few years in response to what some Algerians regard as too much power by Beijing in the country’s economy and too little cultural sensitivity on the part of the workers it sends there.

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