Al Noor Cities – meaning the cities of light – will be located on opposite sides of the Red Sea and will be linked by a bridge and rail network. The bridge across the Bab Al Mandeb Strait will connect Asia and Africa. Dubai-based Al Noor, owned by Sheikh Tarek Mohammed bin Laden, plans to raise an initial investment of $200 billion (Dh736bn) and the total investment in the project will reach $1 trillion. The project will create four million jobs and take up to 20 years
In an exclusive interview with Emirates Business, President and CEO Mohammed Ahmed Al Ahmed reveals the project was inspired by three cities – Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Can you tell us about Al Noor Holding Investment?
It is a sister company of Middle East Development, an organisation founded by Sheikh Tarek. Al Noor concentrates on property development and building integrated residential communities. The kind of investment in each area depends on natural, economic and human factors.
Is Al Noor Cities your first project?
Yes, it is the first of our projects. It is a giant project, which will change the way the world looks at the region and increase trade movement. It will provide job opportunities and create cultural, scientific and commercial development. In addition, the bridge between Yemen and Djibouti across the Bab Al Mandeb Strait will be a historic achievement that could be called the 'hanging Suez Canal'. It will change the concept of commercial movement between Asia and Africa as the two continents will be linked for the first time in history.
Why Djibouti? What is the economic advantage of pumping huge amounts of investment into the country?
Why not Djibouti? The Horn of Africa is on the east of the continent and consists of Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Horn of Africa has strategic importance as its states overlook the Indian Ocean and control the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Therefore, its states control a global trade route, especially the trade of oil coming from GCC states and going to Europe and the US. In addition, any step towards co-operation and integration in the economic and social fields will strengthen the ability of those states to combat the problems of unemployment, food shortages, accommodation as well as energy.
How does the economic growth rate in East Africa compare with that of the Middle East?
The strong growth seen in the Middle East, estimated at 6.5 per cent a year, is supported by oil and non-oil commodities. According to estimates, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the GCC states plus Egypt and Jordan will top $1trn in 2008. According to the CIA's World Factbook there was a similar growth rate of 6.47 per cent in the East of Africa in 2007. Development based on innovation, sustainability and global competition will increase East Africa's GDP.
What is the concept of the project?
Sheikh Tarek wanted to help humanity. He looked for the poorest communities in the Arab World and chose Yemen and Djibouti. He found the two countries have a strategically important location.
The bridge that will link Yemen and Djibouti is the first new link between Africa and the Middle East since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. We should not underestimate the importance of the bridge for international and regional trade.
What are the components of Al Noor Cities?
The master plan includes a 1,500 sq km city on the southwest tip of Yemen and a 1,000 sq km city in Djibouti linked by a bridge carrying a six-lane highway and four light rail lines as well as pipelines to carry water and oil. The bridge, connecting two continents, will be about 28.5km long and comprises girder and suspension bridge structures. The suspension portion will be the longest in the world and once the bridge is operational about 100,000 cars and 50,000 rail passengers are expected to cross it daily apart from thousands of tonnes of cargo in trucks and rail wagons. The initial phase of planning is complete and agreements are in place with the Yemeni and Djibouti governments to commence investment discussions with investors, private investors, corporations and governments.
How will you finance such a huge project?
The initial investment will be $200bn and the total investment once the project is completed between 15 and 20 years' time will go up to $1trn. We are interested in developing many forms of investment. There are many options for investors, not just in the two cities but in the related infrastructure, too. We held discussions with many GCC and Western investors, in particular investors in Switzerland where we will offer sukuk.
How are you approaching the task of designing the project?
We instructed our designers to look at three cities – Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore. We told them to take all the positive things from the three cities and identify what they are missing.
What did you learn from Dubai?
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is a pioneer in construction development in the Arab World. He changed the concepts of construction and development in the region. We benefited from Dubai's experience and we aim to construct a future city matching Dubai and other cities around the world.
What is the difference between the two Al Noor Cities?
Each will be designed to reflect the geographical, cultural and social diversification of Yemen and Djibouti. We need ports, airports and hospitals. We have laid the foundation stone for free economic co-operation with all countries of the world.
Will Al Noor Cities compete with Dubai, Riyadh and Doha?
They will all complement each other. Our project includes a rail network linking the Horn of Africa with Northern Africa and the GCC states.
How much have you been affected by the global financial crisis?
A wise man should take a lesson from what has happened. We concentrated from the beginning on having investors from the Arab World. Our project is huge and requires huge investment. But, thank God, we have huge wealth in the Arab region and all what we need from the Western world is expertise, not money.
Al Noor Holding is founded by Sheikh Tarek Mohammad bin Laden, one of the sons of Mohammad Awad bin Laden, the founder of the Bin Laden business empire. Dr Tarek is also a principal shareholder of Saudi bin Laden Group (SBG).
Al Noor calls Africa a "dreamland". Al Noor is looking at developing Africa with efficient railways, roads and highways in order to develop a global economy. It believes Africa is the new economy for the next 50 years with the best opportunity in terms of investment due to the natural beauty of the continent (tourism), the wealth from natural resources (business) and the quality of its people (human resources).
Under its Al Noor City project, two cities in Djibouti and Yemen will be linked by one of the most impressive bridges to connect the two continents. The idea is for Al Noor City to cover some 1,000 sq km along the northern Djibouti coastline, in what is now no more than hardscrabble desert, populated by camels and nomadic herders.
The city will be divided into two parts: one for commerce and business related activities – including a deepwater port and rail links – and the other for residential and leisure facilities.
Djibouti's only real asset today is its location at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It has one of Africa's smallest populations, estimated at around 500,000, and its land size is comparable to Massachusetts in the US. It is also bordered by Ethiopia , Eritrea and Somalia.
Bin Laden's Al Noor Holding has pledged to invest an initial $1bn and more cash is expected to follow. As pioneers of Dubai's rapid ascension to the world stage, Al Noor Holding's subsidiary, Middle East Development (MED), has been involved in some of the UAE's most visible and renowned development projects, including The Palm Islands and Dubailand.
PROFILE: Mohammed Ahmed Al Ahmed, President and CEO of Al Noor Holding Investment
Al Ahmed has 24 years' experience in industry and business management. He heads Al Noor Holding Investment's master-planned projects and plans to establish a network of offices in cities such as Washington, Yemen, Djibouti and the United Kingdom.
He began his career with Saudi Aramco as a project engineer. In a 10-year spell with the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia, during which he became President and Board Representative, he managed more than 200 offices worldwide and expanded operations in the United States, Far East, India, Europe and the Middle East.
Prior to joining Al Noor Holding Investment Al Ahmed held senior management positions in a number of companies in the Middle East and Africa, including Al Rushaid Investment Company and DynCorp International.
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