THE SANDSTORMS that wrap, choke, and blind Cairo in a periodic haze are a reminder of the desert’s proximity. Driving west out of the city, free from the congestion of inner Cairo, it is a shockingly fast escape out of the metropolis on flyovers that traverse a brief ribbon of greenery, dissolving into the beige of the desert and the gauntlet of gaudy advertisements for hair gel, soap operas, and snacks that line the highway out toward 6th of October City.

In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the enormous tracts of desert are remote. In Egypt, the desert is right there: on the shoulder of the sea, abutting major cities and the Nile. Egypt’s desert, vast and near, is a tabula rasa that tempts projections, dreams, and fantastic panaceas.

At the Economic Development conference, in the coastal desert resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, housing minister Mostafa Madbouly announced the government’s latest megaproject in front of potential investors: a $45 billion plan to build a new capital city in Egypt’s desert.

The city would be home to about 5 million people, making it the largest purpose-built capital in the world. A scale model displayed at the conference revealed a metropolis of Gulf-state skyscrapers and tree-lined avenues, parks and fountains, mosques and low-slung apartment complexes, and a stadium containing tiny spectators. (Presumably the authorities are confident they will have resolved their deadly dispute with football fans in the five to seven years it will supposedly take to build the city from the desert up.)

This new capital is actually based on an old idea. The proposed site is east of New Cairo — one of several new towns already founded in Egypt’s desert — and fits squarely into Egypt’s longstanding policy of prioritizing desert development as a salve for the country’s ills. Overcrowding in the verdant valley and delta of the Nile is typically defined as Egypt’s root development problem, as 96 percent of the population live on four percent of the land. Egypt’s major resource is virgin, vacant space in superabundance — more than 95 percent of the country’s land is desert.

David Sims — an American economist and urban planner, based in Egypt for over 40 years — examines the evolution and the success of Egypt’s desert development in his timely new book Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? The book’s subtitle is answered early and bluntly. Sims writes:

For over five decades, desert schemes have consumed massive public funds and private investments and continue to do so. Yet the Egyptian desert is virtually littered with still-born, anemic, and failed projects. In spite of a few successes, the amount of land reclaimed for agriculture remains tiny and its production feeble, most cities and settlements remain ghost towns or playgrounds for the rich, and most industrial areas remain sand-blown empty lots. Not a single proclaimed desert development target has been met, and most are several orders of magnitude out of sync. Moreover, these many efforts have hardly attracted anyone to live in the desert, and thus the national project of populating the desert and relieving the crowded [Nile] Valley remains a chimera.

Sims seeks to demonstrate how the apparent logic of desert development has been consistently confounded. His analysis inevitably features a political critique — exposing the corruption and chiseling of patronage networks and land-based favors — prompting further questions: How have Egypt’s uprisings altered desert development? Can desert development be salvaged, or has Egypt’s major asset been irremediably squandered? Have the country’s entire developmental prospects been hobbled?

 

Megaprojects, Megafailure

There were some attempts to extend the Nile Valley before 1952, but desert development began in earnest under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who focused on reclaiming desert land for agriculture. In the mid-1970s, under President Anwar Sadat, Egypt began developing desert cities — hoping to relocate people and industry. Hosni Mubarak —president for 30 years until he was ousted in the 25 January 2011 Revolution — expanded desert development even further. Sims writes that 1996 marked the beginning of the “megaprojects” era, in which massive new schemes of desert development were regularly announced, a time when the “hyperbole seemed never to stop.”

Egypt’s Desert Dreams is a rare piece of analysis in a “near void” of desert development literature. Sims has assembled a puzzle in which many of the pieces are missing or misshapen. He exposes a “particular information malaise in the Egyptian development discourse, that is, the almost total lack of hard information about projects and a glaring omission of any feedback on what has actually succeeded or failed.”

The picture that Sims creates, marshaling unruly and disparate data, is stunning. Google Earth acts as a revelatory technology, compensating for poor quality and out-of-date official maps — providing a “reality check” that frequently exposes huge discrepancies about what the government reports, and the actual situation on the ground.

Sims delves into the individual strands of desert development, in chapters thick with facts, statistics, and case studies, analyzing the achievements in “greening the desert,” developing industry and tourism, and raising desert cities.

All the targets in all major projects to “green the desert” have been woefully missed. The Egyptian government has obsessed over how many feddans (a unit equal to 4,200 square meters) of land have been technically reclaimed, while ignoring how much land is actually cultivated, or the extent to which development goals such as increasing food production and employment have been achieved.

In a fairly typical example, in 2002 the government claimed that the objectives for the 262-kilometer-long Sinai Peninsula/Al-Salam Canal megaproject, reclaiming 620,000 feddans, had largely been met. Ten years later it was revealed that only 87 kilometers were built and that work had come to a standstill in 2006, while only 125,000 feddans had been reclaimed — much of which was uncultivated and polluted, with the infrastructure running dry.

International organizations and institutions have also been complicit in desert development failures. The World Bank supported a bizarre project, eventually shelved on the day it was supposed to be completed, to develop agricultural land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, based on erroneous reports that 500,000 people lived in the area (there were in fact no settlements in the area) and that 250,000 jobs had been created (the jobs were figments of error or imagination).

Population shift is the most consistent and overarching justification for desert development — the common denominator since Nasser — yet the failure of desert cities to attract residents or industry is as glaring as the desert sun. In 2006, the combined population, acquired over decades, across 23 new towns, was under 800,000; just 3.8 percent of the combined population target of around 20.5 million. In that time, the population of already congested areas in the Nile Valley increased by over 12 million. Vacancy rates in new desert cities for housing and business units measure between 61 percent and 79 percent.

New towns need time to develop and grow, but the rate of progress has been dismal. Successful (old) new towns — such as Heliopolis, formed in 1905 in an area now subsumed by the Cairo suburbs — were close to existing settlements and development was well sequenced. In the recent desert cities, development has been patchy and haphazard.

Sims manages to locate some desert development successes, but they are usually partial or heavily qualified. The deserts have been good places for cemeteries — mainly because dead people don’t require water, electricity, or transport links.

Satellite imagery in 2012 confirmed that around 115,000 feddans of land in East Uweinat “had been cultivated and, in the absence of productivity data, the area is at least ‘green.’” Yet the megaproject fell well short of the target cultivation of 250,000 feddans, very few jobs were created, and there are no permanent residents.

Coastal desert tourism in the Red Sea and South Sinai has fared better than other areas of desert development, but the estimated 500,000 total jobs created through coastal mass tourism remain tiny in absolute terms; Egypt needs to create 750,000 jobs per year to meet its yawning labor demand. While coastal resorts have enjoyed high rates of population growth — again around 500,000 in 20 years — this is a tiny fraction of the total Egyptian population increase of 25 million in that time. Furthermore, wholesale and witless coastal tourism development has also exacted severe environmental costs, causing significant damage to the previously pristine beaches, kaleidoscopic coral reefs, and unpolluted sea that attracted tourists in the first place.

Ultimately, any successes are dwarfed by failure. Sims’s writing is lucid and brisk, with an unadorned eloquence — avoiding, where possible, “tiresome development jargon.” Frustration and bewilderment occasionally seep out of the patient structure of the prose. “Mega-embarrassment,” “mega-money losers,” “megafantasies”: Sims jacks up the vocabulary of excoriation in order to match the scale of desert development failure.

 

What went wrong?

In Wayne’s World 2, “Jim Morrison” advises Wayne in a desert dream that if he just announces that bands are playing at his concert, they will turn up: “If you book them, they will come.” Egypt applies a similar supply-side approach to the desert cities: If you build them, they will come.

Yet, many people are often reluctant or unable to leave the Nile Valley because they rely on social networks in densely populated, well-connected areas as a means of gaining support from extended families, and employment and supplementary income opportunities. The government tends to ignore any benefits of existing modes of living in its quest for desert development. In the new desert cities, residents are often not even permitted to set up their own micro and small businesses. The desert cities are expensive to live in and reach, as the distances from other city centers are significant.

Sims derides the state’s social engineering policies for “an almost imperial ignorance of how the common Egyptian family struggles to make a living.” He suggests that the desert cities, with their gated communities, golf courses, multiplexes, and malls, are relatively popular with the members of the middle classes because they can pretend they’re not in Egypt.

As in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, Sims’s previous book, he writes that informal desert development (largely ignored and unstudied by the government) is often based on sounder logic than governmental attempts. Independent farmers — free from the bureaucracy, contractor issues, and bribery that hobble government projects — develop land that is compact and close to existing habitations and water sources. Ordinary Egyptians are frequently as ingenious and competent as their authorities are cack-handed and cumbersome. Figures suggest that informal desert development has reclaimed an amount of land over half the size of all official desert reclamation (although this is not without its own problems).

One of the most important elements in the failure of desert development is the system in which public land is assigned and managed. There is a mass of conflicting legislation, public agencies are labyrinthine and incompetent, and there is no coherent data collection or inventory system, causing many disputes. Crucially, the system provides the opportunity for massive levels of corruption and favoritism relating to land allocation.

Vast tracts of desert land have been sold at a pittance, encouraging massive land speculation. A class of well-connected businessmen and regime insiders has acquired huge quantities of prime land for next to nothing, which is then subdivided and held for a future resale often at over 100 times the price. Sumptuous villas pop up on land slated for agriculture; huge areas held in speculation go undeveloped; land grabs and illegal land allocation are rife.

“It seems as if the whole process is a kind of charity scheme aimed at benefiting certain political classes, especially the rich and influential,” notes Sims. This results in the “wide-scale abuse and downright plunder of the state’s most important asset.” In 2012, when calling for reform of the land management system, ex-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf described the system as being like a basbousa (a traditional Middle Eastern cake) that was cut up and divided between big businessmen and regime cronies.

The allocation of state land through crony capitalism has become essential to patronage networks that have supported Egypt’s ruling regimes. Land — Egypt’s prime resource — given or withheld, buys loyalty or punishes troublemakers, consolidating power.

Sims’s analysis does not offer much insight into the military’s role in desert development. The military is widely mythologized in Egypt as a bulwark against chaos, but to what extent does it provoke, create, and exacerbate desert development problems? How insidious is the relationship between the military and big business? To what extent does the military benefit economically from huge desert development? This is difficult to uncover, given that the military’s affairs are shrouded in opacity and those who try to probe too much face dire consequences.

Sims also writes that the malaise goes beyond desert development and “touches on the influence of, and Egypt’s subservience to, lately arrived global capitalism.” But this receives little further attention. He doesn’t say much about the desert insurgency being fought by radical Islamist groups and its relation to desert development. Energy development in the desert — renewable or fossil-based — scarcely receives a mention.

Yet, overall it is a sharp, relentless critique. Sims demonstrates that — rather than using land as a common resource to benefit all Egyptians — desert development has been employed as an easy solution to Egypt’s profound problems, and marshaled for the enrichment of a relative few gorging themselves on cheap desert basbousa.

 

Post-revolutionary desert

The uprisings have not stymied this folly and plunder. More details of malfeasance emerged in the wake of the ousting of Mubarak, and there were many individual prosecutions for corruption and land mismanagement — usually against former officials and businessmen linked to Mubarak, including two former prime ministers and housing ministers. But there has been little systemic change, and, as Sims writes, “Since the revolution the same blind faith in this bankrupt program continues more or less unabated.”

Islamists — frequently critical in opposition — adopted desert development policies with alacrity during the short presidency of Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Mohamed Morsi. Following the military’s ousting of Morsi in the summer of 2013, desert development has remained a core policy that continues to animate the media and touches nearly every industry. Numerous, longstanding Egyptian critical voices have been ignored or shouted-down.

“It is as if desert development has a force of its own,” writes Sims, “helped on by the opacity of government documents and numbers and a blithe disregard for any of the standard armory of development tools — such as monitoring, stocktaking, evaluation, and learning from mistakes.”

There are many terribly conceived desert development projects, which have become utter debacles, that just won’t die. These projects — reheated tripe served again and again by successive governments alongside new megaprojects — show that consistent and colossal failure is no inhibitor. In fact, as the failure mounts, so does the rhetoric in support of desert development.

Sims notes that former military chief-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came under increased pressure for not having an electoral program or any policies going into the final weeks of last year’s presidential campaign. Al-Sisi responded by reaching into the desert development grab-bag and pulling out an astonishing number of old and new desert schemes — unprecedented in their scope — heralding a new era of total desert development by revealing a plan to “realize the Egyptian dream on 100 percent of Egyptian land.”

The vision included 26 new cities with integrated tourist centers across 21 governorates; the extension of the Greater Cairo area to reach the distant Gulf of Suez; mining and metallurgy centers for 22 cities; 4 million feddans of reclaimed desert land; eight new international airports; 200 fish farming centers; a new industrial city at Al-Arish; the movement of the government’s key ministries (presaging the later announcement of a new capital, and a transfer that was previously promised for the “old” new cities but which didn’t happen); and numerous other developments.

This was just the beginning. More announcements followed, including $1 billion in solar energy investment, and the widely trumpeted Suez Canal Development Axis (itself the key desert development project of the Morsi presidency), and the concept for the new capital city in March.

It’s not clear where most of the money is coming, but the vague platitude of foreign investment is generally cited as the primary source. (The Suez Canal expansion is so far being partly funded by investment certificates.)

This massive desert development vision is taking place in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive political climate in which dissent and non-conformism are seldom tolerated. Ordinary Egyptians are never consulted about desert development schemes, or about what they actually need or want. Al-Sisi and his government have promised Egyptians the earth (100 percent of Egypt’s earth at least). The ability to question these desert development policies or hold the government to account — currently, there isn’t even an elected parliament — is minimal.

 

Madness visible

So how will building a gigantic capital city in the desert succeed when all previous desert cities have failed?

“It’s just a bunch of crazy figures,” Sims told The Guardian following the announcement of the new desert capital in March.

The scale is huge, and there are questions like: how are you going to do the infrastructure? How are you going to get the water? How will they move all these ministries? In other words, I think it’s just desperation. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it, but I rather doubt it.

The project is a collaboration between the Egyptian Ministry of Housing and Capital City Partners Ltd, a private real estate fund of global investors founded by the Emirati businessman Mohamed Alabbar. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the US-based firm tasked with leading the planning of the project, admit they have only spent two months developing the concept.

Many have criticized the government’s plans for failing to ameliorate conditions in the existing areas of significant population. Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo, writing in the Cairo Observer, argued that Cairo’s problems are not caused by too many Cairenes: “Cairo’s problems are caused by the complete lack of any effective, democratic institutions in which we could have a say in how our city is being run.”

While the authorities have been getting their fingers sticky with schemes, many ordinary people are forced to create their own urban solutions — informal housing, minibuses, rigged electricity, self-sourced services and facilities. It often “works,” but its functioning is frequently dangerous, sickening, maddening.

 

Salvaging desert development

Egypt’s Desert Dreams — user-friendly and mostly easy to read — should be essential reading for planners, academics, consultants, civil society organizations, international institutions, and laypeople interested in this vital topic, as well as Egyptian politicians (although they might need a thick hide to take the relentless castigation). An Arabic version is apparently in the works.

It is also a solid platform from which journalists can better hold politicians and businesses involved in desert development accountable, and to provide some human, ground-level experience of these various schemes and their impacts. Sims’s view is frequently a Google Earth perspective — although the book is stuffed full with on-the-ground photos — at an empirical remove from the human stories and psychologies at play.

Sims believes there is still potential in desert development — as long as it is not seen as the solution to all the Nile Valley’s ills — and outlines steps that should be taken to radically reform the system for land allocation and processing.

How this reform will be possible — given that powerful vested interests will fight tooth and nail to retain their privileges — is not clear. As Sims notes elsewhere, reform is more than a technical matter and will require wider systemic political change.

Sims is ultimately idealistic — keen for the principles of social justice, a key (if vague) tenet of the revolution, to be applied to desert development before coming regimes have a chance to make the same mistakes. Yet, it seems it is already too late with this current government, fully engaged in desert mania.

Egypt’s proposed new capital, 50 kilometers east of Cairo, does not yet have a name. It can’t be “New Cairo” because that already exists — a retreat of the rich (target population 6 million; actual population 120,000). There is a penchant for naming new cities after key historical dates. Perhaps, if it ever happens, it will be called “30th of June City” in reference to the massive protests against Morsi, whom the military subsequently ousted. Or maybe it will be called “25th of January City” to really rub sand into the wounds.

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Patrick Keddie is a British freelance writer based in Cairo.