Djibouti: Moses once parted the Red Sea...now Osama bin Laden’s half-brother is planning to build a bridge over it.
Building on engineering feats such as the Channel Tunnel between England and France, the Panama Canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Suez Canal joining the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the proposed bridge would link Yemen to Djibouti, creating a man-made link between West Asia and Africa.
Costing euro 14 billion (Rs87,780 crore), stretching around 28.5km and encompassing a six-lane motorway and a four-track railway, the bridge would be of biblical proportions.
Meanwhile the man behind it bears a familiar name, too—Tarek bin Laden, half-brother of the Al Qaeda leader.
Tarek, a Saudi construction magnate, has been lobbying the Yemen and Djibouti governments to back the project, which would create a direct link between Arabia and east Africa, without the need to travel by the Sinai peninsula.
Djibouti Prime Minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita said his government was not actively involved.
“The project fell on us from the sky with the proposal by Osama bin Laden’s (half) brother, who has a construction company in Saudi Arabia,” Dileita said. “People are talking about it a lot here — the Yemenis are convinced the project will be carried out with Saudi and (United Arab) Emirates’ funds to connect the Arab world to Africa.”
The plan envisages building new cities at either end of the bridge — which would itself in fact be a combination of bridges — with a stop-off point in the centre of the Bab el Mandeb (Gates of Hell) Straits at Perim Island.
“Numerous American, Yemeni and even French businesses are taking part in the project,” Dileita said.“But the big advantage will be to take millions of African Muslims to Mecca, by train or by bus.”
Indeed, on top of the commercial and logistic aspects, one of the key attractions of the bridge is spiritual—serving as an easier crossing for millions of African Muslims who make the pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, each year.
One of the new cities at either end of the bridge would be called the City of Light (Medinet an Noor). At 600 sq. km, it would be six times the land-mass of Paris and serve as a trade, commercial and tourist hub for anticipated traffic.
“We don’t yet know if it will be in the north of Djibouti or in Yemen,” said Deleita.
The bridge would in total measure around 28.5km, including a 3.5km link to the island and a final 13km crossing to Africa—the longest suspension bridge in the world. That, the developers say, could create 100,000 construction jobs over the 10 year build time.
There are, however, major obstacles in the way, both man-made and natural.
The bridge will cross a site known for intense seismic activity. In 1978, massive tectonic plate movement triggered an eruption from Djibouti’s Ardoukoba volcano and an earthquake measuring between three and 5.3 on the Richter scale. The lava flows radically altered the seabed.
Yet the ministry, which looks after Djibouti’s environment, says it is confident the project design can plan for such acts of nature.
Such tectonic plate shifts are “not something that happens suddenly, but are generally predictable, so the key is for architects to come up with plans which take into account these movements,” said Aboubakar Douale Waiss, the general secretary of the ministry for the environment, towns and urban planning.
Another potential dilemma is the fate of Djibouti’s port, which currently handles more than 120,000 vehicles a year, mostly on business to and from Ethiopia. A road bridge would seriously dent that trade.
But Waiss insisted the increased economic and political stability of Djibouti will be enough to support both the bridge and the port.
“The bridge and the port are complementary,” he said. “There are huge populations in the areas behind Djibouti — 80 million in Ethiopia alone — and the traffic will just continue to grow.”
Finally, as the US and France have substantial military bases in Djibouti, there are fears the new link will prove a tempting terrorist target, or simply provide easier access to some of the impoverished states in the Horn of Africa for Islamic extremists.