A businessman has a grand vision to build a high-tech, high-end city in the hills of Palestine—but political barriers are hard to overcomeby Jessica Abrahams / March 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
The construction site at Rawabi, Palestine’s first planned city © Jessica Abrahams
Perched in the hills of the West Bank, nine kilometres north of the administrative capital Ramallah, a new city is rising from the ground. Currently covered in cranes and rubble, Rawabi (“Hills” in Arabic) will eventually be home to up to 40,000 Palestinians, complete with 23 different neighbourhoods, cinemas, a 15,000-seat amphitheatre for outdoor performances, parks, a shopping district, restaurants, public and private schools, a conference centre, mosques, a church and endless views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill.
This is Palestine’s first planned city—the “Milton Keynes of the West Bank,” as I’ve heard it described. During a visit to the site, I’m taken through extensive models, a 3D presentation film featuring smiling and glamorous would-be residents, and explanations of the design’s focus on sustainability and the environment—harvesting rainwater from roofs for irrigation, for example, and reducing CO2 emissions. It’s unexpectedly high-tech and high-end, catering to the Palestinian middle class. “We’re trying to attract international [retail] brands to open their first branches [in the West Bank] here,” one of the project managers tells me. “Palestine doesn’t have these things.” Representatives from chains including Mango and Victoria’s Secrets have apparently visited the site. The 600 apartments that have so far been made available for purchase sold out, and 8,000 people have registered interest to buy the 6,000 flats that will eventually be built.
This huge construction project is now the West Bank’s second biggest private employer, with $1bn of investment behind it put up by Ramallah-based holding company Massar International and Qatari-government owned Qatari Diar. “It’s not about the returns,” Bashar Masri, CEO of Massar International and the driving force behind Rawabi, tells me in the glass offices overlooking the site, a row of Palestinian flags flapping outside the window. “The returns are insignificant and the risks with this project are humongous.” Instead, Masri sees it as a contribution to the building of the Palestinian state.
The Palestinian territories have been struggling with falling rates of GDP growth since 2012 after several years of improvement, dropping from 9 per cent in 2008-11 to 1.9 per cent in the first half…