Expectation builds in Sharm El Sheikh as city awaits Cop27 climate summit

Residents of the Red Sea resort city have high hopes for a conference taking place during energy and food crises and a pandemic

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A palpable air of tension hangs over the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh as it prepares for the opening of the United Nations climate change conference (Cop27) next week.

For the Sinai resort city, its residents and the country at large, much is riding on the famed conference, which this year takes place during a trying time for Egypt, set against a backdrop of high energy prices, a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine and major disruptions to the country's food supply.

Visually speaking, the city is in the best shape it has been for a long time after extensive redevelopments as the government prepares for the arrival of world leaders, in whose eyes it wants to bolster its international standing.

As part of the renovations, which cost the government about 15 billion Egyptian pounds ($619 million), several stylish new structures now grace the city centre, bringing an urban, upmarket feel to the previously empty and unassuming pavements.

Some are small retail kiosks that have been taken over by the country’s biggest brands, including Luna, a cosmetics manufacturer, and TBS, a popular bakery chain.

Peppered throughout the city centre are new artworks erected in the past three months.

On Al Salam Road, a central thoroughfare, a pair of statues depicting a king and queen dressed in medieval European regal attire are on display. Behind them on the pavement, the life-sized chess board they are a part of grabs the attention of passersby.

In another spot on the road, an installation depicting two sailing boats each carrying one half of the moon on its deck invokes a quintessential symbol of Sharm El Sheikh, once a modest Bedouin fishing village.

Half a kilometre down the road, a new statue of a giant winged seahorse was met with mixed reviews from the city’s residents.

A statue on Al Salam Road in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.  Kamal Tabikha / The National

While some chose not to give it much thought, one man said: “I understand the seahorse part, that’s characteristic of Sharm El Sheikh, but why does it have wings? I’ve seen them in the water, they don’t have wings.” Another said he likes all the new artwork and that he is happy that the city was given a spruce-up.

Plastered all over the city this week are billboards featuring cartoon depictions of the city’s Bedouins, which on some signs were accompanied by a slogan encouraging visitors to “Experience Sinai’s Bedouin Heritage''.

Bedouins are normally a common sight in Sharm El Sheikh, with the men usually wearing traditional white galabeyas as they drive their pick-up trucks down the city’s streets and the women and children on the beaches selling various handcrafted goods from large cloth bags they carry on their backs.

But this week, all were notably absent from the city, replaced by a marked increase in the number of security officers there to secure Sharm El Sheikh for the arrival of Cop27’s attendees, who are expected to include US President Joe Biden.

A stylised image of a Bedouin woman, part of a new promotional campaign in the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh ahead of Cop27. Kamal Tabikha / The National

The increased security presence in the city has been disruptive to tourists whose numbers have dwindled in recent weeks as preparations for the conference intensified. For residents, most of whom work in the tourist industry, this has been bad for business.

Despite that, the city’s inhabitants expressed surprisingly understanding sentiments towards the conference, because many are aware of how much is riding on it for the Arab world’s most populous nation.

One resident expressed hope that the political capital Egypt stands to gain from hosting a successful Cop27, which it is using to highlight its dual Afro-Arabness by acting as spokesman for the African continent and a bridge between it and the West, will help in the country’s struggle to secure its water resources after the recent third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

A promotional poster at Sharm El Sheikh airport, part of a wave of beautification the city has undergone recently as it prepares for Cop27.

A hotel manager in the city said he had heard good feedback from tourists on the structural updates. He said he hoped the city's tourism sector would receive a boost on the back of the conference, which is expected to significantly increase Egypt’s political and media visibility.

"We need dollars right now and tourism is one of the quickest ways to do that. Unlike other areas like exports, which still need a lot of work before they can be viable channels of foreign currency, tourism is here, it's ready, people just have to come, which I hope the conference will help with," he said.

Two barren spells, one during Covid-19 and one after the war began between Russia and Ukraine — who together provide more than 30 per cent of Sinai’s incoming tourists — had left the city’s establishments closed and its tourism workers without employment.

Other residents feel that the vast sums of money spent on beautifying the city might have been better used to ease the pressure on some of the country’s essential industries amid a dwindling of foreign reserves to record lows, a severe drop in the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar and high inflation.

"It's baffling to me that they can secure billions to beautify an entire city for a two-week conference while everywhere else in the country people are suffering high prices and many can't find employment," said a resident who preferred to remain anonymous.

One group viewing the conference with a degree of pessimism are diving instructors, many of whom are involved in the city’s environmental activism.

One instructor said while he understands Cop27 could improve Egypt’s political capital and secure foreign funds if it presents itself as a regional leader on climate change, he does not anticipate it will do much for the city’s ailing ecosystem, which has been severely damaged by years of mass tourism.

Stickers bearing the circulating arrows emblem of sustainability can also be seen plastered on almost every establishment in Sharm El Sheikh in preparation for Cop27 and recycling bins have been placed all over the city centre.

On the surface, the city appears to be in tip-top shape.

But some feel a collective deep breath has been taken — one that could be exhaled when the conference closes and everything returns to normal.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 6:54 PM