Doubts over new bridge into Africa

A project of bin Laden's brother sparks concerns that it will jeopardise US antiterrorism efforts in the Horn.

NAIROBI // Osama bin Laden is famous for bringing down huge structures. Now his half-brother wants to make a name for himself by building one. Tarek bin Laden, the half-brother of the world's most notorious extremist, is building one of the world's longest bridges over the Red Sea connecting Africa with the Middle East.

The Bridge of Horns will link Djibouti with Yemen, crossing the Red Sea at its narrowest point, the Bab el Mandeb strait. At 28km long, it will not be the longest bridge in the world - that title goes to the 35km Hangzhou Bay Bridge in China - but it will have the world's longest suspension span at 5km. Middle East Development LLC, the Dubai-based construction company owned by Mr bin Laden, and Noor City Development Corporation of the United States are building the bridge with a whopping US$25 billion (Dh91.75bn) price tag. Earlier this month, Mr bin Laden launched the project at a ceremony in Djibouti.

The bridge will be "a historical engineering design that will help revive economies in Africa and the Middle East", Mr bin Laden said, according to a news release from the press conference. At either end of the bridge, Noor City Development plans to build two free trade zones and decent sized cities with universities, hospitals and airports. The Yemeni and Djibouti cities are expected to have a combined population of six million, according to the developers.

The project has provided much fodder for critics. Djibouti and Yemen seem unlikely hubs for a transportation network across Africa and the Middle East. The region is notoriously unstable. Engineers wonder if the project can even be built. The bridge will have six lanes of vehicle traffic, four rail lines and an oil pipeline, the developers said. Plans call for a road linking the Yemen side of the bridge with Dubai, but there are no plans for a transportation network on the African side of the bridge. Djibouti's neighbours include Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. An ancient rail line links Djibouti with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Eritrea is involved in a border dispute with Djibouti. Somalia is a failed state where anarchy and piracy are rife.

Without improved transportation on the African side of the bridge, Djibouti may be the end of the line for commerce crossing into Africa. The bridge could serve African Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca, Dileita Mohammed Dileita, the Djiboutian prime minister, told AFP news agency. "The big advantage would be to take millions of African Muslims to Mecca, by train or by bus," he said. The bridge could also be used as a safer passage for migrants, asylum seekers and human traffickers. Hundreds of Africans die each year trying to reach Yemen in rickety boats from Somalia.

American security analysts say the bridge could be a threat to American military personnel in Africa. The United States has about 2,000 soldiers stationed in Djibouti to assist local governments with antiterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa. Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, has been a known al Qa'eda hangout since extremists in 2000 bombed the USS Cole, an American warship harboured in the port of Aden.

Militants could use the bridge to cross into Africa, destabilise the region and attack American interests, according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based security think tank. "The proposed construction of a bridge connecting Yemen and Djibouti is likely to threaten the ongoing US mission in Africa," the report said. "The project physically and figuratively links al Qa'eda in Arabia to the African continent, posing a serious long-term security dilemma. What does seem a given is that US troops could end up being at far greater risk than they are today."

The developers plan to begin construction on the bridge in 2009. The project will be completed in 2020. If the bridge is built, it will be a modern engineering marvel, though engineers will have to overcome many challenges first. Besides being the longest suspension bridge in the world, the bridge will be built in an active earthquake zone. The Red Sea forms a rift between the African and Arabian plates, which are constantly shifting. Enormous pillars will need to be anchored 300 metres below the Red Sea's surface. The towers will rise 400 metres above the bridge. The project is expected to create 850,000 new jobs for Djiboutian, Yemeni and migrant workers, according to the developers.

Although the project seems far-fetched, maybe even a little hare-brained, the developers are already laying the ground work for the construction phase. This week, Middle East Development signed a $1bn deal with CZMT, a Czech heavy engineering firm that will construct a cement factory and an ironworks at the bridge site to supply materials for the project.

Published: August 28, 2008 04:00 AM


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