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Thu 21 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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City of Silk

Arabian Business examines the $132bn mega-development set to transform the future of Kuwait.

Arabian Business examines the $132bn mega-development set to transform the future of Kuwait.

Stretching from the heart of Kuwait's northern desert to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a 250 sq km tract of desert will soon be transformed by one of the most exciting development projects ever to be undertaken in the Middle East.

With different districts covering business, leisure, academia and culture, in addition to a wildlife reserve and one of the world's tallest skyscrapers - a staggering 1001 metres in height - at its heart, Kuwait's $132bn City of Silk is ambitious even by the Gulf's extraordinary standards.

The profound vision of City of Silk is not based on investors' greed but on building a stronger regional economy.

Creating homes for 750,000 people and 430,000 jobs, Madinat Al Hareer, as it is known in Arabic, is aimed at diversifying the economy of the petroleum-rich kingdom away from its dependence on oil into sectors such as trading, financial services, real estate and tourism. In so doing, it is hoped that by 2030 the metropolis will contribute nearly $15bn to Kuwait's annual GDP.

Named after the medieval trade route running between Europe and Asia, City of Silk plans to revive the historic link by becoming a major free trade zone connecting the two continents. The scheme was approved in November with the unanimous endorsement of Kuwait's parliament, allowing the executive branch of the government to mobilise resources to begin the infrastructure planning.

City of Silk can count on the firm support of the Emir of Kuwait, HH Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, while the designs are being drawn up by London-based architects Eric R Kuhne and Associates. Leading Kuwaiti real estate company Tamdeen Corporation is acting as development and project manager of the scheme.

Located in Subbiya on the northernmost tip of Kuwait Bay close to the Iraq border, the metropolis will be the largest single real estate development in the Middle East and is due to be completed by 2023.

But as Eric Kuhne, managing director of Eric R Kuhne and Associates, is at pains to point out, City of Silk is aiming for something different.

"This is not just another real estate project but a real symbol of the Middle East," he says. "The profound vision of City of Silk is not based on investors' greed but on building a stronger regional economy."

"I started drawing diagrams on a map, showing all these connections that Kuwait was going to be able to make, and you very quickly realise that Kuwait sits right in the middle of 30 Middle Eastern countries. The idea of recreating the Silk Route for the 21st century is a very attractive one."

Originally conceived as one of seven city sites to accommodate the explosion of the expatriate population living in the kingdom, as well as the growing number of Kuwaitis returning to their homeland after the Gulf War in 1991, the plans have evolved since then.

The project's budget has also changed, swelling from the original estimate of $86bn earlier this year to a hefty $132bn now, fuelled by Kuwait's continuing oil wealth.Kuhne insists the metropolis will differ from some other projects in the region.

"What we agreed is that with City of Silk we would honour the profound legacy of Middle East arts, science and culture that all other countries in the Arab world seem to have forsaken with developments," he says.

"Instead of trying to build a city that's just another European or North American anaemic master plan, City of Silk will look Arabic and celebrate Arabic culture, business and science," he continues.

At the centrepiece of the city will be the Burj Mubarak Al-Kabir, which at 1001 metres will be one of the tallest towers in the world.

"Before the invasion [by Iraq in 1990] Kuwait was decades ahead of any other city in the Middle East and now after spreading its resources around the Middle East, it sees it as the time to restore itself to a position as a leader."

The city will be divided into four distinct districts. Recreating the hustle and bustle of London's commercial hub of Canary Wharf, the first zone, the City of Commerce, will be positioned on an inland waterway.

With room for commercial land in Kuwait City running out, the district will answer one of Kuwait's most pressing needs by providing space for new businesses to establish themselves.

Hugging the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the second centre, the City of Leisure, will harness river water to develop resort hotels, leisure villages and sandy beaches along a kilometre-long waterfront.

A centre for athletics, an academy of sport, a centre for sports medicine and an Olympic-standard sports complex to host Middle Eastern, Asian and international competitions will be incorporated within the district, along with a centre for sports medicine.

Building on Kuwait's growing reputation as a producer of Arabic soap operas, the district will also feature a media city.

At the heart of City of Silk will be the third, and perhaps most ambitious zone, Ecology City, featuring a wildlife sanctuary, nature reserve and wetlands centre.

With nesting and spawning ranges, fresh water ponds and feeding grounds, the park will form part of the protected areas for migratory birds flying every year from the African continent to Central Asia.

"One of the terrible tragedies of the invasion [by Iraq] was the destruction of wetlands that migratory birds would use flying from the African continent to Central Asia," says Kuhne.

"So we took a quarter of the total area, 49 sq km, and set it aside as a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the other parts of the city," he continues. "It includes two universities, one dealing with flora and the other with fauna."The fourth district is the Diplomatic Cultural Centre, which will be responsible for higher education facilities and accommodate graduate education and archaeology centres. Attracting diplomatic missions, the centre will also be a cultural hotspot with a major opera house and a performing arts centre.

The population of City of Silk will live within 30 communities made up of five to seven villages, with each community served by its own schools, healthcare facilities and employment. Weaving the fabric of these different areas together will be a network of parks and lakes, with the designers promising that everyone living within the development will be no more than three blocks away from open space.

In an effort to make City of Silk environmentally friendly, the intention is for it to be carbon neutral, with seven million trees planted around the metropolis, irrigated in part by salt water.

At the centrepiece of the city will be the Burj Mubarak Al-Kabir, which at 1001 metres will be one of the tallest towers in the world. Three propeller blades built near the top of the tower will carry a mosque, a church and a synagogue to signify the unity of the three monotheistic religions.

Kuhne says: "The prime minister and the chairman of Tamdeen Corporation had said they wanted the tallest building in the world. I told them ‘we don't have to be the tallest, but we have to be one of the best'."

"It's going to be 1001 metres because of the book 1001 Arabian Nights, so the architecture links in with the folk literature of the civilisation. In the book there are 234 stories so the tower will have 234 storeys," he continues.

"The towers are actually seven villages stacked on top of one another, and between each of these 30-storey buildings are four levels of gardens, recreation facilities, shops, healthcare facilities, education facilities, police, fire and maintenance facilities."

Serving the city will be state-of-the-art transport links by road, sea, air and rail.

A 26-km bridge will connect the city to Kuwait City, reducing the drive time to the capital to 17 minutes, rather than the usual 90-minute drive around Kuwait Bay. Work has already begun on the bridge, and highways and roads have been laid to pave the way for future development.

As part of the project, a new sea port will also be built on the biggest island in Kuwait, Bubiyan Island, to serve Kuwait, Iraq and Iran, in addition to acting as one of the closest sea ports to Central Asia.

A new airport will be built to ensure City of Silk's inclusion in the global network of international cargo, passenger services and information.

Kuwait also wants to link its city by rail to Damascus, Baghdad, Iran and China. Slowly but surely, the new Silk Route is taking shape.

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