Building on the Old

February 6, 2014 12:35 pm

Farag Abdulbari grew up, moved to the Emirates and founded Stanly for Investment and Real Estate Development SAE, a construction company that executives claim won subcontracting functions on some of Dubai’s signature artificial island projects and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Now, fueled by a Dubai-is-best aesthetic and some high-tier alliances, he’s back in Alexandria to set a tranche of new projects in motion at a time when developers in a number of cities around the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Beirut, Izmir and Istanbul, are compromising heritage for profit.

Aside from simplistic, the comparison disregards the overlapping layers of culture and archaeology present in Alexandria. Constructing the tallest building in the world there would both disrupt the city’s low-rise 19th century ambience and puncture through layers of undiscovered antiquities.

Few signs of the Alexandria of antiquity remain. Yet the city lived a second golden age from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, when blooming trade opportunities created a multicultural, cosmopolitan  community of Greeks, Italians, Levantines, Jews, and northern Europeans. Much like Dubai today, tax-cuts, a high-capacity port and cutting-edge infrastructure boosted the city’s fortunes, attracting a free-wheeling, polyglot business elite. Their fortunes blossomed into grandiose villas and apartment blocks designed in architecturally eclectic styles, and a constellation of hotels, patisseries, cabarets and brothels within which unfolded the celebrations of high life and vice that gave the epoch its ‘belle époque’ moniker. The foreign communities maintained cordial relations with the local Egyptians, but hardly mixed, and the era came to a close in the 1950s with Nasser’s nationalizations.

Today, much of this second Alexandria, although largely intact, remains in an advanced state of decay. The peeling apartment blocks have been populated by Egyptians who migrated from the countryside over the past few decades, swelling the city’s population to an estimated five million. Rigid rent control laws and an unwillingness to evict squatters resulted in homeowners lacking the motivation to renovate their buildings. The 2011 revolution ushered in several years of political instability and prompted the acceleration of random and illegal construction across the city, resulting in an incredible 27,000 new buildings, according to government statistics.

So far, Stanly Group has strategized its entry into the Alexandrian market through teaming up with two powerful players: the city’s Governor and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The company flies in famous singers such as Nancy Ajram and Hany Shaker for high-profile social events with titles such as “In Love with the Emirates,” as part of a charm offensive to woo Alexandria’s decision makers and public alike.

Stanly Group are following the  example of the Emaar construction  group, who set the tone in entering the Egyptian market with extravagant  publicity stunts that regularly made the newspaper headlines.

But while conservationists worry about the pressure applied by poverty  stricken newcomers from the Nile Delta on Alexandria’s historical downtown, an expanding Stanly (managers expect the workforce by the end of 2014 to stand at 500 employees from an initial 25) is positioning itself to fill gaps in the more affluent parts of the market.

“Luxury is a need,” said Fady Amin, the executive manager of Stanly Group, recalling how Egypt’s Minister of Tourism told him that 180,000 Alexandrians spent EGP50m to EGP60m (approximately $7.2m to $8.5m) on shopping-dominated tourist breaks to Turkey in 2013 with double that sum expended in Dubai.

Despite the city only having 1,400 hotel rooms and  almost no midrange accommodation, its most expensive establishment – the San Stefano Four Seasons – is kept running at 90 percent capacity year-round by weddings and conferences. Amin believes that Stanly’s luxury hotel investment in the city centre is a good start towards “tripling” the city’s available beds in the next few years.

“(In the Emirates) we build palaces full of gold, so when we come to build a luxury building in Egypt we know how to do it,” Amin said, tracing his firm’s local advantage and pledging that the new mall “will stock only international brands.”

But Stanly’s claims of distinguished construction projects in the UAE, influential partners and high-profile social events may hold more gleam than substance. Our sister publication, TRENDS, enquired their Abu Dhabi branch about current projects and was told that, currently, they do not have any projects in the UAE and operates only on a sub-contractor basis, but that they will have projects “in the future”.

Back in Alexandria, Stanly’s commitment to the tourism and high luxury sector involved them in constructing an exclusive residential compound close to the Borg El Arab airport and industrial development, where 40 percent of Egypt’s industry is concentrated. The 45-villa project, a scale model of which takes pride of place in the entrance to Stanly’s showroom on the Corniche, is estimated to generate a EGP110m turnover.

Stanly’s ambitions go beyond gated communities, hotels and malls, to  bidding on a EGP70bn (approximately $10bn) development in the heart of historical Alexandria’s East Harbour expected to feature a yacht marina, residential towers and the construction of a “formalized shopping area in place of the illegal shops” on the approach to the Qaitbey fort, an Ottoman citadel built on the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria that was one of the seven marvels of the ancient world.