Wealthy Arabs buy up Sarajevo

Sarajevo is etched in the collective memory as a city of war. Twenty years after the peace agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the green hills around the city are changing into gated communities for Arab tourists. Public space is either neglected or privatised, then commercialised. But a new generation is sowing the seeds of change.

© Al Diyar

Gated Community Ilidža Pearl of the Kuwaiti company Al-Diyar should be ready for use next summer.

Written on a monument on the square in front of the new city mall are the names of 1601 children. They were killed during the siege of Sarajevo in the early nineties, together with 9940 others. After the war the city was developed according to the model of privatisations and foreign investments.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a democratic constitutional state only on paper. In reality it is an oligarchy where the politicians enrich themselves. 18% of the population lives below the poverty line. Only 1% of the GDP goes to social security expenses – the EU-average is 30% – while 62% of youth is unemployed.

Nature and city combined

For five euro’s and in ten minutes a cab brings you from the busy centre of one of the most highly polluted cities in Europe to an unspoilt natural environment, with green valleys, flowers, fruit trees and clean air. In this postcard there is an Audi with a Kuwaiti license plate.

The driver, wearing a suit and sunglasses, stands guard. A man gets out of the car and looks out over the valley, the view the Bosnian Serbs must have had when they fired an average of 329 bombs and mortars a day at Sarajevo.

‘The future lies ahead of us’, the man says. ‘In Sarajevo one finds peace, nature and the city in one.’

© Pieter Stockmans

An investor from Kuwait takes a look at the lands where Saraya Resort will be built, today unspoilt nature

Three days ago Kuwait recorded a record temperature of 54 degrees Celsius. The man wants a place to cool down, but mostly to invest his money in a safe place. He is about to invest in Caphy Contracting, a company specialised in building villas in Abu Dhabi.

As soon as the construction workers finish their job, Saraya Resort will be prohibited territory for them. No one will be allowed to enter the territory without a special pass. Caphy’s customers won’t shop at the local supermarkets, but in a shopping mall in the resort. They will be able to order drivers, cleaning ladies and housekeepers at a reception, just as they do in the Gulf.

Villagers are surprised when they see the car with blinded windows drive down the narrow mountain roads. The property is located in the municipality of Stari Grad – Old City – that reaches from the city centre down in the valley all the way up to the green hills with only a few charming homes here and there.

Within a few years, 64.000 square metres of this unspoilt grassland will transform into the capitalist dream, with 90 villas and flats, closed off from the environment.

“Where nature and living come together”, a presentation reads in the showroom of the company. Real estate companies from the Gulf States attract customers with the promise of idyllic nature around Sarajevo. ‘For every tree we cut down, we plant two’, says Dunja Jerković, office manager of the company in Sarajevo.

‘I saw many building licences, but not one environmental impact assessment report.’

But that is not the end of it, according to Rijad Tikvesa, director of the environmental NGO Ekotim: ‘I saw many building licences, but not one environmental impact assessment report. How much earth will be moved, with the risk of mudflows during tempests?’

‘Two years ago roads disappeared in the land subsidence. Will the rainwater still fill up our groundwater stocks when asphalt covers the land? Where will the pipelines dump the waste water? A big part of the city’s waste water already flows into the river Bosna. Will they use tax money to connect these gated communities to public infrastructure?’

Caphy Contracting is part of the first rush. These start-ups have just discovered Sarajevo’s gold, the empty showroom testifies. The long-term effects on the city are not yet visible, but in a country notorious for it’s entanglement of politics and business, it looks like the hills around Sarajevo are going to change beyond recognition.

Jerković herself is concerned: ‘According to the city’s spatial planning we are at the edge of building space. I hope, for the future of our children, that our government won’t change the plans.’

According to Tikvesa that is idle hope: ‘Small municipalities are authorised to grant building licenses to big Arab companies. The temptation to change the destination of natural- or agricultural lands into building space, is great.’

Cleaning hills

Dunja Jerković herself has two children. When she was looking for and found a job, she couldn’t afford sustainability thinking. Also Jasmina, an architect at Al-Diyar, the Kuwaiti company that will help building Saraya Resort, was thrilled when the company hired her. ‘I was looking for a job for five years’, she says. ‘Now I have a decent salary and a higher level of social protection compared to employees from Bosnian companies.’

Director Abdullah al-Kulaib, a flamboyant man of 34, looks out over his resort Ilidža Pearl, barely two years after he settled in Sarajevo.

‘Do you see that hill above us?’ Al-Kulaib asks. ‘We are still going to clean that one.’ A little further down the road roaring excavators have already “cleaned” the hills: routed the earth, cleared the forests, laid the foundations and built the houses.

Al-Diyar employs about a hundred Bosnians. ‘We design and build our landscapes, houses and furniture ourselves’, says al-Kulaib. ‘In that house over there we will lodge three poor Bosnian families. They will get jobs as cleaners, guardians and gardeners.’

© Pieter Stockmans

Cleaning Hills

It’s mealtime on the construction site: builders in dusty work clothes are standing in line at the food distribution. Jasmina comes running from the PVC workshop. ‘Abdullah, I want to show you something’, she yells enthusiastically. ‘They have delivered the ceramic tiles, a combination of modern and traditional Bosnian elements.’ Al-Kulaib finds it all fantastic.

The labour costs in Bosnia are low and the land is cheap. Al-Diyar bought parcels of different Bosnian families. ‘Some owners gave me a headache’, Al-Kulaib laughs. ‘Sons who sold the lands of their deceased parents lived spread out across Serbia, Austria and Bosnia. And when we had finally gathered them, they couldn’t agree.’

The Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) of the federal state helps investors in their contacts with the municipalities, who help finding the landowners. ‘We also guide them through the labyrinth of the Bosnian bureaucracy’, says Slavica Korica of the FIPA.

That labyrinth is hindering the freedom of young Bosnians of doing business: the country is ranked 175th in the World Bank’s ease of doing business-list.

‘The representatives of the Bosnian state are involved in business. Political parties are the most corrupt institutions of this country.’

‘Wealthy investors can speed up the process by paying money under the table to local politicians’, says Lejla Ibranović, director of Transparency International in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘The representatives of the Bosnian state are involved in business. There is a total absence of a regulating state. Political parties are the most corrupt institutions of this country. High-ranking politicians abuse their positions to give benefits to family, friends, party members, investors, and so on. The public prosecutor barely prosecutes corruption offenses within the government, because the parties control the judiciary.’

Elmedin Konaković, the prime minister of the canton of Sarajevo, refused to speak to us.

President Bakir Izetbegović has good ties to several investors. ‘A few weeks ago a group of investors from Europe and the Gulf met the president’, says Al-Kulaib. ‘We proposed to open a direct airline between Kuwait and Sarajevo.’

Every week 29 direct flights depart from the Emirates to Sarajevo, but Kuwait can only be reached through Istanbul.

Investments from the Gulf started at the end of the years 2000. The launch of the Qatari TV-channel Al-Jazeera Balkans in Sarajevo had a huge impact. To facilitate the process, Bosnia and Herzegovina abolished the visa for most Gulf monarchies. Investments from Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia and the Emirates increased from 85 million euro’s in 2008 to 204 million euro’s in 2014. Simultaneously the number of visitors from the Emirates increased hundredfold between 2010 and 2015: from 65 to 7265. In 2016 there will be twice as many as in 2015. The Emirates are in the top ten for the first time. The number of visitors from Kuwait increased tenfold in the same period, from 645 to 7401. In 2014 Kuwait was ranked sixth in the list of the largest investing countries in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 14 million euro’s. They mainly invest in real estate.

‘Up until five years ago Bosnia was unknown to most Gulf Arabs’, says analyst Asja Hadziefendić in her smoky office in the Bureau of Tourism. ‘Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings they are looking for new destinations.’

According to Hadziefendić a lot is happening in the grey zone, because according to Bosnian law, Gulf Arabs are not allowed to own property in Bosnia.

‘So we conclude a 99 year-lease with our customers’, says Al-Kulaib. ‘I asked the Bosnian ambassador in Kuwait to allow Kuwaitis to own property in Bosnia. Since last week we also market our real estate to the Bosnian diaspora.’ On the rooftop terrace of one of the luxury apartments, Rijad Sinyora, Al-Kulaib’s assistant, lets his imagination go free: ‘Imagine sitting here at sunset with a cup of coffee and the water pipe. In winter you can ski in the morning, swim in the thermal bath by noon and have a delicious dinner in the evening.’

As a teenager, Sinyora lived under the siege of Sarajevo. During the same time Al-Kulaib was raising funds for Sarajevo at the university. Today their life paths cross.

The traumatised Bosnian employee jumps on the ark to protect himself from the storm that crushes the weakest; he knows that in this country only the strong survive. The jolly Arab employer does what he does best: speculate, invest and build. ‘Some customers buy a house and keep it until prices rise, to resell it afterwards. An investment’, he says.

Down the hill lies the Bosnian village of Blazuj. A woman pushes her sheep towards the fields. Her livelihood costs about twice as much as the average Bosnian monthly salary of 300 euro’s. She looks up at the U-shaped ring of luxury apartments, which Al-Diyar launches for people with a monthly salary of 3500 euro, the Gulf’s lower middle class.

She also sees a fence. Later come the cameras and alarm systems, connected to Ilidža’s local police.

Public private domain

The Saudi real estate company Al-Shiddi Group markets to the richer Gulf Arabs. According to Al-Kulaib they sell mainly to the friends of director Suleiman al-Shiddi: diplomats, politicians and other influential people.

Pr-manager Lejla Baraković confirms they are more expensive than the others. Al-Shiddi invests 35 million euro in Poljine Hills, a gated community of 211 villas spread across 180.000 square metres in the municipality of Vogošća.

‘We don’t have local Bosnian customers, they can’t afford our villas,’ Baraković says on the way to Poljine Hills. ‘A working couple with a decent salary could obtain a loan from a bank, but in a country with the highest unemployment rates in Europe (27,9%, ed.) people fear not finding a new job when they would suddenly become unemployed. That would be a disaster having debts to the bank.’

Yet, Al-Shiddi wants to put up a campaign to encourage Bosnians to obtain loans.

‘Bosnian families who sell their family farms to a Saudi company, win the jackpot.’

According to Baraković the local population will profit from Poljine Hills. ‘Bosnian families who sell their family farms to a Saudi company, win the jackpot’, she laughs. ‘We will connect the village to our improved water pipes and we will restore the roads leading to the resort.’ Baraković drives on the bumpy roads of Vogošća, full of potholes and bumps.

She shows us what the landscape design in Poljine Hills will look like: roads and footpaths clean as a whistle, parks, playgrounds, orderly lighting. In any event, inequality will rise between the private domain inside and the public space outside of the fence.

‘During the year, our customers work ten hours a day’, says Baraković while she walks through the mud of the construction site on high heels. ‘During their holiday they want quiet and privacy. They want to visit the city centre, not live there. We offer them a top experience, without stress.’

The most luxurious villas will be on top of the hill, with the best views of the valley. One villa is already done: Suleiman al-Shiddi’s. He is sitting on the terrace with his family. Further down the road workers are operating an excavator, drilling ten metres into the ground and getting earth to the surface.

© Pieter Stockmans

Lejla Barakovic, Al-Shiddi Group: ‘Because of the bad economic situation, Bosnians can’t obtain loans to buy our villa’s.

A delegation of Hansgrohe, a German top producer of bathroom infrastructure, is looking at one of the showrooms. ‘One wouldn’t expect such projects in Bosnia’, their Serbian representative Lazar Milosavljević says. ‘These are the finest construction materials one can find on European markets. The Balkans are booming. Tomorrow we will travel to Belgrade to see the progress of Belgrade Waterfront. A real estate company from Abu Dhabi invested 3,5 billion euro’s in the development of Belgrade.’

Investments from the Gulf create opportunities for Western-European companies, but the many Arab resorts that keep popping up create new contracts for Bosnian construction companies too.

Past in ruins, future shines

Suleiman al-Shiddi was a pioneer. In 2009 he made an offer after the privatisation of Hotel Bristol, at that time not more than a grey concrete tower in ruins. Under president Tito it had been an institute. Al-Shiddi invested 20 million euro in its renovation. Today the five star hotel shines from bottom to top, with a promotion stand for Poljine Hills in the majestic hall.

Also Sarajevo City Center (SCC), built by Al-Shiddi after the privatisation of wholesale Magros in 2008, today shines brightly. The Saudi company promotes the SCC, the city’s biggest mall, as a continuation of the values of the socialist wholesale – ‘self-management, will and loyalty’ – and the mercantile spirit of the district Marijin Dvor.

‘They abuse the spirit of Sarajevo to integrate into the community with a lie’, says city activist Danijela Dugandzić. ‘Slogans written on the walls picture shopping as important for personal status. That has got nothing to do with self-management or solidarity.’

On the other side of the futuristic glass construction of eighteen storeys is a dilapidated building for poor families who let the inner courtyard overgrow with weeds. The walls are dirty, decaying and riddled with bullet holes.

It is the most important Austrian-Hungarian palace in Sarajevo: the 125-year old Marienhof that gave its name to this district.

‘It makes sense’, says Dugandzić. ‘Politicians only interfere when there is profit in it for them. To develop or commercialise public space, they wait for foreign investments. So we decided to interfere ourselves.’

‘How can activists transform a historical building to a beacon of architectural pride? During workshops, gatherings, cleaning actions and festivals we tried to involve the inhabitants in a vision for the courtyard. Eventually they presented a project application to the municipality. A small victory.’

But the courtyard is still neglected and closed down.

Another public square was privatised. Selma Colić, marketing assistant at BBI Real Estate, a real estate company that built the next to one biggest shopping mall in 2008, does not beat around the bush: ‘The “Square of the Children” in front of the BBI Centre is our property. It is a meeting place where, with our permission, street theatre, activities and workshops for children take place.’

© Pieter Stockmans

ACTOPOLIS (Goethe Institute) unites artists and city planners. Danijela Dugandzic (left) is its curator in Sarajevo.

The public space and the people in it become an advertising board in a marketing strategy to turn a mall into the city landmark. Bosna Bank International, one of the stockholders of the real estate company, is an Islamic bank that looks for privatisation opportunities. Each year they gather politicians and investors in the Sarajevo Business Forum. ‘We follow the procedures like everyone else, yet, good connections with politicians can be of importance’, says Colić.

Public buildings in Bosnia are the property of the political parties. During their mandate politicians try to sell as many buildings as possible and to privatise public space.

The only support Danijela Dugandzić is getting from the government, is the permission to tidy up overgrown squares and install some artworks there. Her Organisation for Culture and Art’s office is a small room in a flat building. But their vision is big: on the wall there is a big poster of their project Citology.

‘We map neglected public spaces and buildings, the places one can bet sooner or later will be privatised’, says Dugandzić. ‘By documenting them, we make the opportunities in this city visible and tangible, a kind of an institutional memory.’

Since the transition to a market economy public buildings in Bosnia are the property of the political parties. During their mandate, politicians try to sell as many buildings as possible and privatise public space. 5 billion euro’s worth of non-privatised capital is still in the hands of the Bosnian parties. This way city planning in Sarajevo becomes a family party of oligarchical politicians and investors.


In a poor country with a GDP per capita of 3800 euro’s, privatisation and commercialisation go hand in hand with exclusion. Selma Colić of BBI Real Estate confirms: ‘In BBI Centre you can only find expensive designer clothing, not affordable to people with low salaries. That is the majority of the population. It is true that we aim at a select clientele, but not only at Arabs.’

Yet Arabs form an essential part of the customers. The director of Bosna Bank International promoted the new budget airline Fly Dubai, that flies directly to Sarajevo. The more Arab visitors, the higher the income for the tenants of the shop spaces in the mall, the smaller the chance at vacancy.

Some inhabitants fear that the consumerism of the Gulf, where it is normal to see women in a nikaab in a McDonald’s, will become the new normal.

© Pieter Stockmans

Sarajevo City Center, the biggest shopping mall of Sarajevo, built by the Saudi Al-Shiddi Group.

Is it becoming so? After all, no one is obligated to shop in the shopping malls. But what if these shopping malls attract all economic activity? ‘Ever since SCC was built here, my sales revenue have dropped with 20%’, says the owner of a grocery store across the street.

The man behind the counter of an electronics store is more positive: ‘Life used to stop at the BBI Centre, now it has moved here. That is good for my business.’ Until far into the twentieth century Marijin Dvor was located at the edge of the city. SCC has turned the district into the city centre.

In the community centre of the district old men are playing cards. Attached to the walls are portraits of fallen soldiers from the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The card players’ opinions differ.

‘We need an income to live and eat, not shopping malls to spend money we don’t have. They should open factories instead. This country is paying salaries with IMF loans’, says one man while exhaling cigarette smoke.

Another man objects: ‘We have to catch up with Europe. Those malls are better than the devastated buildings that were there before.’

When he thinks of the past he sees dilapidated buildings. And they are still there: Austrian-Hungarian mansions with crumbled ornaments. Written on the walls is “We are hungry” in the three official languages.

© Pieter Stockmans

Architect Amir Vuk Zec: ‘Architecture says a great deal about the state of society.’

When he looks at SCC he sees the future: the bustle of cars, shopping people, the colours of the neon lights; even though the community centre started a lawsuit against the Al-Shiddi Group because of light pollution by giant neon advertisements.

The face of Sarajevo has changed completely over the past ten years. According to the famous architect Amir Vuk Zec, architecture says everything about the state of a society: ‘The consumerism that quickly entered the Balkans during the transition is the only model for progress. And that shows in the streets: a lot of investment in the architecture of greed, little in the revaluation of the public space.’

‘Since the war we only saw buildings arise for “others”, a Disneyland for adults, the Dubaïsation of architecture.’

Walking through the pulsating heart of the city, one sees all identities being reflected in the architecture. The old Ottoman town Baščaršija and the labyrinth of corridors and mosques. The transition to an Austrian-Hungarian style and orthodox and catholic churches. The broad Tito Avenue, which reminds of socialist Yugoslavia, here and there signs of globalisation. At the end of the avenue lies the luxurious BBI Centre of the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, which can best be described as a capitalist oligarchy.

And yet: the timeline continues behind the BBI Centre. Since the war an alternative community grew in the workers’ district of Radićeva. It started out with bookshop BuyBook and several cosy bars where youngsters organise concerts, street theatre and photo exhibitions.

BuyBook is organising the first literary festival in Sarajevo and the annual street art festival is about to hit off. Amir Vuk Zec illustrates his plans for the district in a public debate on urbanism. He aims to activate the inhabitants’ creativity. Lejla Kusturica welcomes visitors at the murals of H:ART, an initiative that transforms grey flat buildings into public galleries and awakens sleeping districts.

Good places

This district is awake. It is a seed through which citizens themselves strengthen the connection between art, city planning and the community. Activists are planting that seed all over the city.

In Grbavica for example, a workers’ district that was severely hit during the war. Sixteen-year-old Ivan Bosković grew up there. He walks through shortcuts and banlieus, vegetable markets and residential blocks. Twenty years after the war there are still many places in the city’s spatial planning that are called “unused space between flats”.

‘This is one of those undefined spaces’, he says in perfect English. ‘We actively look for abandoned, neglected public spaces, clean them up and inject them with art and sports.’

© Pieter Stockmans

Teenagers from workers’ districts started the action “Good Places”. They occupy neglected spaces and bring them to life.

Dobre Kote” is what they named their action, “Good Places”, which they literally put on the map by checking them in on Facebook. A girl embraces Ivan’s colleague Nadira Berbić, out of gratitude.

‘On this rooftop of a garage between four residential blocks, there used to be drug addicts’, Nadira says. ‘If the government doesn’t do it, we will return these places to the children of the neighbourhood.’

‘Education and activism can make a difference. These kids and youngsters look up to knowledge, not to the symbols of consumerism.’

For the first time in Sarajevo a generation is growing up that hasn’t known any other system than capitalism. The fact that some youth still understands the value of the public good in the city, gives Danijela Dugandzić hope: ‘It proves that education and activism can make a difference. These kids and youngsters look up to knowledge, not to the symbols of consumerism.’

Most activists agree that real change will only come about when the hungry and the workers rise up.

In 2014 this happened. Angry people had even set the presidential building on fire. Lejla Kusturica and Sadzida Tulić were there. All of the Balkans were looking at Bosnia when they held people’s plenums and let the inhabitants speak about their deepest concerns. ‘For the first time I met other inhabitants that shared my anger about the situation in our society’, says Lejla. ‘I realised that people are aware, but divided by nationalism and the speed of the individualised society. The problem is that people are so desperate that they are afraid of losing their jobs when they protest for too long. They just demanded dignity, basic rights. Many weren’t even thinking in terms of capitalism or socialism.’

© Pieter Stockmans

‘If the government doesn’t do it, we will return these places to the children of the neighbourhood.’

Sadzida Tulić got goosebumps when she presided over a people’s plenum in front of one thousand people. She heard parents speak of how privatisations made them jobless, and elderly people how they had to survive on a tiny pension.

‘Then one realises how important it is to speak to each other’, she says. ‘What a feeling of empowerment! Citizens articulated their problems and we voted on a common vision.’

The government suppressed the protests and didn’t answer to any of the demands. But the spirit was not crushed. An active civil society came about.

The mirrors that are stacked on top of each other at the Square of the Children who have died in the war, are not mirages where a destroyed people sees neon advertisements and expensive brands as a sign of hope and progress. They are the mirrors that the children hold up in front of Sarajevo’s inhabitants, in front of the 200 EU-officials that overlook so-called reforms, in front of us all.

“What are you doing to the city you have inherited from us?” they seem to ask.

Translated by Eileen Coolen.

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