What Is an Expensive, Idyllic Resort Doing in Eritrea?

A desolate island is a reminder of Qatar's ambition to pacify the African nation, even if it meant subsidizing one of the most oppressive governments on the continent.
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A tourist wades out to a boat moored by a campsite on Eritrea's Dahlak Kebir Island on April 22, 2006. According to Reuters, old rocket launchers litter the entrance to an inland sea on the island, while Soviet-made tanks are rumored to lie on the seabed. (Ed Harris/Reuters)

Dahlak Kebir is a sunbaked and vaguely Y-shaped splotch of rock and dry vegetation sitting a few miles off the coast of Massawa, near the mouth of the Red Sea. The Dahlak archipelago, which is part of Eritrea, has been the subject of persistent rumor in recent years. During his 22 years in power, Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki hasn't been all that particular about choosing friends -- or enemies, for that matter.

Israel might have used one of the islands for signals intelligence aimed at intercepting Iranian weapons shipments ; in a reversal of sorts, the Iranians are now thought to be supplementing the Jewish state in their use of some of the most strategically-located real estate in the greater Middle East.

Dahlak Kebir is a distant corner of an opaque and unpredictable country, a place that remains mysterious even for U.S. policymakers and diplomats.

There isn't much going on in Dahlak Kebir, so long as you discount a Human Rights Watch report, and various corroborating evidence , about the island being home to a secret prison camp for political dissidents. Ignore that, and little else seems to be hidden away on Kebir, save for a few archeological sites, a dilapidating runway, some mostly-unpaved roads, and miles of untouched coastline. It is a remote place made all the more so by Eritrea's political isolation: the country has feuded or warred with most of its neighbors, most notably Ethiopia, which still has a close, cooperative relationship with Europe and the United States.

Eritrea, on the other hand, is still subject to U.N. sanctions stemming from its one-time support for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate fighting the Ethiopian military in Somalia. Dahlak Kebir is a distant corner of an opaque and unpredictable country, a place that remains mysterious even for U.S. policymakers and diplomats -- despite the fact that it borders a major global shipping lane , and sits between numerous political hotspots.

One would think that people wouldn't want to vacation there. But chances are you're not the emir of Qatar, whose state-owned real estate company spent $48 million building a resort on Kebir. Based on photographs circulated online, the Qatari-funded private resort is a glaring incongruity -- a strip of bungalows and private swimming pools amid an empty and dust-choked plane, with a broad promenade just feet away from a calm, unspoiled beach. There is nothing else nearby.

It is essentially the emir's Eritrean retreat: when reached by phone at his Beirut office, Jacques Shaheen of the construction firm Edessa said that his company had built a "private resort" on the island, although he would not tell me for whom. Considering the documented Qatari funding for the project, it's possible to speculate: The Qatari royal family has built one of the world's more expensive private residences on a virtually infrastructure-free island, in a country with media controls more strict than North Korea's, and a long and troublesome record of meddling in its neighbor's affairs. The resort testifies to the secretive yet consequential relationship between Qatar and Eritrea, which is itself a window into the fractious politics of both the Horn of Africa and the Middle East in general. It reveals Qatar's vast geopolitical ambitions, as well as the forces that are frustrating them. And it illustrates the problems that arise when strategically crucial countries like Eritrea maintain such a thick and deliberate veil of secrecy.

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Construction on the Dahlak Kebir resort apparently ended in October of 2012. According to Shaheen, it was built with Eritrean labor and even includes a desalination plant -- the island is so remote and under-developed that building such a facility is the only alternative to shipping in fresh water. According to a Wikileaks cable, Kebir has a usable airstrip, left over from communist Ethiopia's period of control over Eritrea. But there isn't anything else there, and Shaheen says that his company's work on the island has finished. "We're not involved at this stage," he told me.

But a few years ago, Eritrean and Qatari plans for Kebir were far different. In 2007, long before Eritrea was slapped with U.N. sanctions, S.A. Miro, Inc. of Denver, Colorado was contracted by Qatar Diar, Qatar's state real estate firm, to perform a site assessment for a different resort complex -- one that was never actually built. Michael Miro, the company's director of project management, says the Qataris had him create a "front-end master plan study" so that they could "better understand what their options were in terms of size and programming, given the fact that they were totally off the grid there." Sewage and water supply would be particular challenges for a project that they tentatively estimated would cost over $100 million to complete. Miro said it was his understanding that their resort design would actually be part of a larger tourist development in the Dahlaks, a plan that would include multiple hotels, perhaps spread out over more than one island. Miro's company hasn't been involved in the project since 2008. But he said that given limited local construction resources and the islands' relative isolation, he would be surprised if his company's master plan had been realized over the following years. "It seems like they would have just barely enough time to build something even remotely like what we designed," he said.

In 2008, Eritrea had a deep-pocketed and widely-respected patron willing to bankroll a project aimed at bringing outsiders into the country -- the sort of development that could open up a secretive and yet strategically-central place.

That resort was never constructed, but it's important enough that Eritrea was considering major touristic development -- and that Qatar's state real estate firm was serious enough about the opportunity to perform a feasibility study and commission a design. Eritrea remains one of the more closed-off places in Africa: The country currently ranks 182nd out of 185 economies surveyed in the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business" survey, and its national airline was virtually bankrupt as of 2009; meanwhile, the state's control over information is so tight that high-ranking U.S. diplomats have wondered at who really controls the decision-making process in Asmara. The chaotic past couple of months have been a case in point: it is still unclear whether a widely-reported disturbance in the capital on January 21st was an attempted military coup, or merely a show of force by disgruntled members of the officer corps. But in 2008, Eritrea had a deep-pocketed and widely-respected patron willing to bankroll a project aimed at bringing outsiders into the country -- the sort of development that could open up a secretive and yet strategically-central place.

It is unclear why the other resort fell through. But photos provided by Miro taken on Dahlak Kebir in 2007 give a sense of just how rugged the island is, and how difficult it would have been to build there even under the most ideal circumstances. One photo shows a jagged red rock face streaking across the surface of the island; in another, a treeless plane stretches between a cluster of shipping containers and a distant group of temporary canvas warehouses. Along with its apparent lack of permanent structures, the island seems to have little vegetation or shade; in pictures taken from the air, the earth is dirt-brown and almost completely empty. The only sign of development appears in a single picture of what is clearly the construction site of the now-completed private resort. In 2007, only a small handful of half-finished bungalows, along with a retaining wall hugging one side of the future promenade, had been constructed. At the time, even this modest progress must have proven that the Qataris were committed to building something in an inhospitable place -- a commitment that would prove just as relevant, and as problematic, in the diplomatic realm as well.

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Qatar's relationship with Eritrea mirrors the region's tumultuous politics. In the mid-2000s, stability-minded Qatar might have viewed the Eritrean government as a route into Somalia, a chronically war-torn place where a succession of Islamist militias had filled the vacuum left by the country's functionally non-existent government. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 in order to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from power, Afewerki viewed the country as yet another battleground in a long-running feud with his neighbor. Qatari and Eritrean interests aligned -- as they would for much of the rest of the decade.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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