A Bin Laden Brother's Ambitious Bridge Project

[Map: Aden, Yemen and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and Djibouti]
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ADEN, Yemen -- Nobody has walked across the Red Sea since Moses parted the waters. But it could happen again under an audacious plan to build the world's longest suspension bridge between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

If built, the bridge would cross the Red Sea at an 18-mile-wide strait known as the Bab al-Mandeb, or Gate of Tears, connecting the southern tip of Yemen with the tiny East African country of Djibouti. Estimated price tag: $10 billion to $20 billion.

The proposal is turning heads in the Middle East, and not just because it would make engineering history. The developer of the project is a Dubai-based firm headed by Tarek bin Laden, an elder brother of the world's most famous terrorist.

The bin Laden family, from Saudi Arabia, has operated a construction empire for decades. In the mid-1990s, the clan cut its financial ties with Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, around the time he declared war on the United States and called for the overthrow of the Saudi ruling family.

Since then, the rest of the bin Ladens -- Osama has 24 half brothers and 29 half sisters -- have quietly gone on with their business. The Bab al-Mandeb bridge would be their most ambitious project to date, overshadowing their renovations of Islamic holy sites in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.

"This has been Sheik Tarek's idea for many, many years," said Jameel Murshed, a lawyer and legal consultant for Middle East Development LLC, the partnership led by Tarek bin Laden. "He wants to serve his mother country."

The father of Tarek and Osama, Mohamed bin Laden, was born into poverty in Yemen a century ago before moving to Saudi Arabia to seek his fortune in building. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Promoters of the Bab al-Mandeb bridge say it will transform the region's economy by opening a fixed rail and highway route between Africa and the Middle East.

"It's not just about Yemen and Djibouti. It's about two continents: Africa and Asia," said Tariq Ayyad, president of Noor City Development Corp., a San Francisco firm hired by Middle East Development to manage the project.

Government officials on both sides of the sea have given their blessing to the project. In February, Djibouti followed Yemen's lead in signing a memorandum of understanding with Tarek bin Laden's firm, although numerous details -- including precise ownership stakes -- are still under negotiation.

Yemeni officials have said little publicly about the project. One government representative, who declined to be quoted by name, said Yemen welcomed the potential multibillion-dollar investment but is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "If it happens, we're all for it," the official said.

There is widespread skepticism on both sides of the Red Sea. "When I talk to people about it, 99 percent of the time they think it's a joke at first," said Amman M. Said, a Noor City representative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "The scale is so large that they're not sure what to make of it. When you tell people we're crossing the Red Sea by land, they say, 'Yeah, right.' "

But backers predict that things will change once construction starts -- perhaps as soon as next year.

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