Egyptian billionaire Sawiris 'serious' about buying 'refugee island'

Egyptian billionaire Sawiris 'serious' about buying 'refugee island'
One of Egypt's wealthiest businessmen Naguib Sawiris insists that he is serious about buying a Mediterranean island to house refugees, but will they want to go there?
3 min read
07 September, 2015
Sawiris wants to buy an island as a fix for the refugee crisis. [AFP].

When Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris first mentioned that he wanted to buy a Mediterranean island to house the Syrian refugees arriving in Europe, it was perhaps filed away in the “more money than sense” category, in the hope that it would soon be forgotten about.

But Sawiris, Egypt's second-richest man, appears adamant that his idea has legs and that his island haven for refugees can now leave the Twitter drawing board it began its life on.

Earlier on Monday Sawiris suggested that people email over proposals, or wishes to volunteer, not to a specific set up email address, but to a pre-existing one associated with OTMT, a company he owns.

The proposed island state even has a name – 'Aylan Island', after Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian who washed up on a Turkish beach after trying to escape to Europe with his family and whose death garnered global attention.

While any way of averting such tragedies would be welcome, Sawiris' idea is highly unlikely to become reality.

The first difficulty, and one that Sawiris himself has acknowledged, is finding an island, or islands, that would be suitable for such an ambitious project, and that a country would be willing to sell.

Sawiris has said that he is going to begin sounding out the Italian and Greek governments and see if they are willing to sell him an island or two.

“I have a strong relationship with the Italian Prime Minister... the Greek Prime Minister is a leftist, I don't really have time for leftism and communism... but I'll get in touch,” Sawiris said on the Egyptian television channel CBC last week.

However, there is an apparent lack of a plan. Apart from a couple of tweets Sawiris has posted on the investment and on building a small harbour to receive boats, followed by the recruitment of refugees to build up the island, there are a number of problems with the idea that have already been pointed out.

Considering the huge number of refugees coming into Europe from Syria and elsewhere, and we are talking in the hundreds of thousands here, the fact that uninhabited islands in the Mediterranean tend to be quite small, any future Sawiris island nation-state will be incredibly densely populated.

In addition to this, with the conditions that cause people to flee countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea unlikely to end any time soon, the number of people in this state would carry on increasing – early settlers may ironically decide that they do not want any new arrivals.

That is if the inhabitants of the island even have a voice, of course.

The likelihood that Sawiris' island would be a democracy is remote. Here is a man whose family did incredibly well under the dictatorships of Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and who actively supported the military coup that brought to power the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In fact, Sawiris backed the arrest of an al-Jazeera journalist and even praised the coup for having meant that Egyptians avoided the fate of the Syrians.

“If we'd have stayed under the people who wanted to rule us... we'd have reached the same situation... we'd have all been refugees,” he said.

Sawiris' sudden hosipitality would also come as a surprise to the residents of Ramlet Boulaq, a poor neighbourhood in Cairo that borders the Nile City Towers, a Sawiris-owned property.

Sawiris' company Orascom has long demanded that local residents leave so that the project can be expanded, which has led to clashes.

In another poor area, Duwaqia, a fatal rock slide led to the forced removal of residents to another settlement, that was sold by Orascom to the government.

So it appears that democracy does not figure high up on Sawiris' priority list for his new island-nation.

And for residents of countries whose very problems were in large parts caused by corrupt elites and angry populations, that may not be somewhere they want to start their new lives in.