An African City Tears Down Its History To Build A "New Dubai"

Luanda from above
Luanda from above
Christophe Châtelot

LUANDA - The curtain will soon be rung down for the last time at the Elinga Theater in Angola’s capital, Luanda.

The theater, where many rebellious artists got their start, holds an important place in Angolan culture. But it will soon be destroyed, its pink walls reduced to rubble by bulldozers. Like so many old buildings in the heart of the Angolan capital, it fell foul of real estate promoters attracted by the oil business. A former Portuguese colony, Angola is the second-biggest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa.

The theater had assets that might have allowed it to escape this sad fate. Besides the international reputation of its dance and theater creations, the building itself had been classified as a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture. But that was not enough to save it.

The theater, built as a school by the Portuguese in the 19th century, was simply removed from the historical monument list in April by the culture ministry. "Suddenly, there was no historical reason to protect it anymore. This is the only explanation I was given. If it didn’t mean the death of the theater, this might actually be laughable," laments its director, playwright José Mena Abrantes.

The real reason is financial. The entire district is being razed to build a parking garage and office buildings, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, fronted by mysterious financiers close to the regime. They are hoping to receive a rapid return on their money by renting out the buildings to banks or to American, Brazilian or French oil multinationals.

They’ve done the math. According to the consulting company Mercer, Luanda is the second most expensive city in the world for expatriates, after Tokyo. The price of offices is hitting record highs in the city, where the average monthly rent for an expatriate's house is about $20,000.

Since the oil boom of the mid-1990s, when Angola's growth spurt started (reaching 15% a year during the 2000s), Luanda has been effervescent with new constructions. Building sites, where Chinese laborers work night and day, are gutting the city. The old buildings have not been able to withstand the pressure. "Angolans were proud of living in one of Africa’s oldest capitals, but they will soon have nothing to boast of. There will be nothing old left in the city," laments Abrantes.

Almost underneath his window passes a new, 200-million-dollar coastal road, inaugurated on August 28 by Angolan president José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power for 33 years and was just reelected. The coastal road, no longer lined with old houses, looks like it could be in California, with its joggers and body-builders. There are even roller-skaters, an incongruous sight in this city of caved-in sidewalks.

Slums to skyscrapers

Skyscrapers are sprouting up like mushrooms. Aided by illegal bulldozers and the billy clubs of the police, the skyscrapers are spreading toward the musseques: the Angolan favelas, slums without water or electricity, where most of Luanda's six to seven million inhabitants live. "The authorities plan to make Luanda the Dubai of Africa," says Claudia Gastrow, a Boston academic who is studying the city's development. "But there is no logic or coordination. The city center is just a façade."

The Dubai analogy includes the potential construction, as in the Gulf nation, of artificial islands off Luanda. This was the idea of José Recio, a tire-mechanic who became a real estate tycoon. His plan was blocked by the Angolan president and council of ministers, but it is too late for the Elinga theater.

Abrantes, who is also the president's communication advisor, did his best to use his position to avoid the disaster, but to no avail. Petitions did not work, nor did private initiatives. The Elinga will become a parking garage.

Abrantes, of Portuguese origin, was born in Angola in 1945. He studied in Portugal, which he left at the beginning of the 1970s to avoid the draft, which at the time was sending young Portuguese men to fight against independence movements in its colony. Abrantes joined the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA, the party which has ruled Angola since 1975) in Germany, without being able to fight in the independence war. "They told me, "We don't want whites!"" A silent struggle was going on at the time in the MPLA, where part of the movement wanted to "Africanize" the rebellion.

Civil war

He returned to Luanda when it became independent, in 1975. A civil war was tearing the country apart.

The deadly conflict between the MPLA, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) went on until 2002. During that time, half a million people died and four million became refugees.

"There was a war, but I just wanted to do theater," he remembers. He had to wait more than 10 years, during which he founded the official press agency Angop. He wound up being fired for "non-cooperation with the ideological sphere."

The Angolan government's allies at the time were Soviet and Cuban. "But starting in the mid-1980s, Dos Santos started working on reforming the system. It was before perestroika," says Abrantes.

He chose theater "so as to have nothing to do with politics," he says. Bit by bit, Marxism disappeared, in favor of a market economy, with money skimmed off by a clique of army officers, like General Helder Vieira Dias, called "Kopelina," director of the slightly shady National Office for Reconstruction. "A lot of people got rich back then," even before the oil boom, says Abrantes.

José Mena Abrantes is an idealist. Faithful to President Dos Santos, more so than to the MPLA, he says he is convinced that the president has been paying attention to the dissenting voices that have been sweeping the city for more than a year. "Before they could start work on social policy, they had to rebuild the infrastructure. But now it’s time to address the social problems." On the walls of the theater, you can read a small piece of graffiti: "This chaos is killing me." It has been the death of the theater.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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