What do Bosnians think of Saudi Arabia?

How Arabs buy their way in Bosnia

Investors from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are building houses and holiday complexes in central Bosnia. The residents fear the radical Wahhabi influence. A report.

Sarajevo. Extensive parks criss-cross the area. In summer, fiakers drive along an avenue lined with old trees to the source of the Bosna River, where the water gushes out of the rock on the edge of the Igman mountain range and forms a river. Mehmed Alicehajic loves this place: Ilidža at the gates of Sarajevo. When hiking through the almost untouched forests, “you can now experience surprises,” says the 82-year-old former professor of German studies.

While the ladies and gentlemen from Vienna and Budapest came to the hotels and health resorts in the 19th century, now it is mainly Arab families. The spa hotels renovated after the last war, such as the Hotel Hungaria or Bosna, have been booked out with tourists from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia for years, especially since the traditional summer resorts in Syria and Lebanon have become unsafe since the war. With growth rates of up to 30 percent, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a tourist destination.

Jannah is the Arabic word for paradise. "Jannah" exclaimed the major investor Ismail Ahmed from Buroj Property Development in Dubai, when he was enjoying the view of the snow-covered Treskavica massif from the Dejčići plateau. His company has bought the high plateau and wants to invest 2.2 billion euros in the project. A dimension almost unimaginable for Bosnia. 2000 villas, 60 hotels, 186 apartment buildings, a hospital, shopping centers and restaurants are to be built here.

According to the company's calculations, the investment will pay off because construction prices in Bosnia are low. Cement and building materials are produced in the country. The company reckons with a third of the construction costs compared to projects at home. Construction work is scheduled to begin in April. Other Arab companies are also active in central Bosnia. While the super-rich from the Gulf States invest in London and spend the summer in chalets in Kitzbühel or Switzerland, here it is more the middle class who are looking for cheaper alternatives.

Typical mixed villages

The road, covered in snow and ice, winds its way up the mountainside to the village of Osjenik. The village of Pazarić can still be seen down in the valley. From the very first houses in the village, there is a unique view of the surrounding mountains. On the Bjelašnica massif, the Olympic slopes laid out in 1984 still attract thousands of skiers every day.

The former professor Alicehajic points to the Muslim cemetery, then to the Christian cemetery with the engraved images of the deceased on the gravestones. The mosque and the church reveal that this village is one of the mixed villages typical of central Bosnia, where people of different religions have lived together for centuries.

After a few hundred meters the plateau is reached. Two-story apartment buildings enclose a terrain where an artificial lake is to be created. This is indicated by the sign attached to the entrance to the site, on which the planned system of the Kuwait-based company Gulf.doo is shown graphically. Some of the houses are only half finished, and pits are being excavated by excavators. Work is going on everywhere. There will be a shopping center, mosque, restaurants and cafes. You are not allowed to enter the site yet. At least the Bosnian security guard let it be known that the first tourists should come in the summer. More than 1000 tourists from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia will be able to spend their holidays in the 160 houses.

Many men from the region now have work, unskilled laborers only get the equivalent of 15 euros a day, but "better than hanging around unemployed," says Alicehajic. The former professor is part of the Raja, the tradition-conscious educational class from the multinational Sarajevo. He is not religious, says the Bosniak. But he feared for the continued existence of traditional, tolerant Bosnian Islam. “Wahhabism and Salafism don't belong here,” he grumbles. “What does this radical Arab Islam mean for the Muslim village population? Not to speak of Christians, ”he criticizes.

The investors bought the land from the municipality, because after the war and independence, the state land in socialist Yugoslavia fell into the possession of the municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Alicehajic. “You don't need a lot of imagination to imagine the corruption that this leads to among mayors and political parties. And the Wahhabis will try to get the Muslim politicians on their side. ”After the trip to the plateau, he stops at a restaurant in Pazarić, on the table in front of him is bean soup, herbal tea and Kruska pear brandy.

The plump owner of the restaurant has listened to Alicehajic's theses. “Wait, it's not that simple. The Arabs spent a lot of money last summer, ”he says. He is now expanding the restaurant, in summer dozens of guests should be able to sit outside by the stream. Money is now coming to the region, everyone will be better off. But can he still serve alcohol? “Oh no, the Arab guests drank a lot of wine, beer and schnapps last summer, we allow that. They are happy about our Bosnian-Muslim way of life. "

Posters in Arabic

A new world has emerged in the center of Ilidža. The Arab real estate companies that have settled around the Hotel Hollywood, which was built after the war in Yugoslavia, advertise their properties in Arabic. In the hotel cafeteria, several groups of men, Arabs and Bosnians, sit close together over tea and soft drinks and roll over papers.

Emir also wants to negotiate with the Arabs. The young Bosnian from Mostar grew a beard. He wants to negotiate with the big Arab investors about the delivery of meat. “The food for the Arabs has to be halal, we can't deliver Argentinian meat to them.” Did Emir grow a beard just out of business interests? Or is it really going in the direction of "New Islam"? Alicehajic is undecided. Emir is ready to discuss questions of faith, criticizes the superficial consumer world in the West: "Only partying is boring."

A companion, a Bosnian Muslim woman, does not like Emir's appearance at all. “He didn't want to shake hands with me as a woman, we're not in Arabia,” she says, snubbed. "What is missing is that they ask us Bosnian women to veil us."

("Die Presse", print edition, February 17, 2016)