China wins Belt and Road fans but criticism persists

China has invested $90 billion in projects since the Belt and Road in 2013 was launched, while banks have provided between $200 billion and $300 billion in loans. (AFP)
Updated 23 April 2019

China wins Belt and Road fans but criticism persists

  • The initiative envisages massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects across 65 countries
  • China added a key nation to its roster when Italy became the first G7 member to sign on to the project

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping will lead a hard sales push at a Beijing summit this week, to corral more countries into a global infrastructure project at the core of China’s superpower ambitions and win over those who see a strategic threat.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisages massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects across 65 countries from Asia to Europe and Africa that collectively account for 30 percent of global GDP.
If fully realized, it could shape the world economic and geopolitical landscape for decades to come.
But its scope and ambition have divided Europe, while US officials have called it a “vanity project,” and detractors have warned that it is laden with debt risks and opaque deals favoring Chinese firms and labor.
Despite the criticism, momentum appears to be on Xi’s side, with leaders from 37 countries flocking to Beijing for the three-day summit beginning Thursday.
It’s the second such event, with an inaugural 2017 summit bringing 29 leaders together.
China added a key nation to its Belt and Road roster when Italy became the first G7 member to sign on to the project last month.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will participate in the summit and Switzerland appears set to sign on with President Ueli Maurer flying to Beijing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders from Europe, Asia and Africa will also attend, but major EU nations are sending ministers and the United States said it would not have a high-level delegation.
Since Xi launched Belt and Road in 2013, China has invested $90 billion in projects while banks have provided between $200 billion and $300 billion in loans, according to Xiao Weiming, a Chinese government official overseeing Belt and Road.
Examples of debt trouble abound.
Sri Lanka turned over a deep-sea port to China for 99-years after it was unable to repay loans. Pakistan needs an international bailout. And Montenegro has had to make difficult choices after taking on crushing Chinese debt to pay a Chinese company to build a new highway.
It has also become an election issue in some countries.
Chinese officials say the projects foster development in poor countries and Xiao dismissed “debt trap” warnings as repeating “the same old tune.”
Foreign Minister Wang Yi denied last week that the project was a “geopolitical tool,” though he admitted that “jointly building the Belt and Road is a developing process, it won’t happen overnight, and there will inevitably be some troubles.”
Italy rolled out a red carpet for Xi Jinping in Rome last month and signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road, with Beijing planning to invest in Italian ports.
The NATO member country’s ascension drew consternation in Brussels and Washington, and even within the leadership of Rome’s ruling coalition — Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said Italy would be “no-one’s colony.”
For China, the initiative is both a practical solution to economic issues at home and a way to expand its global influence — a key concern for Xi, who frequently trumpets the goal of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
It “alleviates a lot of the built up excess industrial capacity that results from the Chinese economic model,” said James Bowen of the Perth US-Asia Center.
“Chinese workers need jobs and China has materials that need to be exported and built out in other countries rather than in China.”
The World Bank estimates that Belt and Road funded infrastructure could marginally boost trade and officials there say it is offering funding in areas where it is sorely needed.
But the money comes as loans instead of aid, requiring countries to pay China back for the massive projects its companies and people build.
Pushing back has proved a successful election issue in Asia, including in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia, as the trademark infrastructure push is used to whip up fears about eroding sovereignty.
In the Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih claimed victory last year on the back of an anti-corruption campaign targeting the opaque deals with Beijing and “China’s colonialism.”
Opposition candidates in Sri Lanka and Malaysia similarly wielded the debt laden deals to victory.
The new Malaysian prime minister canceled some and renegotiated a rail project cutting 30 percent off the price tag.


INTERVIEW: The greatest Arab show on earth — and its legacy

Updated 31 min 37 sec ago

INTERVIEW: The greatest Arab show on earth — and its legacy

  • Marjan Faraidooni explains key role Expo 2020 Dubai will play for the UAE — and Saudi Arabia’s crucial participation

DUBAI: Any skeptics about Expo 2020 Dubai — and there are a few who still have reservations about the extravaganza that will open to exuberant fanfare next year in the UAE — should spend an hour or two with Marjan Faraidooni.

She is the executive in charge of the pavilions and exhibitions on the huge site in south Dubai, and crucially, she has responsibility for “legacy” — what will remain after the show packs up in April 2021. She is calmly confident that the event will be a big success.

“It’s a challenge, but we have the mechanisms in place to make sure we meet that challenge,” she said amid the bustle of the Expo headquarters. It was August, and the holiday season, but there was no sign of any slackening in activity in the administrative hub, nor on the site itself. The clock is ticking down to the opening on Oct. 20 next year.

The scale of the event is mind-boggling. Over six months, the site will be visited some 25 million times, triple the population of the UAE. A previous Expo executive described it as the biggest ever gathering of people in the Arab world. It is expected to give a significant boost to the regional economy, and leave a permanent new city on the southern borders of Dubai.

But the doubters have been nagging away ever since Dubai won the right to stage the world fair in 2013. Would it be ready on time? Would it justify the financial outlay by boosting the UAE economy? Would it leave a lasting legacy or risk becoming a multibillion-dollar white elephant in the desert?

Faraidooni is convinced on all counts. On delivery, she said: “Yes, we are on track and although it’s not my direct remit, as part of the senior management team we are all responsible for doing whatever it takes to get this Expo delivered on time.”

Construction is progressing well. Earlier this year, Expo announced that the three “thematic districts” — reflecting its key themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity — were complete, with more than 100 million working hours clocked on the site.

Faraidooni said that many of the 192 individual units built by the participating countries or organizations had already broken ground — including the big pavilion housing the Saudi presence — and that key infrastructure and transport around the site was well under way. An extension to the Dubai metro system and new roadways are under construction, as is apparent from the hectic construction activity around the site.


BIO

BORN: Dubai

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in human physiology and master’s in public health, University of Boston, US

CAREER

• Instructor, Sharjah Women’s College

• Special projects analyst, executive office of Dubai ruler

• Senior manager, Dubai Healthcare City

• Portfolio strategy director, Dubai Holding

• Chief pavilions and exhibitions officer, Expo 2020 Dubai


On the economic benefits of the project, Faraidooni pointed to a recent study by consultants EY which projected a big boost to the Dubai economy and a permanent increase in jobs.

“This Expo is happening in a location that is critical to the development of Dubai as a city and close to a new airport. A lot of infrastructure has been developed not only to service the Expo but for this whole area of Dubai,” she said.

Some economists have talked about the “Expo effect” as a factor that will boost the economy, especially the real estate market, which has been in the doldrums for several years.

That economic development is part of the legacy Faraidooni believes Expo will deliver. “The future is something we think about on a daily basis,” she said. The site will become a new addition to the Dubai urban scene, a mixed-use development called District 2020: A mixture of a business park, an exhibition center and a residential area with retail, leisure and cultural features, based around the Al-Wasl centerpiece.

Two big international corporations — Siemens, the German engineer, and Accenture, the international consulting firm — have already said they will base significant operations on the Expo site once the event ends, and Faraidooni hinted that other big global businesses are interested.

“We think of it as the place that happened to hold the Expo for six months. It will hold all the cultural and educational assets that played a fundamental role in the project,” she said.

We will have thousands of people coming through the doors on a daily basis.

Her infectious enthusiasm for the Expo project — she has been involved in it since the very beginning — is most obvious when it comes to discussing the actual content of the thematic pavilions that form the core of the experience.

She admitted the three key themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity are “heavy themes, traditionally discussed in the UN and other political environments,” so the challenge has been how to make those accessible and enjoyable as well as informative.

“We will have thousands of people coming through the doors on a daily basis, so how do we quickly send them the Expo message in a way that inspires them and educates them? That’s what I do on a daily basis. It’s one of the best parts of my job,” she said.

As Faraidooni describes it, the sustainability pavilion, called Terra, will be quite an attraction in its own right. Designed by the renowned British firm Grimshaw Architects, the pavilion has a diameter of 130 meters and its roof consists of solar panels that will make it self-sustaining in energy use. “You won’t miss the sustainability pavilion — it’s like a spaceship has landed on the site,” she said.

The “theatrical approach” Faraidooni had adopted in the pavilions involves simulating different experiences that hammer home the sustainability message in Terra. “When you come through the entrance of the building you’ll be given two choices: Do you want to go through the forest, or under the ocean? We take you through chapters of experience that inspire you about the world you live in,” she explained, mentioning an encounter with a “giant fish with stacks of plastic in its belly” to highlight environmental threats.

An aerial view of the Expo 2020 site in Dubai. (Courtesy of Expo2020Dubai.com)

The two other thematic pavilions involve a similar mixture of entertainment and experience, but with a serious message and a flavor of Emirati and Arabic heritage.

In the mobility pavilion, visitors encounter famous Arabic navigators and travelers who led the way in exploration techniques, as well as modern examples from the ports company DP World and Dubai Smart City.

In the opportunity pavilion, visitors will view the world through the lens of the UN sustainable development goals, and what the implementation of those targets can mean for everyday experiences.

No detail is too small. Expo recently announced an international competition to design water fountains for the site — the Sabeel fountain project — which will invite designs for 40 locations around the site, highlighting the role that the communal provision of water has played in Arab and Islamic culture.

Saudi Arabia will be a key participant at Expo. The Kingdom’s pavilion — the second biggest on the site after the UAE’s — is themed on a gigantic mirror rising into the sky, but firmly attached to the ground, “reflecting a society deeply rooted in its culture but with unlimited ambitions,” according to the official statement.

“It’s very advanced, like something out of a sci-fi movie, and very interesting. The Saudi pavilion looks like it’s going to be one of the main attractions on the whole site. We’re very excited about it,” Faraidooni added. Expo rates Saudi Arabia as the second-largest source market for visitors next year, after India, accounting for a significant number of the 11 million anticipated foreign visitors.

Foreigners will make up 70 percent of the visitors to Expo, but the majority are expected from the UAE, who are being encouraged to come more than once, with a program to Emirati and regional schools to ensure youthful participation.

A big role will be played by Emirates Airline, one of the official partners of Expo, which is working on plans to persuade transit passengers to visit the site, as well as tourists on holiday in the UAE. So the goal of 25 million visits, labeled as overly ambitious by some critics, is eminently achievable. “Of course it’s feasible. Everything is feasible,” Faraidooni said.

She is acutely aware that the deadline is approaching. “We’re doing a lot, but there is so much more we could do, but we’re constrained by time. We know we have to open our doors and there is no question about that date whatsoever,” she said.

Faraidooni faces a personal challenge too: What to do once the Expo closes its doors on the last visitor in spring 2021? “This is a once-in-a-lifetime job. Anything I do after this is going to be boring,” she said.