Eritrea beckons fun-loving Saudi men

Three years after splitting from Ethiopia, a new nation is making its mark, as Richard Dowden discovers
THE Nobile is not the first thing that catches your eye as you drive across the causeway to the Eritrean port of Massawa. You are more likely to notice the funnels or prows of sunken wrecks sticking out of the bay. Or the battered and rusting tanks which stand at the end of the causeway. Or even the shell holes blasted in the sides of the warehouses.

Yet when you reach the harbour - many of its buildings amazingly rebuilt from the rubble of war nearly five years ago - you suddenly catch sight of the sleek white hull of a magnificent schooner which looks as if it has sailed straight out of an advert for a Caribbean luxury cruise.

Maurizio Pazzelli, the equally elegant captain of the Nobile, sails her regularly to the Dahlak islands, taking a dozen tourists 30 miles to some of the finest scuba diving in the world. The magnificent corals and exotic sea-life owe their survival to the fact that the islands were a Soviet naval base for more than 20 years, closed off to all other visitors. The only inhabitants are a few fishermen and their families who manage to survive the high saline content of the island's scant fresh water.

But Captain Pazzelli is not the only one to see the tourism potential of the islands. An American company, Development Concepts, signed a contract with the Eritrean government last month to develop a huge leisure and pleasure complex on the islands with several hotels, casinos, a marina, golf course and equestrian centre.

The target of the resort - less than 45 minutes' flying time from Mecca - will be wealthy Saudis in search of pleasures forbidden at home. The resort is built round an enclosed bay eight miles across with a marina for more than 100 boats. Alongside a five-star hotel, the holiday village will offer villas at $3,000 a night.

Many wealthy Saudis take their wives and families on holiday with them but confine them to their hotels - often hiring a whole floor for months to avoid exposing them to Western ways. Here there will be a separate, self-contained hotel for women and children, staffed entirely by women ... located some miles from the main resort, the intention clearly being that the men can deposit their wives while they pursue their own interests elsewhere.

The pounds 135m project is the brainchild of a Texan contractor, BK Anderson, who has worked in the region for many years and is close to the new Eritrean government. Work is expected to begin shortly, as the two-mile-long Soviet built airstrip is paved. A power station is already built, and water will be provided by a new desalination plant.

Mr Anderson aims to open for New Year, 1999. The Eritrean government will take 40 per cent of the gross revenue of the resort. In return, it will guarantee the loan for the new infrastructure and provide security. But the project is unlikely to be universally acclaimed. While the ruling Saudi family may turn a blind eye to the project, it is expected to provide ammunition for Islamic fundamentalists as well as attracting criticism from environmentalists.

In the region itself, the plan has been dubbed as "impudent" by some observers. The Eritreans are among the poorest people in the world. Their neighbours, the Saudis, just across the Red Sea, are some of the richest. It is not yet three years since the Eritreans split from Ethiopia after defeating the Ethiopian army in 1991. But the new country has shown a remarkable degree of aggression in asserting its rights in the region, seizing 14 Egyptian fishing boats in its waters last year, and in December seizing one of the Hanish islands further down the Red Sea from Yemen.

While some suggest that Eritrea's motive for taking the islands may be to do with offshore oil and fishing rights, others point out that Yemen recently granted an Italian company the concession to develop the island - as a tourist resort.

8 Richard Dowden is on the staff of the 'Economist'