The growing presence of wealthy investors and tourists from Gulf States in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) since the 2010s has become quite a topic of discussion in the Balkan country, catalyzing the attention of many articles in local and international media over the last couple of years. The arrival of visitors from the Gulf States is encouraged by favorable conditions such as the lift of most visa requirements, the establishment of several direct flights with Sarajevo’s airport, as well as long-term investment perspectives.

The presence of Gulf States in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The advancement of Gulf States’ interests in BiH manifested itself for the first time during the years of the Yugoslav wars, when the then-president Alija Izetbegović, leader of the SDA (Stranka demokratske akcije, or “Party of Democratic Action”) Bosniak party took on a prominent role in Islamizing Bosnian institutions, allegedly supported by Middle-Eastern sponsors[1]. Since his election as party leader in 2010, Izetbegović’s son Bakir, current member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, encouraged the influx of Arab investments in the country, supporting the construction of mosques, shopping centers and residential projects by wealthy businessmen of these Middle-East countries, a move that cost him sharp criticism by part of the Bosnian society.

Among Gulf states’ investors, first came the Saudis, and their entrance became visible through the construction of shopping malls and mosques in and around Sarajevo. The King Fahd Mosque, built in 2000 in the Alipašino polje neighborhood, became the largest one in the whole Balkan region. The BBI and the Sarajevo City Center shopping centers, built in 2008 and 2014 respectively, signified a radical change in the spatial and aesthetic balances of the city[2].

The emergence of economic interests from other Gulf countries took place mainly over the course of the last 7-8 years, and in this context another important step was represented by the appearance of Al Jazeera Balkans from Qatar, which established its headquarters in Sarajevo in 2011.

In the course of the last five years, Gulf Arab investors inaugurated the trend of buying luxury estate properties to convert them into high-level residences for tourists coming from their own countries. In parallel to this, they started building villas and hotels around Sarajevo, promoting BiH as a cheap and idyllic destination to middle class families looking for alternatives to expensive holidays in Western Europe. The discovery of BiH by tourists and businessmen from these Arab countries coincided with the destabilization of traditional tourist destinations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya following the emergence of the Arab Spring movements in the area. BiH became soon popular by virtue of its lush mountains and hills, the hospitality of its inhabitants and the historical presence of Islam. The country was also seen as economically stable, with favorable conditions for investments such as the direct link of the Bosnian Mark to the Euro.

The last 3-4 years have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of visitors from the Gulf States. Among these, the majority are citizens from the United Arab Emirates,[3] as assessed from last summer’s official data provided by BiH’s Border Police. Comparing the figures of 2010–when only 65 visitors arrived from this country–with the ones of the first seven months of 2017 (amounting to almost 20,000) one can assess the impact of the new tourism trends of the Gulf States. Visitors from Kuwait form the second largest group, with a total number of 11,103. They are followed by citizens of Saudi Arabia, 9,385, and by Qatar, 1,531. Determining factors supporting the arrival of Gulf Arab tourists have been the end of visa restrictions for most of these countries and the establishment of many direct flights to Sarajevo. As far as the former is concerned, citizens from United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar don’t need visas to enter BiH. Currently, only citizens Saudi Arabia are requested to apply for a visa.

With respect to the airline connections, Sarajevo was until recently served by Fly Dubai, Air Arabia, and Nesma Airlines. However, since July 2017, new flights have been inaugurated with Wataniya Airways (since July 13th) and Qatar airways (since October 31st). Kuwait Airways has recently announced that it plans to start flights to Sarajevo soon[4], a fact that would make it the third Middle East-based airline to open new air routes toward the Bosnian capital this year, and the second from Kuwait. In contrast to the rising number of flights between Sarajevo and Middle-East cities, connections to the main European capitals remain missing: as a matter of fact no direct flights are operating to/from cities like Athens, Rome, Paris, London or Madrid.

 

Residential projects in the green areas

Another element encouraging the arrival of tourists from the Gulf Arab countries is represented by the completion of resort settlements equipped with high standard facilities, capable of accommodating thousands of visitors. Sarajevo’s suburb Ilidža, located close to Mount Igman at the city’s western end, and famous for its thermal resorts and the verdant landscape bathed by the Bosna river, stands out as one of the favorite destinations. The most sought-after properties are indeed not found in the city center, but rather outside of Sarajevo, in the surrounding green areas, such as the Poljine Hills project financed by Saudi Arabia. Located just north of the capital, about 10 minutes from the old town and 20 from the airport, this residential complex is close to be completed and will host 211 villas, aiming at becoming a real “modern gated community”.[5]

Among the many residential projects announced by foreign investors, the most impressive is probably the Buroj ozone city, which will be realized by United Arab Emirates sponsors. The residential city will be built in the Prečko Polje area of the Trnovo Municipality, around 30 km South of Sarajevo and at the foot of Mount Bjelašnica, one of the four mountains surrounding Sarajevo and home to part of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic games. Described as the “largest tourist city in South Eastern Europe”, this complex aims at becoming a holiday resort for 40,000 people, and will consist of a thousand villas, a sports hall and 75 other buildings, among which restaurants, hotels and offices. The highlight of the city will be represented by the Zayed mall, which will become the largest shopping center in all of BiH and one of the biggest in Eastern Europe, with over 800 brand stores. In addition to this, the plan includes a cable car which will allow people to reach the Bjelašnica Mountain from the city and the largest technologically developed hospital in the region. Dubai-based Buroj Company will spend around 2.5 billion Euros[6] in the project, an extremely high sum for the country, one of Europe’s poorest. Works have started for the construction of the Buroj city villas, and the expected price per square meter is around 1200 Euros.[7] Investors believe that, when realized, this tourist complex will represent a “catalyst for image building of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

 

Irregularities in the legal transactions

Beyond the rhetoric on economic progress and benefits, however, the huge Gulf Arab investments in the country have caused perplexity among different parts of the population, in specific in relation to the transparency of the financial transactions. The investigative documentary film “Arapsko proljeće u zlatnoj dolini” (Arab spring in the golden valley) by Bosnian news portal Žurnal, released in July 2017[8], analyses the huge interests of Gulf States investors in building tourist and residential settlements in BiH, and reveals a number of irregularities in the legal transactions and purchase operations. For example, it appears that many companies have been falsely registered only to consent investors to buy local properties as fast as possible, as foreign individuals are not allowed to buy property in the country, only companies are. Furthermore, the sources of the money involved in some of the projects are still not totally transparent. The documentary film sheds a light on the disproportionate number of real estate operators active in the region: only in the Ilidža and Visoko areas more than 300 agencies owned by Arab Gulf State investors are registered.

For what concerns the residential development plans, 80 settlements are being built in the Sarajevo Canton, and if such projects are realized, these would be able to host more than 150.000 people. In addition to this, Gulf Arab investors have announced the creation of 28 new settlements in the Visoko municipality, amounting to an area of 2,000,000 square meters. It is worth noting that nobody has ever assessed the ecological impact of such residential projects, often located in sensitive areas of high environmental interest. Apart from the constant erosion of green land, the amount of earth that will be moved could have a dangerous effect on the ecological balances of the affected areas, triggering mudslides in case of strong rains.[9]

 

The interest for the Arabic language and the “Arabization of the space”

Without a doubt, Gulf States visitors and investors are boosting not only the tourism sector but also the economy of BiH, which does not appear to have yet recovered from the devastating war of the 1990s. However, the consequences of their presence are also manifest on other levels of society: for example, such new trends have contributed in arising the interest of a part of the local population for the study of Arabic. This language was already present historically in BiH, especially in the context of religious institutions such as the Islamic schools, where people were taught how to read the Koran, but also in some high schools’ curricula of the capital during the times of Yugoslavia. However, the recent wave of Gulf States’ investments resulted in a new demand for Arabic courses among young people, especially in the areas of the capital most affected by the implications of the Gulf Arab visitors. Hundreds of people follow free Arabic courses at the Saudi-funded King Fahd cultural center, encouraged by the perspective of finding a job with the wealthy investors and tourists.[10]

In addition to these recent developments, the capital and the surrounding areas have witnessed what can be defined as a phenomenon of “Arabization” of the public space: store signs and banners written in Arabic have made their appearance in different parts of the capital and in other areas of the country. In Sarajevo examples of such kind are found in the central Baščaršija, BBI shopping mall, and especially in Ilidža, where real estate and tourist agencies, cafeterias, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops and dentists, all advertise in Arabic. In addition to this, printed materials distributed by tourist agencies are now also written in this language. The municipality, due to the high visibility of shops with signs in the Arabic language and the presence of foreigners from the Gulf States, has now been ironically re-baptized by locals as “Kuvajt city”.[11]

 

Conclusions

The reactions of the local population towards the new trends in tourism and investments have not been always positive. As an effect of real estate purchases and investments around Sarajevo, prices of properties have gone up substantially and people are afraid that Arab businessmen will be the ones prevailing on the real estate market. On online forums and popular media the main titles regarding the topic relate to the question describing Arabs “buying Sarajevo”, “inundating Sarajevo”, “adoring Bosnia”, but also “buying Serbian land”. Indeed, it is often Serbian citizens who are selling their land to the new Arab investors. Bosnian worries are mainly economic, but the issue has assumed a further social and ethnic connotation, and, as especially evidenced by the Bosnian Serbs’ reactions, the situation could instill feelings of islamophobia, and desires of secession, thus creating a deeper divide between the different communities living in the country.

 

Giustina Selvelli

Ph.D. graduate in Modern Languages, Cultures and Societies and Linguistics (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


Notes and references

[1] Bardos, G.N. (2016, 30 November). Arabia Moves to Bosnia: The implications of the Middle-Eastern influx into Central Bosnia. American Center for Democracy. Retrieved from: http://acdemocracy.org/arabia-moves-to-bosnia-the-implications-of-the-middle-eastern-influx-into-central-bosnia/

[2] Nuhefendić, A. (2017, 26 June). Bakir il figlio di papà. Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso. Retrieved from: https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/aree/Bosnia-Erzegovina/Bakir-il-figlio-di-papa-180850

[3] Aščić, M. (2017, 13 August). Za sedam mjeseci u BiH ušlo 42.627 Arapa. Dnevni Avaz. Retrieved from: http://avaz.ba/vijesti/bih/290961/za-sedam-mjeseci-u-bih-uslo-42-627-arapa

[4] Anon. (2017, 4 July). Kuwait Airways to launch Sarajevo flights. Ex-Yu Aviation News. Retrieved from: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2017/07/kuwait-airways-to-launch-sarajevo.html

[5] See: http://poljinehills.com/en/index.php#about-section

[6] Cerkez, A., (2015, December 30). Arab investors pour in billions to make Bosnia a holiday hit. The Morning Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.morningjournal.com/article/MJ/20151229/ENTERTAINMENT/151229632

[7] Anon. (2017, 1 August). Construction of Six Villas of Buroj Ozone finally started?. Sarajevo Times. Retrieved from: http://www.sarajevotimes.com/construction-six-villas-buroj-ozone-finally-started/

[8] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9RWOptbE9g

[9] Stockmans, P. (2016, 24 September). Wealthy Arabs buy up Sarajevo. Diem25. Retrieved from: https://diem25.org/wealthy-arabs-buy-up-sarajevo/

[10] Džidić, B. (2017, 8 April). Arapski na Balkanu najpoželjniji jezik za učenje. Al Jazeera Balkans. Retrieved from: http://balkans.aljazeera.net/vijesti/arapski-na-balkanu-najpozeljniji-jezik-za-ucenje

[11] Hassan Haidar, D. (2016, 17 July). Sarajevska Ilidža sad je postala – Kuvajt City. Večernji List. Retrieved from: https://www.vecernji.hr/premium/sarajevska-ilidza-sad-je-postala-kuvajt-city-1099904/galerija-206178?page=7