The Constructed City of Rawabi
By Jinchen Zou
The dry desert wind does not kindly look after the vegetation clinging to the rolling hills in the West Bank. Thus, it is surprising to find a patch of pristine green grass on a hillside forty minutes north of the central city of Ramallah, transplanted directly from the perfectly manicured lawns belonging to cookie cutter suburban houses in less rain-scarce areas. This patch of grass makes up a part of the first planned city in Palestine, Rawabi.
My first impression of Rawabi comes from the flawless water fountain sprouting in front of a gigantic amphitheater. According to our guide, a representative from the company that directs the construction and operation of Rawabi, this amphitheater is the largest one in the Middle East, built to provide a venue for entertainment for not only the 40,000 people projected to live in this planned city but also for the rest of Palestine. Rows upon rows of cut limestone steps lead the eyes up to towering block buildings that make up the center of the city.
Amidst the grandeur, driving through the city, Rawabi hauntingly resembles a ghost town, with loose construction materials still scattered around the base of many buildings. The unfinished wires hang with an air of permanence. We seem to have intruded into a moment frozen in time, an idea of a city that remained an idea. Above the grandiose amphitheater, the squares of the dark windows in the buildings seem like gaping holes, calling to the incredible sense of emptiness that permeates the entire city. In the moment, it is difficult to imagine this amphitheater teeming with people of Palestine.
Our guide continues to proudly pronounce the imagined splendor of Rawabi: the malls will fill with luxurious brands and attract foreigners passing through the West Bank, the main street of Rawabi will sweep from the top of the hill down through all the neighborhoods, the children will attend English school here and play at this playground in the afternoon. Against the backdrop of the semi-constructed buildings and under the shadow of a certain occupation, the idyllic depiction seems no more than an unlikely vision. What was alarming was not the level of ambition displayed but rather the unwavering conviction embedded in the spoken promises. It almost reminds me of times when people buy into an empty dream even though they know that it will never come true.
The man behind this venture is Bashar Masri, whose family imposes a significant presence on the Palestinian economy. The company overseeing the construction of Rawabi, Bayti Real Estate Investment Company, has joint ownership between Masri’s company Massar International and the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company. The city’s connection with Palestinian government, however, is unclear. Tensions sparked when politicking between the Palestinian government and Israeli government prevented Rawabi from accessing water the city needed to be viable. Accesss to water for the city has been a constant source of headache for Masri. To circumvent the dysfunctional Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, Masri elicited help from a US lobbying group to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to executively grant access to the Israeli water grid. The water issue is one of many issues surrounding Rawabi often contested and heavily criticized by factions on both side of the larger conflict, including Israeli settlers and Palestinian BDS movements.
Unlike than the almost maniacal utopian vision the entire city projects, Bashar Masri possesses quite an unassuming and rational air. Though the concept of Rawabi is extremely out of place in the West Bank, Masri is a savvy businessman after all, and he answered our concerns reasonably and with tact. Yes, he says, the exoskeletons that we observe around us do seem absurd, but the motivations merit consideration. Rawabi is Masri’s approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In favor of the two-state solution, Masri argues that the independent Palestine will need a thriving economy and a functioning governing structure. Therefore, “why not build up the capacity now?”
Construction of Rawabi began in 2010. Since August 2015, residents have started to move into the apartments in the midst of ongoing construction. Demand for the apartments has dropped since the eruption of the water crisis, and the company faces definite losses in its operations. Investors are difficult to come by, not many are willing to take the geopolitical risks involved. Despite the financial loss of $100 million, when asked why they continue to pursue a project in the red instead of ditching it, Masri responds that money is not a worry as he has the means to fund the project personally. The project is “going out of control in a very nice way,” Masri says. Rather, it is the ideal that he is chasing. So, as long as the planned city still has a sliver of chance to become a functioning city, the construction of Rawabi will continue, irrespective of the slow pace of progress.
The euphoria from the conception of the Rawabi project has long dissipated. A project like this anywhere in the US would require an energetic and constantly optimistic force to bring to success, never mind that Rawabi is in Palestine. Enveloped in its many layers of political complexity, Rawabi takes a punch with every political obstacle. No wonder the original optimism and excitement has turned sour, and the quest now seems quixotic. Despite this, the project plows on. I give credit to Masri for carrying forth the pursuit. In some ways, Masri imbues the project with quite the laid back atmosphere; he will solve the problems when he comes to them, and they’ll see where time leads them.
Next month, Masri and our guide promise, Rawabi will bring together the hippest musicians and throw the biggest party Palestine has ever seen.
Jinchen Zou is a rising junior in Calhoun double majoring in Global Affairs and Economics and Mathematics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.