RAWABI, West Bank — For the Palestinian city of the future to achieve its destiny, it needs to attract the right residents, and now it has a vital component — a $450 million business and shopping center replete with the world’s top brands.
The massive Q-center — named after its shape (and possibly its Qatari backers) — is the new location where Palestinians can find Armani suits, Calvin Klein jeans, Lacoste polo shirts and Michael Kors handbags.
Rawabi, located on hills northeast of Ramallah, is a mammoth $1.4 billion project, aimed at building a modern, sleek city that wants to show that the Palestinians have what it takes to build a state — and build it well.
The city’s founder, Palestinian businessman Bashar Masri, admits that so far it has been a losing investment. But he, and his deep-pocketed business partner — the Qatari government—are committed to seeing the project through.
When it’s finished, Rawabi will be more like a city-state than a city: It has its own water treatment plant, its own schools, and soon its own hospital — all of which are private.
From the sleek high-rises that are reminiscent of an upscale Israeli suburb to the high-speed internet fiber cable, and the largest amphitheater in the entire Middle East —153,000 square meters (about 1.65 million square feet) — everything in Rawabi is top quality. The Palestinian Authority has paid nothing for what some have called the “flagship city” of a potential Palestinian state.
The slogan of the city is “Live, work, grow.” The idea is that Rawabi will be an all-encompassing experience, rather than just a bedroom community. The latest component is key for it to be truly self-contained, as it needs to provide high-quality jobs and attract skilled workers.
The first phase of Masri’s job creation strategy is to turn Rawabi into a “cluster of technology.” And to do that, he needs to draw hi-tech workers and entrepreneurs. “What are the things technology people like to see, the young westernized yuppie making a good income? They like fashion, nice food, and movie theaters,” Masri said.
If he can attract the right talent and create the right atmosphere, Masri hopes Rawabi can become a Palestinian “Silicon Valley” that would generate on-site jobs and bring in outside investors.
The software developer Asal Technologies employs almost 200 workers in the Q center’s commercial offices, while the Israeli tech firm Melanox has 100 jobs at the site.
“Is that success?” asked Masri rhetorically. “It’s a start.”
Rawabi, according to Masri, is already the largest private employer in the Palestinian Authority, creating around 8,000 — 10,000 jobs, both “direct and indirect.”
The Palestinian businessman is also keen to “capitalize on proximity to Israel.”
He envisions both international tech companies based in Israel and Israeli tech companies outsourcing mid-level jobs to Rawabi, rather than to far-away places like India or Ukraine.
And even though travel from Israel to the West Bank is not straightforward, in the hi-tech industry, where much of the commerce is done online, Masri said borders become less problematic.
But not all the complexities and impediments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be avoided so easily.
Phase 2, for a logistics and light industries area on the outskirts of the city, is already underway, but it has hit a familiar speed-bump — Israeli military bureaucracy.
Construction on the site was frozen by the Israeli military — which controls access to the West Bank — because the entrance to the project runs through Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control.
And even though the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has often touted the idea of an economic peace — whereby Israel helps the Palestinian economy boom, and in return Israel would see Palestinian political stability — Masri said that in reality he encounters obstacles instead of receiving assistance.
When he speaks to Israeli politicians, they say they “love” the Rawabi project, Masri said. “But that’s political talk.
“On the delivery,” he added, his voice rising in anger, “they are always too little, too damned late.”
Rawabi was ready for residents to start entering their homes in 2014, but it took Israel, which controls the flow of water into Palestinian cities, more than two years to agree to connect the new city to the grid.
Beyond costing Masri millions of dollars for the delay, the businessman still blames the water saga for “ruining the euphoria” around Rawabi.
Even today, the stunning and open-spaced city is somewhat of a ghost town. Driving through Rawabi, one has to look carefully for signs of life. This might be a flower-pot on an isolated balcony, or a few bikes at the front door.
Only between 2,500 — 3,000 people currently live here. When construction is completed in five to seven years, Rawabi is slated to have 8,000 apartments spread across 23 different neighborhoods.
The new shopping center can also be misleading. While the variety of stores and designer labels gives the appearance of outside investment, the truth is that all the stores — except one cafe — are owned by Rawabi itself. There’s also a dry cleaners and a supermarket in the residential area that are privately owned, but the owners of these establishments won’t pay rent for another three years.
Masri said that the perception that Rawabi is unstable scares off outside investors. “There is a feeling among Palestinians that Rawabi is isolated,” he added.
He pointed to the single “dinky” road leading up to the city. Because the entrance to Rawabi is in Area C, Masri still doesn’t have permission from Israel to build a normal entrance road.
There is also a standing Israeli military checkpoint between Rawabi and Ramallah. Masri argued the checkpoint prevents people who are looking for a stress-free shopping day from visiting the city.
Rawabi has also been accused by some Palestinians of “collaboration” with Israel, as some of its suppliers are Israeli companies, and because Masri coordinates with the Israeli authorities.
Masri is adamant that he does not negotiate with Israel as a private businessman, but only through his position on a PA appointed committee to communicate with the Jewish state about the project.
There is also a feeling among Palestinians that Rawabi is just for the rich, reinforced by the fact that Masri said that in order to drive traffic to Rawabi, he won’t allow any brand inside the Q-Center that already exists anywhere else in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.
However according to Ibrahaim Natour, a contracts manager for Rawabi, apartments in the town are, on average, cheaper than those in nearby Ramallah. A 94-square meter (1011 square feet) apartment goes for $65,000-70,000. A four-bedroom apartment will cost around $160,000.
A day out
But even as the commercial center waits for the city to develop, Masri has hopes that it can be an attraction for Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank.
Products in the shopping center will not be discounted just because the Palestinian economy is underdeveloped. Still, any Palestinian who wants an NIS 600 ($170) pair of Tommy Hilfiger pants, or an even more expensive shirt by the Italian yacht-fashion company Paul and Shark, can now acquire such items without having to go too far.
Natour, the contracts manager, conceded that the new shopping center might be beyond the purchasing power of many Palestinians, and is really geared to the upper-middle class and higher.
But, he noted, Palestinians from across the socioeconomic spectrum travel to Jordan or to the Malha mall in Jerusalem when seeking something special for a rare occasion or gift. Now they can get those products in their own backyard.
The first shop
While shoppers, residents, and even workers are still scarce, there are some signs of hope.
Murad Howari was the first Palestinian entrepreneur to open a store in the Q-Center. He owns Shishapresso, an upscale cafe, where $4-cappuccinos and shisha, also known as hookah, are enjoyed together.
Howari opened his first cafe in Ramallah two years ago, and it has been a smash hit. He is now expanding into Nablus in the northern West Bank and Egypt, which he said makes him the first Palestinian franchise outside of the Palestinian territories.
And if a deal to open up a branch in the Arab-Israeli town of Kafr Qassem goes well, he will soon become one of the few Palestinian businessmen who employs Israelis.
When asked why he chose to invest in the city, he said, “I believe in Rawabi. I believe the future here is going to be very good.”