For the Glory of the Lord (and of the President)

What better way to spend the bounty of high oil prices than importing thousands of Chinese construction workers to build one of the world’s biggest mosques? Well, writes Algeria’s Yassine Temlali, maybe there are better ways…

When it was first proposed, the Algiers Grand Mosque seemed to have a touch of the fresh and forward thinking to it; it arrived when the country was flush with revenues from high oil prices, and it proposed elements of urban open space and even public entertainment in a city with few parks and little green space. But as the project launches, it is increasingly seen as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s private project, raised mainly to his own uncertain glory.

The people in charge of managing Algeria’s economy have recently been anything but silent when it comes to the government’s weak financial situation, which is just as dependent on petroleum revenues as it ever was. Belts must be tightened, they insist, some even advocating freezing salaries and new public sector hiring.

In short, austerity is the order of the day in everywhere…except apparently in the spiritual domain. Notwithstanding all of the speeches on the need to rationalize state spending in anticipation of the terrible crises to come, the Algiers Grand Mosque is still on track. Not a murmur about abandoning this vast scheme, which President Bouteflika intends to raise to the glory of the Lord and of himself, whatever the cost for taxpayers. And for good reason: this mosque is meant as a symbolic substitute for the moldy old Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution. And perhaps more importantly it is meant to outdo the mosque of Hassan II in Morocco. To promote piety among this impious people, its minaret will rise to 265 meters (870 feet), a height which, not boasting of course, would surpass its Moroccan rival by a good 60 meters. From that altitude, who can say to whom the muezzins will be addressing their calls, to we humans down below? To the inhabitants of the heavens? The ways of the lord are inscrutable.

The Algiers Grand Mosque complex (with its library, museum, etc) are expected to cost, we should note, 1.5 billion dollars. That is about two percent of Algeria’s gross exports, ($73.4 billion in 2012), or alternatively 3/4 of the country’s rather meager non-hydrocarbon exports ($2.18 billion in 2012). Obviously, this cost, already astronomical for a non-productive project that contributes nothing to economic development, could rise significantly. The East-West Highway project, announced and budgeted at $7 billion in 2005, ended up costing $12 billion in the end. Cost overruns are of course even more probable given that the managers of CSCEC, to whom the vast project has been awarded, are such paragons of moral rigor that they are on an international blacklist.

If this mosque were being constructed by businessmen anxious to be washed clean of their past and future sins, or by altruistic benefactors from Gulf countries, its construction would raise the ire of no one. The problem is that it is already hard enough getting bourgeois Algerians to pay their taxes: it is a fantasy to imagine that they will empty their pockets for the love of God or Bouteflika. As for our Arabian brothers, they are occupied at the moment with financing various armed fundamentalist groups . In Syria they deal out an Islamic equivalent for every secular massacre by supporters of the Assad family, all under the legal direction of Wahabbi muftis.

The resource problem posed by this project goes beyond the colossal budgets that it will gulp down. Once it is finished, the Algiers Grand Mosque will be a formidable budgetary black hole. The government brags the construction will create 17,000 jobs, 10 thousand of them for Algerians. But not a word about the future budgets necessary to pay for the 1,600 permanent employees of the complex, who, though convinced of the nobility of their sacred tasks, will certainly not content themselves with abstract divine rewards; they will need to be paid. And of course not a word to explain to us why fiscal belt-tightening means the state needs to freeze hiring in sectors like health and education, but go on a hiring spree in the religion department. Aren’t Religious Affairs part of the public sector?

One and a half billion dollars for a mosque, while the Central Bank is issuing warnings on dwindling budget revenues if crude oil prices don’t hold above $100 a barrel. One and a half billion dollars for a project from which Algeria will reap nothing but pious prayers as incapable of heading off a new oil price shock as the Prayer for Rain is for heading off global warming. One and a half billion dollars that would have been better spent on roads, on schools…on hospitals. Isn’t the Algiers Grand Hospital a more urgent need, if nothing else so that the next time the President gets sick he doesn’t have to run off for treatment to a military hospital in a foreign country?

Yassin Temlali