Spain: a Peaceful Reconquista

From Algeria’s second city Oran, where many important families trace their lineage to Arab Spain, a quiet little reconquista of southern Spain is underway.

The absence of investment opportunities for middle class Algerians means that almost all savings are plowed into domestic real estate, a situation which has pushed apartment prices in Algeria’s major cities to absurd heights. Since 2009, it has been cheaper by far to buy a good apartment in the depressed south of Spain than in much of urban Algeria.

The result is that many wealthy Algerians are investing there, while even the less fortunate nourish dreams of “Andalousie mon amour » , writes Kamel Daoud with a certain malicious glee.

The dream of al-Andalus has been reawakened-by advertisements for cheap Spanish apartments in the Algerian press.

What if the reconquista of this land lost to Islam, the Al-Andalus of al-Qaeda’s jihadi imaginaire, but equally the Andalucia that is the promised land of the immigrant traffickers-were realized in the end by real estate agencies?

An auspicious reconquest, without weapons, without war, without bodies.

The myth of “Spain, land of abundance” has been reborn over the past few months on a flood of advertisements selling villas, houses or apartments in second-rate tourist areas such as Alicante or Benidorm among others.

The apartments come cheap: 40,000 euros and often much less. This is cheaper than a three bedroom apartment in Oran, where the average prices go well beyond 80,000 euros.

Now that is something new to dream of, a new conversation for the unemployed men idling their days away in cafes all over the country. The buzz in Oran for months now has been how much cheaper the cost of living is in [Spain’s] Alicante than in Oran.

As it happens, the savviest Oranians have already been exploiting this little vein of gold for several years.

Who are they? First, they are the Oranian businessmen who saw Spain’s (ongoing) economic crisis coming. They discovered that, unlike France or any other country in Europe, the Spaniards are relatively easy about giving out visas, that they deal with red tape quickly, and they offer attractive banking terms to foreigners.

The trend can be traced back to the year 2000, when the first public works contracts between Spanish companies (some 150 of them), and the City of Oran established new links. In Oran, the Spaniards are building the tramway, the water systems, fertilizer factories and will soon begin work on enormous housing projects.

As a result, businessmen from both countries are working with one another, and making money together. And perforce, new assets:

“I bought a hotel in Spain,” says one realtor from Oran. “Not because I want to live there. What I wanted is the ability to have a Spanish residency card. I am getting old and I need to have access to a quality healthcare system. And my residency card is my way into it.”

“Residency” is the key word in this exchange of wealth between Oran and Spain. Indeed, more and more Spaniards are getting married in Oran, settling down here; they are launching restaurants, thinking about opening health clinics. For years now, they have been working on their cultural and linguistic profile among the locals. (The number of Algerians who are learning Spanish in Spain’s cultural centers is much higher than the Algerians studying French in France’s cultural centers).

And conversely, tourists from Oran are increasingly heading to Spain’s beaches for their holidays. The low cost plane tickets (Alicante is only 20 minutes away), the proximity, the relatively easy visas, and the presence of a tourism industry that simply doesn’t exist in Algeria, are all factors in Spain’s growing popularity.

While middle class Algerians have gotten wealthier in the past few years, the domestic tourism industry has not exactly taken off-slowed down by a lack of investment, but also by a general atmosphere of rising religious bigotry and moralizing. There is nowhere better than Spain to throw your money around, drink some alcohol, and forget about veiled women, screeching mosques, unpleasant taxi drivers, surly waiters and dingy bars.

“I am able to maintain a certain mental balance only thanks to my magical formula,” says the realtor. “Three days in Spain, four days in Oran.”

In Spain, the real estate market has never been so cheap and the whole world knows it. Especially the Algerians. And the misfortunes of our European neighbor are generating the fortunes of Oran’s biggest businessmen.

“I usually send my kids to Spain for their holidays,” says one. “So why not just buy an apartment there, it is less costly than the high season rentals?”

That is a second option. An investment in endless holidays in a country that actually caters to tourism, where there are no hijabs but alcohol, clubs, cleanliness and comfort, night life and sexual freedom.

The flow of people between Oran and the Spanish coasts has increased, and an increasing number of Spanish real estate agencies specialize in tourist clientele from Oran.

Who else has joined the Spanish real estate “Reconquista?”

Executive women who have some money, but who cannot find the life they want in Algeria, women with the means to pay for their freedom and for the right to get out and have some fun. Along with them the children of the wealthy, young entrepreneurs or company CEOs, old businessmen, rich holiday jet-setters.

The flow is encouraged by Spain’s consular services in Oran. Choosing between an uncontrolled and profitless immigration in desperate rowboats, and an immigration of elites with money is no choice at all.

Spain is in crisis, and it is neither Al Qaeda nor the rowboats that seem to be recapturing it, but simply money. And Spain is perfectly happy with that.

So, among the numerous reasons that Oranians are buying up real estate in Spain: the “Spanish dream,” the comforts of the place, that European residency card. And here is one final reason: the Arab Spring.

“It is simple. I know young entrepreneurs who think it is a good precaution to buy real estate in Spain, and to deposit their money in the Spanish banks,” explains one Oran resident. “Algeria is not a stable country and the risk of a local ‘Spring’ makes a lot of people plan an escape hatch, a roof over their head and some money in Europe if things go to hell here.”

So the crisis in Spain is a blessing for all those who worry about the imminence of an “Algerian spring”:the bosses of big companies, politicians, retired high-ranking army officers, local apparatchiks. The Spanish connection is even useful for money laundering; with the crash, Spain does not care where the money comes from.

Long after the fall of Grenada in 1492, some of the most prominent families from Oran, their wealth and importance handed down from father to son, can trace their descent directly to Arab families exiled by Spain in the Reconquista. And these were the very first to buy in Spain. Just for fun, we might imagine a little historical epilogue, with Boabdil, the last Arab king of Spain, returning to buy his castle from an impoverished old Spaniard couple, a certain Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Isabel of Castille. Just for the fun of it…and the money.

Kamel Daoud Translated from French by International Boulevard