A diplomatic building boom by Middle Eastern countries on Brussels’ Embassy Row has escalated into a turf war with residents who say they are worried about how it will affect their well-to-do neighborhood.
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Oil-rich Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia all own property on leafy Avenue Franklin Roosevelt and are either building new embassies or upgrading existing ones. These Persian Gulf countries are wielding political clout on the European scene and showing off plush premises dripping with expensive materials that are fit for a prince, if one ever shows up.
The countries see the EU as a goldmine for investment opportunities, medical services, tourism, and education. They also see Europe as a strategic partner on security issues like combatting terrorism and piracy at sea.
“There’s a real battle for leadership amongst the Gulf states in terms of who can promote their agenda,” said Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and is a member of the European Parliament’s Arabian Peninsula delegation.
“Historically the Gulf states haven’t cared about the EU; they care about Paris, Berlin, Rome and London, but there’s a push and a pull because the Lisbon Treaty has developed a serious role in the world for the EU,” said Smith.
“We’re seeing more senior people, we’re seeing swanky buildings being built as well, which is a physical manifestation of that,” he added.
But in trying to outdo each other with prestigious architectural projects, the countries have fueled complaints from residents in the upscale neighborhood of southern Brussels.
Two years ago, the Qataris tore down a Normandy-style villa at 79 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt and started work on a massive domed structure that many locals feared was going to be a mosque.
The Gulf state assured residents it was building an embassy, not a mosque. But the locals were not convinced, and during construction started an online petition seeking to halt the project.
“Qatar is one of the most extremist Muslim countries,” the petition, launched in February, states. “For those who are not yet aware, at the Embassy of Qatar under construction in one of our most beautiful avenues in Brussels, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, a mosque is planned for 600 people!!”
More than 120 people have signed the petition. Support appeared to be waning, with just one signature added in the whole of October. In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, 13 people signed — four of whom identified themselves as French.
The building “spoils the entire neighborhood,” wrote one person who signed the petition and identified himself as Frederic from Namur, which is 56 kilometers from Brussels.
The Qataris don’t need to charm the community, they own the land and had permission from city authorities to demolish the villa.
The Qatari embassy is now open, and residents say they dislike the presence of guards in front of the building and always drawn blinds that keep the interior of the building hidden.
“The neighbors don’t like the Qatar embassy, they see it as obnoxious,” one neighbor said. “It’s just seen as too big. Symbolically it says something about these countries and their quest for power.”
The Qatari embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Dubai Art Nouveau
Further down the street, a firm of architects acting on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government inquired with the city’s office for town planning about making renovations to its embassy at 45 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt.
The United Arab Emirates is also causing a stir. In 2012 it purchased one of the avenue’s landmarks, at number 86. Known as the Maison Delune, the building is an Art Nouveau villa with a golden statue of a falcon on its roof.
The property is protected as a heritage site so it cannot be altered. But the Gulf state wants to build a pavilion, an administrative building and an underground car park on the adjoining land. Neighbors aren’t keen on the plans and have taken the UAE’s ambassador to Brussels to task at various town hall meetings.
“I think the neighbors misunderstood because they have this stereotype of Arabs buying historical buildings,” Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui, the UAE’s ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union, said in an interview.
“The UAE aspires to always have the best, to acquire landmarks, simply because it emphasizes its standard in the world as a quality country, as a country that cares about its citizens’ well-being, and a country that cares about its image.”
Brussels councilman Geoffroy Coomans de Brachène, who is in charge of urbanism and heritage, has been involved in all the Gulf embassy projects and said he understands residents’ concerns.
“The impression that people have is that every time there is a new embassy, they want to be bigger than the others, and that’s a problem for them,” said Coomans de Brachène. “Qatar’s embassy looks bigger than the country. It looks bigger than the American embassy. It’s amazing.”
As for the Maison Delune, it’s “like a castle for the neighborhood. It’s like the White House.”
Fight over a permit
The UAE has bought up sports teams, high-end hotels, fashion labels and real estate in Paris and London, but Belgian bureaucracy is throwing up unique challenges. For years, the country has tried to get permission to build on the land next to Maison Delune.
The Emirates’ neighbors have argued that the construction would change the integrity of the neighborhood. The embassy had to show plans that proved that their new buildings would not block the view of the Maison. They even had to share designs for their landscaping because neighbors feared that trees would block the view of the house from the street.
The embassy got a permit in June that included a heavy fee, which it appealed. Official permission to build on the land came through in December.
“You go through an experience like this and you don’t want to repeat it,” said Almazroui, the UAE ambassador.
The stakes go beyond embassy digs. The UAE’s trade with the EU is worth around €50 billion a year, and it is the second largest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia.
“Qatar and the Emirates are the two countries in the Saudi Arabian peninsula that are more active, that are trying to talk with us and they are always present when we organize something with the delegation,” said Italian MEP Alessia Mosca, vice chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula. “In some way they are the gateway to the region.”
The engagement paid off in May for the UAE. After a concerted lobbying campaign, the UAE and the EU signed a visa-waiver pact that makes the Emirates the first Arab country whose citizens can enter the Schengen zone without a visa.