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Saudi Investors and ‘Sex and the City’ Combine in Sarajevo

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia. (Read all posts in this series.)

The Sarajevo City Center is on a plot of land that was once reserved for a monument to Tito. The mall now features brands like Nike, Levi and U.S. Polo.
The Sarajevo City Center is on a plot of land that was once reserved for a monument to Tito. The mall now features brands like Nike, Levi, and U.S. Polo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive,” instructs Coco Chanel.

“Shopping is my CARDIO!” exclaims Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex in the City.”

The walls at the Sarajevo City Center, a 70,000-square-meter mall that opened in 2014, are bedecked with maxims in Bosnian and English from the West’s great pop-culture icons. One might expect to see the mall’s flashing billboards in Times Square, not downtown Sarajevo.

The stores are in search of an audience, with prices too high for most local consumers. But Sarajevo City Center seems to clash with reality in more than one way. The mall is funded by the Saudi-based Al-Shiddi group, and is part of a slew of new Gulf-funded projects whose policies reflect a conservative religious norm not previously known in Sarajevo. Women can expose their hair, but try to order a beer, and you will only be offered a non-alcoholic option. That sets the City Center’s eateries in stark contrast with most other downtown venues, where Sarajevans gather to imbibe on Rakija, a fruit brandy considered a regional specialty.

Bosniak Muslims traditionally follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which is known for its tolerant social dictums. But at the beginning of the war, Bosnia’s biggest supporters were conservative Islamic countries. Islamist fighters arrived by the hundreds, bringing with them Salafism, or what some would describe as Wahhabism, one of Islam’s most strict strains. Though the fighters are long departed, wealthy Arab governments continued to spend millions on Bosnia’s post war recovery. At least 150 mosques were restored or constructed across the country, in an architectural style that was not always in line with Bosnian custom.

In 2000, the Saudi Royal family donated the $28 million King Fahd Mosque and Cultural Center, seated next to a socialist housing block on the edge of Sarajevo. At 8,800 sq ft. and with a white marble exterior, it dwarfs and outshines any mosque from the Ottoman era. A double minaret distances it from the vernacular Bosnian style. “It was normal to only have one minaret before the war,” said Faruk Kapidžić, the architect, on our visit to the mosque. But the new clients always ask for more, he noted—“I make one minaret, they ask for four.” The males worshiping at King Fahd wear long beards, the women, full-body coverage.

Still, the conservative Islamist movement remains fringe. Many Bosniaks say they are wary of the foreign influence, and few Sarajevans I spoke to had made the trip to King Fahd. And now, the Gulf-funded malls are a welcome addition, as they help to dent the 44 percent unemployment rate that has recently plagued the country.

The Bosniaks I encountered were far more concerned about the long-term impact of funds flowing from another foreign investor: Russia.

Though initially cooperative with the West’s halfhearted efforts to negotiate peace in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Russia was by the end of the conflict one of the few defenders of Serbian interests. The special relationship continues as Russia invests in the Bosnian-Serb part of the country, the Republika Srpska. That is in keeping with its efforts to foster ties with Slavic groups across Eastern Europe, and especially those in separatist areas.

“Russia is interested in strategic initiatives, not ethno-religious ones. They have the nationalism without having to promote it,” said Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnia specialist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto. Over the past decade, Russia has begun to back infrastructure projects in the Republika Srpska, targeting the energy sector in particular. In 2014, Gazprom announced a deal to supply the Republika Srpska with direct gas imports, bypassing involvement from Sarajevo.

Some worry the Russian backing will embolden the Republika Srpska political leadership, who have repeatedly threatened to secede from Bosnia and break the tenuous unity that has existed since the war.

Read All Posts by Cara Eckholm