Marrakesh: 'Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts'

The 'Santa Barbara of Morocco'

A few hundred kilometers south of Marrakesh, al-Qaida sympathizers are hatching sinister plans.

After 9/11, the CIA used Moroccan jails to torture prisoners, and Moroccan officials claim to have thwarted roughly 50 attacks planned by radical Islamists since the suicide bombings in Casablanca seven years ago. The police are omnipresent, officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs keep a close eye on the imams in the mosques, and the press has been put on a tight leash.

Between the date palms along the road to Amizmiz, which leads from Marrakesh into the Atlas Mountains, there are signs every hundred meters or so advertising gated communities -- with their guards, high walls and armed checkpoints.

Realtor Oliver Kirner, 46, stands in front of 20-square-meter scale model of such a complex dotted with 740 dark-blue pins. Each pin represents one of the 590 swimming pools for the 590 villas to be built on the clay soil in three construction phases as well as another 150 for hotel suites. That's a lot of water for a country that is mostly covered by desert.

Kirner is originally from Freiburg, a university city in the southwest corner of Germany. He has short gray hair and wears a dark-blue jacket and cravat. In the late '90s, he opened one of the first real estate companies in Marrakesh. When the rush on property began, in 2000 and 2001, it was primarily French people who came to snap up small riads -- traditional Moroccan houses with interior gardens -- in the Old Town. At the time, he was selling two to three houses a week. Since then, house prices have risen tenfold. "We hit the jackpot," he says.

These days, Kirner is mostly selling villas with small pools out front that are part of a development -- dubbed the Samanah Country Club -- owned by a group of French realtors. An advertising flyer proclaims that it will be the new Santa Barbara of Morocco, complete with an artificial village, a daily market and 24-hour services for residents -- including catering, babysitting, massage, housekeeping and gardening.

The centerpiece of the 300-hectare development is an 18-hole golf course with a view of the Atlas Mountains. To build it, 300 truckloads of white sand were driven down from Bordeaux, France. The cacti were flown in from Mexico. Two-thirds of the completed villas have already been sold -- to Indians, Russians, Saudis, French and Moroccans.

Kirner says the rich and famous like Marrakesh because it's so easy to manage their networks from there. "No one can resist the offer to fly down to meet with business partners for a few days," he says. After all, he adds, everyone else is already here in this small, exclusive millionaires' club. It's the Saint Tropez principle -- minus just the yachts.

The Darker Side of Paradise

Still, this transformation has had a strong effect on average Moroccans. For example, the boom has sent real estate prices into orbit. Since the average middle-class family earns just under €400 ($560) a month -- and the majority of the population has to get by on far less -- most Moroccans can now only afford to live on the outskirts of the city.

Within the space of just a few years, the king's policies have modernized Morocco and Moroccan society -- but with the usual consequences. For example, there has been a rise in the number of illegitimate children, which is something still considered disgraceful in an Islamic country.

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