Marrakesh: 'Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts'

Salma Hayek is one of the first to arrive. In her black sling pumps and shoulderless Gucci dress, she ascends the marble steps to the lobby. There, she passes by buckets of white roses, a map of North Africa from 1923 and anterooms full of plush velvet sofas before stopping beneath a hand-painted wooden ceiling.

"Wonderful!" Hayek says, stretching her arms out. "There's so much history everywhere!" Then she explains how she has now installed a Moroccan parlor in one of her homes.

It's November 2009, and the occasion is the gala re-opening of La Mamounia, Marrakesh's historic luxury hotel. Hayek has flown in from Paris especially for the event, where she joins Juliette Binoche, Jennifer Aniston and Paloma Picasso.

At a piano in the wood-paneled bar downstairs sits Adrien Brody. Orlando Bloom is kissing his girlfriend outside by the pool. Sarah Jessica Parker is also expected to arrive at some point, as the "Sex and the City" crew is filming in the city. José Carreras is scheduled to sing.

Marrakesh -- the ancient desert city that attracted hippies and the international jet set in the '60s -- is celebrating its phoenix-like resurrection.

Playground of the Rich and Famous

Since 9/11, Morocco has been a part of the world that America and the rest of the West feels threatened by. On April 11, 2002 -- seven months to the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers -- a suicide bomber blew up a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. In May 2003, Salafist jihadis set off a series of bombs in Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, killing 33 civilians. In January 2007, Salafists set up the terrorist group "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," which German intelligence services and those of other countries are keeping a close eye on.

But there's something about Marrakesh that allays the anxiety and vague suspicions about the Muslim world. And rich Westerners are now flocking to the city in search of something they can't find at home -- a genuine, vibrant atmosphere -- as if they were hoping to fill some void in their lives.

When you're in the Mamounia, Marrakesh looks exactly like it does in all those picture books that have been weighing down European coffee tables for years. Winston Churchill lived at the hotel for a period. Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes for "The Man Who Knew Too Much" there more than 50 years ago. Rita Hayworth and the Rolling Stones have stayed there. And one French foreign minister even caused extensive damage to one of its suites during a lovers' tiff.

The former royal city also houses villas belonging to Madonna, Kate Moss, Gerard Depardieu and Richard Branson. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are rumored to be looking for something suitable. Celebrities travel to Marrakesh with empty suitcases, go shopping in the souks and then rave about the city's sensuality and authenticity the next day while having breakfast by the pool. Naomi Campbell recently celebrated her birthday there -- complete with 5,000 roses, belly dancers and Berbers in traditional dress. In fact, today's Marrakesh looks as if the art director of Elle Decor had taken a stab at redecorating the Arab world.

Plan Azur

Still, all of this is just part of the business plan of Morocco's King Mohammed VI, one of the richest people in the world. As far as the Mamounia is concerned, the king holds a majority holding in the hotel through a number of intermediary companies. In fact, his companies also control about 6 percent of Morocco's entire GDP -- which is almost 15 times as much as Silvio Berlusconi holds in terms of Italy's GDP. As a private-sector entrepreneur, the king currently employs more than 30,000 people. And the stronger the Moroccan economy grows, the richer he gets.

The king lives like a celebrity himself; he loves jet-skiing, Ferraris and suits by Gianfranco Ferré. In early 2001, he struck upon the idea of transforming Marrakesh into a new celebrity capital and luxury destination for Europeans. He dreamt of enticing all the rich people he saw while on winter vacations in Courchevel to come to his city, instead. He also wanted to expand tourist offerings throughout Morocco, double visitor numbers and attract investors. The king dubbed his project "Plan Azur" and hoped to realize it by 2010.

Mohammed VI is no stranger to such development plans. Indeed, this holder of a doctorate in international law from a French university has had a hand in devising plans for fostering economic growth, improving foreign trade and helping the fishing industry from his royal palace in the capital city, Rabat.

Still, Plan Azur was an almost impossible undertaking. In 2000, Morocco only attracted about 4 million tourists each year. It had little infrastructure, few good roads and few flights in or out of the country. A year later, the 9/11 attacks sowed renewed fear of all things Arab across the world.

But the king's gamble has paid off. Marrakesh now has a new airport and freeway linking it to Casablanca. Foreign investors have been given cheap land, and they don't have to pay any tax on profits during their first three years in operation.

Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts

Karl Lagerfeld's dietician is currently building a beauty spa -- complete with helipad -- just outside the city. Its advertising pitch: "Come for 10 days, lose 10 years." Right next door, the emir of Qatar is investing $1.4 billion (€1 billion) into building one of the world's largest racetracks on a 380-hectare (940-acre) site. A few weeks ago, Prince Albert of Monaco laid the foundation stone for a huge hotel project administered by the country's SBM luxury hotel and entertainment company. A dozen other five-star hotels and apartment complexes for millionaires are on the drawing board.

In the very heart of North Africa, Morocco is building a temple of hedonism insulated from the surrounding Arab world. The centuries-old medina is now home to art galleries, night clubs and restaurants charging European prices. There's even a spin-off of Fouquet's, the legendary Parisian brasserie.

"Dreadful," Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli says as he sets down his espresso cup on a silver tray. "Terrible." The prince isn't thrilled about how Marrakesh is slowly becoming virtually indistinguishable from Saint Tropez -- minus just the yachts. "Thank God we don't have the sea, too," he quips. "That would be the final straw!" he says.

Ruspoli, 58, has an aristocratic nose and is wearing a brown leather jacket cum breast-pocket handkerchief and leather loafers with no socks. He has lived in Marrakesh for the past 17 years. His sentences tend to start in French, slide into Italian and eventually end in English. He was born in Paris, his father was Italian and his grandparents lived in Tangier when literary figures from around the globe settled there to pass their days debating over coffee. Now he runs a small hotel named the Maison Arabe.

The prince sits on a leather ottoman in the living room of his house in Marrakesh's Old Town. An oil painting of his grandfather Alessandro hangs on the wall. Ruspoli is shocked by what is happening to his adopted home, by the posters for spa treatments he sees everywhere -- and which invariably feature a woman's naked back and pebbles. "What has that got to do with Marrakesh?" he asks. "Nothing! The same goes for golf courses. This is the Orient! We're in Africa! It makes me cry."

Losing Its Charm … and Water

Elias Canetti wrote about Marrakesh in magical terms. Keith Richards and Andy Warhol came in the '70s, did lots of drugs and wandered through the medieval medina. Krupp heiress Hetty von Bohlen und Halbach threw lavish parties in a former royal villa. Later, Yves Saint Laurent bought the Villa Majorelle and turned it into his second home. His ashes are now buried in the rose garden. A photo shows the fashion designer at the villa together with French Countess de Breteuil. Both are wearing white slacks and shirts and lying on a kilim under lemon trees, cups of peppermint tea at their sides. They look like rich kids from the West in search of African adventure.

Still, the prince views them as at least having been somewhat sophisticated. As he sees it, they're not like the young French starlets that donned Berber hats for photographers at the recent Dior jamboree and raved about the city's ancient culture, though they knew absolutely nothing about it.

Ruspoli doesn't want his city to become a Disneyland for the well-heeled, a theme park for the rich and famous, who will eventually draw hordes of tourists on package deals in their wake. Last year, McDonald's reportedly tried -- but failed -- to buy the old Café de France on Jemâa el-Fna Square. With its snake charmers, food stands, storytellers and henna artists, the square is the magical heart of the city and continues to be its focal point. Many years ago, UNESCO designated it as a World Cultural Heritage Site. But now many wonder just how long that title will be able to protect it from the forces of commercialism.

Already, the city is slowly expanding in size. With every new golf course that is built, annual water consumption rises by 1 million cubic meters (35 million cubic feet). Ten are under construction; five have already been completed. As a result, the water table is falling dramatically. As recently as 12 years ago, it was 10 meters (33 feet) underground. To reach it now, you have to dig 45 meters down in the Palmeraie, an oasis of palm trees on the outskirts of the city.

Indeed, the global financial crisis may have slowed the local construction boom, but it hasn't stopped it altogether. Fortunately for the country, it is illegal to export its currency, the dirham. And since the country's banks haven't been allowed to speculate on global financial markets, they were largely shielded from the recent economic turbulence.

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.

Directly behind the Mamounia's expansive gardens, there is a state-run hospital, a dilapidated, boxy building filled with old iron beds. For a few years now, there have been two different rooms for newborn babies. One is for babies born into "normal" families; the other for the children of young, unmarried women who have their babies in secret and then give them away right after birth.

There are also sordid tales of Arab sheikhs who rent villas in the Palmeraie for a weekend to spend time with 30 young Moroccan men and women. And there are others of Europeans who go there to film and photograph children and youths for pornographic Web sites. Claims such as these prompted the police in Marrakesh to set up a special anti-pedophilia division a few years ago, which now regularly arrests suspected foreign child abusers.

Culture Clash

The soirée at the Mamounia ends at about 3 a.m. Star architect Jacques Garcia spent a long time at the bar. His renovation of the building took three years. In the process, he repositioned nearly all the walls, created new patios and "in architectural terms, combined the Orient with the Occident." In other words, he installed iPod stations, wireless LAN networks and flatscreen TVs.

Brian Ferry sits in the Italian restaurant and wonders whether the new Marrakesh will be too modern. Orlando Bloom talks about his Moroccan dog, and the evening closes with Carine Roitfeld, the editor of the French edition of Vogue, singing a karaoke duet with former Gucci designer Matthew Williamson in the hotel's Churchill Bar.

At 4:35 a.m., the muezzin from the nearby Koutoubia mosque wakes up most of the hotel guests with a 15-minute call to prayer amplified by loudspeakers. It's very loud and very authentic.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt