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Seizing Cairo

Roger St. Pierre finds the business heart at the centre of the hustle and bustle of Cairo


Noisy, crowded, dusty, unbelievably chaotic – at first acquaintance, Cairo seems unpromising territory for business people looking for workable new opportunities.

Dig deeper, though, and it’s like opening Pandora’s Box, with a bombardment of intriguing prospects at every turn and your appointment schedule quickly causing download overload.

Egyptians are born traders and it’s the exchange of goods and services rather than their manufacture that has long been the true heartbeat of Africa and the Middle East’s most populous metropolis, though there is an industrial manufacturing base too, as noxious fumes to often remind us..

This is the city that both Saladin (Salahideen) and King Richard of England saw as the key not just to North Africa but to the Holy Land and the entire Middle East beyond. That assessment is still on the button. While the meteoric rise of Dubai and the Golf States has attracted the spotlight in recent times, Cairo – or Al-Qahira to gives its Arabic name – remains a truly international destination.

It’s also home to fully a quarter of Egypt’s entire population. Some 25,750,000 souls call Cairo home, of whom an incredible 7,500,000 live downtown, which area has a population density of 35,000 per square kilometre – a figure exceeded only by the teeming slums of the Indian sub-continent.

The subject of hyper-urbanisation, it’s a metropolis that just keeps on growing and now reaches out almost as far as the great pyramids of Giza, which once stood in splendid isolation in a desert wilderness. It’s an expansion that has defied the best efforts of the town planners. The ambitious Cairo Master Plan of 1970 and the Greater Cairo Master Scheme of 1983 now languish unheeded in the dusty national archives.

While there’s a thriving international business community, and everyone out on the street seems in an incessant hurry, don’t expect things to move at a western pace once you actually get down to business.

Unpunctuality is endemic, while formalities are important and take time. Shake hands, smile warmly, address
people politely and with respect, and resist any temptation to exchange hugs or a western style peck on the cheek with anyone except the very longest standing of friends.

If you are dealing with a government department, remember that their business hours are strictly 10am to 1pm. Private companies keep longer hours though and it is not normal to break for lunch. Making money has high priority in these parts.

Despite the heat – and, while the desert is bone dry, Cairo can be stickily humid at times – collar, tie and business suit are normal attire for business meetings and women should wear their skirts below the knee and dress in subdued colours.

This is a Muslim city but it has a sizeable Coptic Christian minority and counterpoises Arabic and European cultures in a fascinating mix. You’ll have no trouble finding a drink. They make half decent beer, for instance. It comes in large bottles and the brand is called Stella, though it has nothing to do with the Belgian brew.

The fasting period of Ramadan (from September 12 to October 11 this year) is observed by practically everyone. It’s a great time to visit. Yes, you are expected to get by on just water between the hours of dawn and dusk but when it gets dark, wow, what an orgy of feasting takes place, with the city’s top hotels trying to outdo each other with the lavishness and scope of their groaning buffet tables.

Cairo’s history is lost in the fabled mists of time but we now know a lot about the age of the Pharaohs, from BC 3500 to BC 30, about the 600 year Roman occupation, that ended in 641 AD with the Islamic Conquest, of the Malik caliphs, the Ottoman period and the first French then British years of colonial domination. There are abundant reminders of all these periods, including the tiny Coptic church crypt where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus are said to have found a haven during their exile.

However, such has been the city’s recent expansion that today one building in every five is less than 15 years old.

The city is set on both banks, and on the islands, of the River Nile, just below the place where it splits in two main branches on its way to the vast delta and the Mediterranean beyond. The bustling old city, with its narrow streets, winding alleyways and sea of minarets, set on the eastern bank, contrasts vividly with the gracious boulevards, public gardens and open spaces on the western shore, which were built by the ambitious ruler Ismael the Magnificent in the middle of the 18th Century, taking Paris as his model. It is here you will find all the modern office blocks and the key government buildings.

Irrigation has been the key to the city’s inexorable spread, making Giza and the site of the ancient city of Memphis part of today’s conurbation.

Much of the city can be reached by the fast and generally efficient metro system and there’s usually a carriage reserved for women travellers only. At peak times it’s just as squashed as the London Underground. There are plenty of buses too but these also are often overcrowded and you’d need degrees in both mathematics and geography to work out the haphazard scheduling.

Pollution is a major problem, with some of the world’s highest levels of lead, carbon dioxide, toxic waste and sulphur dioxide. It doesn’t help that the city sits in a natural bowl, nor that it has more than two million cars, two-thirds of which are more than 10 years old and lack modern emission control devices. And when the wind blows, the desert sands encroach, which explains why so many drivers keep their vehicles under dust covers when not in use.

The key to driving in Cairo, one taxi driver told me, is to “Ignore the incessant horns, look straight ahead and worry simply about missing the vehicles in front. Those behind and to the side can take care of themselves”.

Car hire is freely available but it is not a proposition for the faint-hearted, though, it has to be said that while almost every vehicle bears the dents and scratches of daily combat, you see very few serious wrecks:

Better, though, to hire a cab. They are not expensive and most drivers have good knowledge of how to get to the places you want to go. Make sure, however, to haggle a fare before setting off – and if you find a good, reliable driver then book him for your future journeys too.

On one occasion I arrived by air late at night and got a cab to the hotel. I had an early morning departure just hours later and hailed another cab. The price he quoted was nearly double what I’d paid previously and as I was very short of cash I offered the same, on a take it or leave it basis – tip included.

When we got to the airport I handed over the agreed fee only for the ever-smiling driver to hand me back a big chunk of it. When I pointed out his error, he responded: “Well, I know you have a couple of hours to kill and no money left, so please have a cup of coffee on me – I want you to leave with a good impression of my country.”

Could you imagine something like that happening at Heathrow?

Egyptians in general are warm hearted and welcoming. As in other Arab countries they’ll come on with a heavy sales pitch if you pause outside their shop or venture in to browse. They will not let go easily but once they realise you really are not interested they’ll switch to general polite conversation and like as not offer you a cup of mint tea, no strings attached.

As befits a city of such eminence, Cairo has plenty of sites and lots of things to do in your non-working time.
Soccer fan? Catch an atmosphere-laden game at the Cairo Nasser International Stadium, the largest football ground in Africa and the Middle East – especially if it is a local derby between Al Zamalek and Al Ahly, which is like watching Arsenal take on Chelsea.

Then there’s opera – and what better than a staging of ‘Aida’ at the ultra-modern Cairo Opera House, opened in 1988 to replace the ornate Khedival Opera House, built in 1869, that burned down in 1971.

In the tastefully laid out Al-Azhar Park there are remains of 12th Century city walls while the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has more than 136,000 ancient artefacts on display with many hundreds of thousands more stored in its basement.

The Khan El-Khalili souk is a magnet for tourists and locals alike with its tiny walk-in shops, many with their own workshops out back. This endlessly fascinating market was created way back in 1382 by Emir Djaharks El-Khalili.

For a city overview, the Cairo Tower concrete TV mast on Gezira Island in the middle of the Nile is 187 metres high, towering some 43 metres over the Great Pyramid of Giza, some 15 km away.

And, of course, you’ll want to view the Pyramids close up too and ponder the riddle of the Sphinx, as William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Giuseppe Verdi, Laurence Durrell, Agatha Christie and Cecil B de Mille have done in the past.

Tourists and business people too have been flocking here for two millennia and more, so it is no surprise that there’s a good hotel and restaurant infrastructure, with most of the major international brands represented.

Many of the best places to eat are to be found in the grand hotels. Don’t be put off by upscale brand names like Hyatt, Kempinski, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Conrad. Their eateries are the epitome of style and culinary excellence yet the prices are affordable even when paying out of your own pocket.

Out on the street there are some fine restaurants too, and some awful ones – so it pays to take concierge advice.
As befits Cairo’s cosmopolitan edge, there’s all manner of cuisine to be enjoyed but make sure to go native a few times while there as Arabic food in general and Egyptian food in particular is delicious, and healthy too. Salads literally burst with flavour, so do the veggies and the meat tends towards lean, with lamb and goat favoured, along with some tasty chicken recipes.

Even fast foods score, with tasty dips like hummus, babaganoush and tahini. superb breads and charcoal grilled meats. What’s more, portions are never less than generous.

Like any crossroads culture, Egyptian cuisine has soaked up influences, with the Arabs, Africans and French all having left their mark. It all reflects Cairo’s kaleidoscopic nature.

Taba Heights, Egypt’s exciting new resort

Once Thomas Cook popularised tourism to exotic places, Egypt for most people meant Cairo, a Poirot-inspired cruise down the Nile to ancient Luxor and the foot of the mighty Aswam Dam and maybe a side trip to Alexandria, the Mediterranean city founded by the all-conquering Alexander the Great.

Then European divers discovered the delights of the Red Sea and arguably the best scuba diving in the world while their other halves soaked up the sun at Sharm el Sheik, Murghada or Marsa Alam.

Now the tourism net has been spread even wider, across the Gulf of Suez and the Sinai Desert to the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and the point where the borders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all meet.

Here, the new Egyptian resort of Taba Heights overlooks the long-established Israeli holiday haven of Eilat, offering the same sun, sand and sea mix but with the added attraction of a far more modern infrastructure.

Big development money has been pouring in here. Typical is InterContinental’s resort, which links its Pentagon, Atrium and Crescent structures by tropical garden pathways to provide 503 ultra-luxurious guestrooms and suites, each with breathtaking views of the sea, the pool or the surrounding mountains.

A state of the art business centre and meeting rooms with outdoor terraces and facilities for 750 delegates make this a conference and incentive venue par excellence.

Marriott, Sofitel and Radisson are among other key players who have invested heavily in this year round resort.
Tiring of the beach or taking a break from the seminar, guests can explore the 6th Century Monastery of St. Catherine, established by the Roman Emperor Justinian and on e of the oldest religious buildings in the world or make a pilgrimage to the 2,285 feet summit of Mount Sinai, sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. It’s an easy walk or the journey can be made on camel back.

There’s also Pharaoh’s Island and its potent 12th Century Crusaders’ fort while the incentive to head for the commanding Castle Zaman is not just its views over four countries but a bounteous meal of roasted meats and seafood with local vegetables, spices, figs and dates, preceded by a languid swim in the venue’s pool.

Taba Heights has ample bars, clubs and restaurants to fill any stay with pleasure. Recommended eating-places include the spacious Limoncello Mediterranean Café Restaurant, with its Mediterranean fringe cuisine, the myriad flavours of the Tanour Lebanese Restaurant and the poolside Breeze Restaurant.

Most of the good restaurants are located within the hotel complexes. The Marriott, for example, has the atmospheric The Grotto cave bar, the Elk Andalus with its mighty buffet offerings and the fine dining of the Tuscany.

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