Thursday, May 29, 2008

Salt of the Earth

Is getting to be big business in Djibouti:
For centuries, nomads have dropped down from the rocky hills around here to carve bricks of salt from an ancient lake and haul them away on the backs of camels.

But a new salt miner is trying his hand, and he may be a harbinger of what is to come.

"As a salt person, my first impression was why was all this salt just sitting here," said Daniel Sutton, an American salt miner who is overseeing a new $70 million operation to industrialize the collection of Djibouti's plentiful salt. "There's 50 square miles of salt. It runs 20 to 30 feet deep. This could be huge."

Djibouti is becoming the little country of big dreams. Hundreds of millions of dollars of overseas investment are pouring in, promising to turn this sleepy, sweltering ministate, which right now does not even have a stoplight, into something of an African trade center.

There are gold miners from India, geothermal experts from Iceland, Turkish hotel managers, Saudi oil engineers, French bankers and American military contractors. Tycoons from Dubai are pumping in a billion dollars just on their own, largely for the country's all-important port, a gateway to the region. There is even a project on paper to build a multibillion-dollar, 28-kilometer, or 18-mile, bridge across the Red Sea, captained by Tarek bin Laden, the half-brother Osama bin Laden.

Djibouti does not have many people - around 700,000 - and few outsiders have heard of it. Its soil is mostly sand; it is unearthly hot, often more than 35 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit); and just about everything, from bottled water to rice to gasoline, is imported.

But the country's draw is it location. Djibouti sits at the mouth of the Red Sea, where Africa and Asia nearly touch. It overlooks some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, especially for oil heading from the Gulf to Europe and the United States. And because of its strategic position, both France and the United States have military bases here.

Shipping is already big business in this country - and it is getting even bigger, with investors from Dubai hoping to expand the Port of Djibouti from a current capacity of 300,000 containers a year to three million. Dubai World, a large holding company, has also bought a controlling share in a local airline and built an industrial park, new roads and a $200 million, five-star hotel, with gurgling fountains and possibly the greenest lawn in the Horn of Africa.

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