Egyptian government and Saudi prince reach agreement on Toshka

Ahram Online, Wednesday 20 Apr 2011

An initial agreement gives back to the Egyptian government the majority of the Toshka land project in Upper Egypt, while an Egyptian court examines the contract under which Al-Waleed Bin Talal acquired the land

Al-Waleed Bin Talal
(Photo: Reuters)
Saudi prince and business tycoon Al-Waleed Bin Talal, owner of the Kingdom Holding Company, has accepted to give up 75 per cent of the 100,000 feddans (420 million square metres) of land he owns in Toshka, in Upper Egypt.

A delegation of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Kingdom Holding Company reached an initial agreement to end differences about Toshka land.

According to the agreement, yet to be finally approved, Bin Talal will retain ownership of 10,000 feddans. Moreover, he will keep another 15,000 feddans according to a concession system, provided that his company respects a scheduled timeline to cultivate the land.

Confusion reigned for the past 10 days over the fate of huge tranches of land in Toshka owned by the Saudi prince after claims and counter-claims that he was prepared to terminate his controversial deal and give back the land.

According to a source in the Ministry of Agriculture, the government refused five alternatives Al-Waleed proposed not out of intransigence but to protect the rights of the Egyptian people. Bin Talal opened the door to negotiations after Egypt’s prosecutor-general announced the freezing of his land in Toshka, a transaction that has long been criticised.

The Saudi prince owns around 20 per cent of land in Toshka, a development project aiming to create half a million feddans of fertile land that former president Hosni Mubarak presented as a mega project. But after billions were spent and time passed without much movement, it was seen to be a failure.

"Investigations revealed that the contract included secret terms that violate the law and gave the company unjustified benefits,” the prosecutor-general’s spokesman, Adel El-Saeed, wrote in a previous statement.

The contract, signed by former agriculture minister Youssef Wali, didn't stipulate any timeline to cultivate the land, "in violation of rules stipulating that the land must be completely reclaimed and cultivated within five years,” added Saeed.

The contract entitled Bin Talal to outright ownership of the land, set in a prime location near a water source and transportation links. The land, equivalent to one per cent of Egypt's total area was sold at the modest price of LE5 million, LE50 per feddan.

The prosecutor-general froze Wali’s assets on 10 April and issued the former minister with a travel ban while investigations are ongoing into his conduct while in office.

The Saudi prince was reported by MENA to be willing to keep only 10,000 feddans (42 million square metres) and would not seek international arbitrage. This move was believed to be related to controversy surrounding the initial deal. Current Agriculture Minister Ayman Farid Abou-Hadid told a press conference 7 April that the terms of Bin Talal’s contract do not allow him to impose sanctions for delaying any work on the land.  

Bin Talal, estimated by Forbes to have a fortune of $19.6 billion, has been at the centre of rumours and allegations in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster in February. The French daily Le Post was quoted in many Egyptian newspapers as saying that the prince offered to give the Egyptian government $4 billion for charges against Mubarak to be dropped.

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