In an extraordinary construction boom, the isolated Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is spending billions of dollars on remodeling its capital Ashgabat into a gleaming white showpiece where even the curbs are made of marble.
The gas-rich desert country says that the massive spending spree has already poured in $8 billion in international investment and $1.9 billion of its own funds since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. “We are directing the profit from gas exports into improving the quality of life of our people,” President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said.
Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, claims to have the world’s fourth-biggest supplies of natural gas with estimated reserves of more than 24 trillion cubic meters, according to BP.
With a population of one million, the city is now a giant construction site as the government demolishes large areas of low-rise brick buildings from the Soviet era.
All new buildings for ministries, government agencies and also new apartment blocks are being faced with marble, giving the city the nickname: “White City.”
The President Berdymukhamedov unveiled a 185-metre-high monument to the Constitution that cost $60 million in 2011, decorated with carpet motifs, which has been heralded as the local answer to the Eiffel Tower.
He also opened a giant “Palace of Happiness” for wedding ceremonies that cost around $140 million, topped with a globe.
The city also gained a 211-metre television tower that cost $183.7 million. It rises out of a building in the shape of an 8-pointed star, winning a bizarre Guinness record for the world’s largest star-shaped structure.
Turkish firm dominates in projects
The vast projects are being built by international companies. The dominant company is the Turkish firm Polimeks, which built the constitution monument, the Palace of Happiness and the television tower. Now it has won a contract to build a complex to hold the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017 at a cost of $1.97 billion. The company is also to build a new Ashgabat airport costing $2.25 billion.
French company Bouygues has constructed more than 50 buildings including the ministry of oil and gas nicknamed the “cigarette lighter”, while another French company, Vinci, has won a major contract to build a new house of parliament, whose cost has not been made public.
“Not all former Soviet republics are as lucky, but the ones that God gave oil and gas are now rich and are spending huge money on development and construction,” said a Western diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, “It’s a pity when the former one- or two-storey districts disappear and with them the old spirit of the city, when all the neighbors knew each other, dropped in to visit at the drop of a hat, and there weren’t even any locks on the doors.” Human Rights Watch wrote to the president in 2011 over reports of human rights abuses in the course of the demolition work, claiming that owners were being unlawfully evicted and not given adequate compensation.