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Originally published Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bold plan for a bridge across Red Sea; structure would link Africa, Yemen

Nobody has walked across the Red Sea since Moses parted the waters. But it could happen again under an audacious plan to build the world's...

The Washington Post

ADEN, Yemen — Nobody has walked across the Red Sea since Moses parted the waters. But it could happen again under an audacious plan to build the world's longest suspension bridge, between Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

If built, the bridge would cross the Red Sea at an 18-mile-wide strait known as the Bab al-Mandeb, or Gate of Tears, connecting the southern tip of Yemen with the tiny east African country of Djibouti. Estimated price tag: $10 billion to $20 billion.

The proposal is turning heads in the Middle East, and not just because it would make engineering history. The developer of the project is a Dubai-based firm headed by Tarek bin Laden, an elder brother of the world's most famous terrorist.

The bin Laden family, from Saudi Arabia, has operated a construction empire for decades. In the mid-1990s, the clan cut its financial ties with Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaida, around the time he declared war on the United States and called for the overthrow of the Saudi ruling family.

Since then, the rest of the bin Ladens — Osama has 24 half-brothers and 29 half-sisters — have quietly gone about their business. The Bab al-Mandeb bridge would be their most ambitious project to date, overshadowing the family's renovations of holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

"This has been Sheik Tarek's idea for many, many years," said Jameel Murshed, a lawyer and legal consultant for Middle East Development, the partnership led by Tarek bin Laden. "He wants to serve his mother country."

The father of Tarek and Osama, Mohamed bin Laden, was born into poverty in Yemen a century ago before moving to Saudi Arabia to seek his fortune in building.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Promoters of the Bab al-Mandeb bridge say it will transform the region's economy by opening a fixed rail and highway route between Africa and the Middle East.

"It's not just about Yemen and Djibouti. It's about two continents: Africa and Asia," said Tariq Ayyad, president of Noor City Development, a San Francisco firm managing the project.

Although government officials on both sides of the sea have approved the project, there also is widespread skepticism. "When I talk to people about it, 99 percent of the time they think it's a joke at first," said Amman Said, a Noor City representative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

But backers predict things will change once construction starts — perhaps as soon as next year.

The mammoth bridge is only one part of the project. Bin Laden's firm is also planning to build giant free-trade zones and expanded ports on both sides of the crossing.

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"It will be a very modern city," said Murshed, the lawyer for Middle East Development.

Other massive challenges loom. The Red Sea is a seismic hot spot, with several active volcanoes and a constant threat of earthquakes.

There are man-made hazards, too. The waters around the nearby Horn of Africa are infested with pirates.

According to preliminary designs, the link would consist of several sections. The first would be a bridge from Yemen's coast to Perim island, two miles away.

After crossing the 2.5-mile-wide island as a highway, the route would become a bridge again, making the 13.5-mile jump across the strait to Djibouti.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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