So why is Egypt building a new capital city right next to Cairo?

A model of the proposed city (we're assuming the web address won't loom quite so large on the finished article). Image: Getty.

According to the highly reliable source that is Wikipedia, Egypt has had 29 capital cities over the past 5,000 years. The incumbent, Cairo, has been in place since 950 AD, so, in the scheme of things, it was due a change-up. 

Perhaps that's why, last week at an economic development conference, the Egyptian government announced it was planning a giant new building project to the east of Cairo. The new city, which could eventually cover 700 km sq, doesn't currently have a name, and is being referred to simply as "The Capital" (we're really hoping this is a Hunger Games reference).

If all goes to plan, the city will serve as the new administrative and financial capital of Egypt. Amazingly, the ministry claims that development could be finished within five to seven years, and construction on the road that will link the two cities has already begun. 

You could be forgiven for being a little confused as to why a country would shift its capital of over a thousand years 50km to the east, seemingly for the hell of it. Here are a few reasons the project looks so appealing to the Egyptian government . 

Cairo is full

The population of Cairo's larger metropolitan area is nearing 20m, and, as a result, it's one of the most congested cities on earth: the World Bank estimated in 2010 that traffic costs amount to about 4 per cent of Egypt's entire GDP

In this sense, the new development could be seen as an extension of the old city, to cut down on overpopulation and congestion. The housing ministry claims the capital could house up to 7m people; the initial plans include 1.1m residences, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 663 hospitals. That said, "New Cairo", a relatively new development to the east, was built for millions of residents, but is still only home to a few hundred thousand.

Still, Cairo's population is expected to double over the next 40 years, so a new satellite city does make some kind of sense. But why move the country's capital too? 

The president wants to make a statement

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in June 2014, and subsequently told the Egyptian people to prepare for the "hard work phase" in their country's recent history, to help the country's economy recover from the effects of the 2011 revolution. That revolution played out in old Cairo, and centred on Tahrir square, the site of many of Cairo's current administrative buildings. 

Mubarak, Egyptian president between 1981 and 2011, actually tried to build a new capital too during his own tenure, but that project failed. If Sisi can succeed, and physically move the government away from the ghosts of the revolution to boot, it'll show he can overcome Egypt's previous setbacks and political tensions and move the country – and, hopefully, its economy – forward. 

Image: Getty.

The Egyptian governemnt may not have to pay for it

The government has hired a Dubai-based real estate investment fund, headed by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar, the man behind the Burj Khalifa, to raise funds for the project and build it. By the end of last week's conference, around $12bn had been pledged by Gulf-based investors, which is over a quarter of the total (that's if the project stays within budget, of course).

The Egyptian people must be hoping for big foreign investment, too: Sisi has already cut food and energy subsidies and raised fuel prices to help the country's ailing economy, which has led some to criticise the announcement of a grand new city project while Egypt's poorest go hungry. 

The Suez canal is getting wider

Another important factor is the city's location: it will lie between Cairo and the Suez Canal, with its profitable trade routes. Under a new expansion project, the Egyptian government is expanding the canal, to allow boats to sail in both directions at once (it goes both directions at the moment, but along most of its length its only wide enough to go one way at once), potentially doubling the trade revenue generated. 

Here's the planned location, a short hop from both New Cairo and El Shorouk city (the two blobs just to the north of the new capital). 

This will bring the city much closer to the canal,  using up what is at present just a stretch of desert: 

It's been done before

...though not particularly successfully. Malaysia moved parts of its central governemnt from Kuala Lumpur to the newly built Putrahaya in 1999, while in 2005 the Burmese government shifted from Yangon to the brand new city of Naypyidaw (though that city is reportedly still half empty). Egypt, meanwhile, has built over 20 "new towns" over the past half century, most of which are still very sparsely populated. Looks like President Sisi has a real job on his hands. 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.