Gas-rich Turkmenistan transforms capital into luxury marble showpiece

Gas-rich Turkmenistan, a highly repressive nation, is spending billions of dollars to remodel its capital into a luxury showpiece

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 6:26am


In an extraordinary building boom, the isolated Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is spending billions of dollars on remodelling its capital Ashgabat into a gleaming white showpiece where even the road curbs are made of marble.

The gas-rich desert nation says that the massive spending spree has already poured in US$8 billion in international investment and 4 trillion manats (HK$10.9 trillion) 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," said President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, claims to have the world's fourth-biggest supply of natural gas with estimated reserves of more than 24 trillion cubic metres, according to BP.

With a population of a 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 55-year-old president, a dentist by profession, has even ordered that the concrete curbs on central avenues and streets be replaced with marble ones.

"In this epoch of magnificence and happiness, our respected president has given us the task of developing the city to create the most comfortable conditions for people's life," boasted the city's chief architect, Bairam Shamuradov.

The gleaming facades contrast with the rights record of a country described as "one of the world's most repressive" by Human Rights Watch.

Berdymukhamedov picked up the gauntlet from his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who unveiled a revolving gold statue of himself.

Elected after Niyazov's 2006 death, Berdymukhamedov unveiled in 2011 a 185-metre-high monument to the Constitution that cost €45 million (HK$460 million), 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 US$140 million, topped with a globe.

The city also gained a 211-metre television tower that cost €136.85 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.

The vast projects are being built by international firms.

The dominant firm is the Turkish firm Polimeks, which built the constitution monument, the Palace of Happiness and the television tower. French firm Bouygues has built more than 50 buildings including the ministry of oil and gas.

Many residents are dazzled by the whirlwind of construction.

"I can't keep up with the constant changes in the city. It seems that where there was a wasteland yesterday, today there is a modern building," said 24-year-old student Ashir Nurliyev.