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Fancy a round? Sudan opens its first golf course

By James Montague (CNN)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Soba Golf Course is the first to open in Sudan
  • The course has been built by Harradine Golf, who build courses in former war zones
  • The demand for golf stems from Sudan's growing, oil-fueled economy
  • But the UN points to the huge drain golf courses have on local water supplies

London, England (CNN) -- Amongst the slums, the sand and the incessant heat, it is an unexpected vision of paradise: lush, copiously watered greens peppered with pristinely kept bunkers and a freshly built clubhouse.

The nine-hole Soba Golf Course would not look out of place alongside Augusta or St. Andrews, but its location is perhaps the last place you would expect to find an outpost for a sport traditionally associated with the rich and powerful.

Welcome to Sudan's first professional golf course.

Soba is the latest creation from Swiss architect Peter Harradine and his company Harradine Golf, an organization started by Harradine's grandfather in 1929.

Since taking the reins, he has been responsible for building golf courses in some of the most dangerous locations on the planet. It seems, after a war ends and a cease fire is announced, local developers reach for his number.

I guess they know I'm the crazy guy that will go and build a golf course anywhere
--Golf course architect Peter Harradine
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"I get contacted by all sorts of different people," he told CNN. "I am based in Dubai, as are a lot of investors who use Dubai as a hub. So I have had calls from [places like] Georgia, Tunisia and, of course, Sudan, but I'm not consciously waiting for wars to end!"

Political unrest

A list of Harradine's past constructions -- and there are more than 186 of them -- reads like a tableau of political unrest from the past two decades.

Along with building courses in more conventional locations like Qatar and Abu Dhabi -- which were recently named two of the best courses in the Middle East by Golf Digest magazine -- he has also been called in to build or consult on courses in Algeria, Kuwait and Pakistan.

His company has just signed a deal to build Georgia's first golf course as the country recovers from its conflict with Russia. Even Libya is moving forward with their first nine-hole grass course.

Harradine was told that one of Colonel Gaddafi's sons would be personally over-seeing the project. "I've been in all sorts of war zones," he said. "I was in Lebanon just after the war. The Kuwaitis asked me to come over and sign a deal for a new course. I left Kuwait the day before it was invaded. I was in Togo two years ago and my colleagues were kidnapped. I was the only one out of five who wasn't kidnapped.

"They were only released after a ransom was paid. I've had to traipse through the desert when the Air France counter was bombed in Algiers. I was about to check in and I wasn't too far away when it went off. It's not until afterwards you think: I've been pretty lucky."

Yet it is his course in Sudan that has been the most surprising, not to mention controversial. Harradine was contracted by a local conglomerate to satisfy the demand created by Sudan's booming, oil-fueled economy.

According to the IMF, Sudan's GDP grew an average of eight percent year-on-year between 2004 and 2008. "There are a lot of rich people in Khartoum," Harradine told CNN.

Water shortage

Fact Box
More than 25 million people in Sudan do not have access to clean water

Conflict with Darfur killed 300,000 lives and displaced 2.7 million according to UN

Sudan president Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes

But not everyone is happy with the global spread of golf. According to some, the building of golf courses in some parts of the world, especially in areas where clean drinking water is at a premium, raises some huge ethical issues.

UNESCO's first World Water Development Report said an 18-hole golf course can use as much as 2.3 million liters of water every day. The UK-based NGO Water Aid estimates that 66 percent of Sudanese, more than 25 million people, do not have access to clean water.

"We are not here to tell the Sudanese they can or cannot have a golf course but I'd be very surprised if the economic benefits will help the communities that live cheek by jowl with it," explained Water Aid's Oliver Cumming.

He points to the example of the Royal Nairobi Golf Course in Kenya, which borders on to the Kibera slum, the second biggest in Africa. "It has very low access to safe drinking water and sanitation. It's famous for the "Flying Toilet". People defecate into a bag and throw it. Right next door is an irrigated golf course ... it points to gross inequity."

Doing business in a country where national president Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur (Al-Bashir denies the charges) -- a conflict whose cease fire was signed in February and that the UN estimated cost 300,000 lives and displaced 2.7 million people -- also creates ethical questions.

"I think it [the golf course] definitely highlights the contradictions in Sudan today," said Sean Brooks, a policy analyst for the Save Darfur Coalition.

"The majority of the population is close to poverty but at the same time you have groups with tremendous wealth due to the oil economy of the last decade."

But Harradine sees the golf course as a chance to spread the game he loves whilst boosting the local economy at the same time. "I never go into politics, but I love golf and everyone should play golf," he said.

"I've never had any problem moving around Sudan. We had more problems finding the right sand for the root mixture and the right raw material. It's the technical issues, especially when there's an embargo, like bringing in brand new Caterpillars, but we got them. You read a lot in the papers that is bull***t. Who's right, who's wrong?

"During the construction we employed 200 people from the neighboring shacks," he continued. "They all had work, plus the security. A lot of people are learning how to maintain a golf course and each player has a local caddie. So these guys will all become players. In the beginning the richer clients profit, but in the end it trickles down to the normal guy."

Next stop: Iraq

It will be a few years before Sudan starts to produce its first scratch golfers, but plans are already afoot to complete the original plan for an 18-hole course.

Harradine, though, is moving on in search of the next big unexplored golfing territory. "I was called today about going to Kurdistan, they want an 18-hole course in Iraq," he said without a hint of concern.

"I guess they know I'm the crazy guy that will go and build a golf course anywhere."