In the middle of the Egyptian desert on a vast plain east of Cairo, a pharaonic city looms large on the horizon. But the buildings shimmering in the distance are not the ruins of an ancient civilisation. They are the first phase of a colossal new capital – formally known as the New Administrative Capital – emerging from the sands near the existing city.

Inside Egypt's new capital

Three out of eight residential districts have already been completed

Once completed, the new capital will span an area larger than Madrid or Birmingham and will comprise a central park twice as long as New York's and three times bigger than Hyde Park. It will boast the tallest tower in Africa, the largest church in the Middle East and the biggest opera house outside Europe, and will be home to six million people.

It is, in short, one of the most ambitious urban projects in history. As the first UK publication to be given full access to the site, Property Week met the people behind the colossal scheme to find out about the challenges they face and their aspirations for the new city.

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The New Administrative Capital is the brainchild of general Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who became president of Egypt following a military coup in 2014.

"We started looking for potential locations in late 2014," says Khaled Abbas, deputy minister of housing, utilities and urban communities. "We chose a very prime location. It's 60km from the Suez Canal and 45km from Cairo."

"The challenge with a new city is to stimulate growth. Moving the ministries is very clever" 

Daniel Horner, Dar Group

A development agency called the Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD) – a joint venture between the Egyptian military (51%) and the housing ministry (49%) – was set up to oversee the project and manage the land.

Only a few months after the project's announcement, in 2015, a highway connecting the site was built. Work started on site in 2016 and has since proceeded at breakneck speed. Phase zero of the project involved the construction of a new government quarter that will house the Egyptian government's 34 ministries, which are expected to relocate there over the next 18 months. They will be followed by the presidential palace, supreme court, central bank and stock exchange.

"The ministerial district is the economic catalyst of the whole project," says Daniel Horner, director of planning and urban design at Dar Group in London, which is overseeing delivery of the project.

Stimulating growth

"The challenge of any new city is to stimulate growth; to get people to live there," says Horner. "Moving the ministries is a very clever idea. It acts as a kickstarter."

Due to its proximity to Cairo and New Cairo – a new town built 20km to the east in the early 2000s – Abbas hopes that Egyptians will see the new capital as "a natural continuation" of the old city. "Cairo will remain the capital of Egypt," he says.

Inside Egypt's new capital

Chinese walls: signage reflects the involvement of CSCEC in the development

The site is less than an hour's drive from central Cairo. As you approach it for the first time, it is hard to imagine that only three years ago there was nothing here – just a flat, arid plain of red gravel and yellow sand. Now, the whole area is populated by white housing blocks that are almost ready for occupancy.

Some 11,000 units have been built across three residential districts for the first batch of around 50,000 government employees who are expected to move to the new capital once the ministerial district is up and running.

The housing ministry says that the units will be sold "at actual cost, with no overhead or profit", on a 20-year mortgage.

Apart from the roughly 100,000 affordable housing units, which will be distributed across eight districts on the north and south of the new capital, the rest of the residential plots have been sold to private developers. The government hopes the sale of these plots will cover the majority of the project's costs.

"There has been a great investment for the infrastructure of the project: the roads, water system, electric grid and so on," says Abbas. "This was necessary to convince private developers to come and build on the site."