One woman’s ambition to lead reforms & create wealth for women in Algeria

An artist's drawing of the Medina Project in Algiers.
An artist’s drawing of the Medina Project in Algiers.

13 April 2010

Economic Transformation of Algiers Gets Entrepreneur’s Push

This article is part of a series on delegates to the April 26–27 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

By Phillip Kurata
Staff Writer (Department of State)

Washington — The North African city that was the capital of the feared Barbary pirates centuries ago is undergoing a makeover into an international business center with a skyline reminiscent of Dubai’s. The woman driving this transformation is Sonia Ziamni, who is hoping that her entrepreneurial ambition will ripple out and create opportunities for other Algerian women.

“I am a woman, and in my country it is difficult to rise in a business world made by men for men. But this has only strengthened my resolve and my desire to succeed,” said Ziamni, who manages the Algiers Medina Project, a billion-dollar real estate development on the seafront of eastern Algiers.

President Obama has invited her to the entrepreneurs’ summit that he will host in Washington April 26–27 to highlight the energy that women entrepreneurs can provide when given the opportunity. The president’s invitation plays into Ziamni’s “secret ambition.”

“I have a secret ambition to become an entrepreneur with real power to change,” Ziamni said. “With decisionmaking power, I can lead reforms and help put aside taboos against women, and this will create wealth as women become part of the work force.”

Ziamni is the last child born into a family of eight in Algiers. Her parents, who are from the Kabylie Mountains of Algeria, worked hard in difficult times to ensure that their children got university educations, according to Ziamni. With degrees in finance and economics, Ziamni worked for a variety of companies, such as Air Algerie, a medical association called l’Ordre des Médecins, and a construction company, Arabian General Engineering, before landing the job of manager for the Medina Project. The project involves the construction of a business district that will house the major multinational companies in Algeria, hotels, residential towers, shopping malls and recreational and tourist facilities.

The Emaar Properties PJSC of the United Arab Emirates is investing in the Medina Project and constructing a crescent moon–shaped peninsula built out into the open sea and artificial islets joined by bridges, similar to what Emaar has built in Dubai. Carrefour S.A., the largest retailer in Europe, is building a “hypermarket” with everything under one roof. Residents of Algiers will be able to stroll along a 20-kilometer seafront promenade, which will have recreational and cultural installations. The Medina Project will feature a mosque that will be the third largest in the world when it is completed. Museums will house relics from Algiers’ colorful past, including installments about the Barbary pirates, who raided the coasts of Spain, Portugal and Italy and kidnapped slaves from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Although Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been a strong proponent of economic liberalization, the implementation of the Medina Project has been long in coming. The project was initiated in the 1980s but was shelved because of a drop in oil prices. Then Algeria fell into a prolonged civil ar, which ended in 2002. Since the project was resurrected several years ago, Ziamni has been working full tilt to see that it moves ahead on schedule.

“The worst thing that can happen in real estate development is that delays occur. That causes financial losses, and the company’s future is jeopardized along with hundreds of jobs,” Ziamni said. “The future of Algeria is in the hands of private companies because they alone have the ability to create wealth.”