China donates $40 million opera house to Algeria

ALGIERS (Reuters) - China will pay $40 million to build an opera house for major trading partner Algeria, a gift likely to serve as a powerful symbol of Beijing’s growing economic influence in Africa.

Chinese construction firms have picked up billions of dollars worth of infrastructure contracts from energy producer Algeria, but relations hit a rocky patch last year when there were anti-Chinese riots in the capital.

China has overtaken the United States as the continent’s top trading partner but faces scrutiny over its hunger for natural resources and an influx of Chinese labor.

The 1,400-seat opera house will be built in the Ouled Fayet suburbs in the west of the Algerian capital, officials said.

The building will be “an important symbol of Chinese-Algerian friendship,” Lu Yifeng, economic and trade advisor at China’s embassy in Algiers, told Reuters.

“We would like to pursue our friendship cooperation with Algeria during its next economic plan,” the diplomat added.

It will be the first time the Algerian capital has had a theater dedicated to opera. “This huge cultural project is a friendly gesture by the Chinese,” Algerian Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi said at a ceremony to announce the gift.

Chinese firms want to secure a share of the $150-billion that Algeria, sitting on huge cash reserves from oil and gas exports, has earmarked for infrastructure improvements and modernizing the economy between now and 2014.

The spending is part of an effort by Algeria to catch up after over a decade of conflict between Islamist radicals and government forces that killed more than 200,000 people.

From a figure of $272 million in 2001, bilateral trade between China and Algeria topped $4 billion in 2008.

Chinese energy giants Sinopec and CNPC have won exploration contracts in Algeria while construction firms from China have been involved in vast projects, including building a 1,216-km (756 mile) East-West highway.

“They (the Chinese) are present in almost all sectors,” of the Algerian economy, said Hafid Sualili, an economic commentator with the El Khabar newspaper. “What they want now is to be present in all sectors.”

Youth unemployment is high in Algeria and analysts say there is some resentment toward foreign workers.

A confrontation between an Algerian shop owner and a Chinese national last year spilled over into a mass brawl involving about 120 Chinese and 80 Algerian youths.

Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Editing by Janet Lawrence