Egypt resort parties crimped by Iraq conference

/ Source: The Associated Press

Dinner for the world’s top diplomats meant no evening on the beach for tourists as security measures for an international conference Thursday put a crimp in the partying in this Red Sea resort, where bikini-clad sunbathers usually reign supreme.

Hundreds of government ministers, diplomats and their entourages from around the world — and a horde of journalists — descended on Sharm el-Sheik’s swanky hotels for the two-day gathering to discuss Iraq.

In hotels, gulf ministers in traditional robes and diplomats in suits passed tourists in shorts and bathing suits — and even the occasional European woman sunbathing topless around the pools, a sight not seen elsewhere in conservative, Muslim Egypt.

At the Sheraton Sharm hotel, the beach was closed off Thursday night as Egypt threw a seaside dinner for the conference delegates at the beach restaurant, next to a large double-decker pool.

“Please accept our sincere apology for any inconvenience that may occur,” the Sheraton told its patrons — overwhelmingly young Russians, one of the largest nationalities to visit Sharm el-Sheik.

Russian vacationers had another disappointment: The female pop duo t.A.T.u had been scheduled to throw a concert at another Sharm hotel Thursday night but postponed it for “technical reasons.” Fans on their Web site assumed it was because of the conference.

Security tried to keep as low an impact as possible on tourists. Police set up checkpoints on the main highway near the conference center — but while they stopped Egyptians in private cars to check IDs, they quickly waved through buses and taxis carrying foreigners.

Another reason for security this weekend: President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal — who many believe is being positioned to succeed his father in power — is getting married in the resort on Friday. The wedding — which officials say is limited to family and close friends — is reportedly taking place at one of the resort’s swankier hotels, though details have not been made public.

Common meeting place
By now, Sharm el-Sheik, at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, is used to having Middle East politics dropped in its well-tanned lap.

Over the past decade, the resort has hosted a string of summits and conferences — most related to the Israeli-Arab peace process, including a January summit between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mubarak often meets foreign leaders in the resort, which also hosted a 2006 World Economic Forum.

The resort was also stunned in October 2005 by a triple suicide bombing that hit two hotels and a market area, killing 64 people. Terror bombings in other Sinai resorts in 2004 and 2006 killed 57 people.

Many feared the Sharm attack would destroy the town as a tourist draw, but it quickly bounced back and continues to be a major engine of Egypt’s vital tourism industry. Sharm and the smaller resorts of south Sinai draw a quarter of the annual number of tourists, who totaled about 9 million last year. Egypt earned about $7 billion from tourism in 2006, one of its biggest earners of hard currency.

One of Sharm’s main draws is its extensive coral reefs, attracting divers from around the world. But with its casinos and desert raves, it has also become a unique Mideast party resort.