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Mediterranean melting pot.

Byline: Michel Cousins

Malta wants to attract Saudis - Saudi businessmen, Saudi tourists, Saudi investors. So says Maltese Ambassador Godwin Montanaro who after three years in Riyadh is due to leave at the end of March.

Situated right in the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa, Malta is today largely unknown to most Arabs, apart from neighboring Tunisians and Libyans. Explaining Malta's story to Saudis and to many expats in the Kingdom is not easy. It raises eyebrows, even creates incredulity. Tell them that the staunchly Catholic Mediterranean island was once fully Arab and Muslim (in contrast to Arab Spain, or Andalusia, where the large section of the population remained Christian and non-Arabic speaking) and there is amazement. Tell them that the Maltese still speak a form of Arabic and it turns to disbelief. The idea of an island of Catholic Arabs, as Malta has sometimes been called, is a concept too far. That Spain was once Arab and Muslim is well known; its past glories are celebrated in street names and residential districts across the Arab world. By comparison, the Arab past of Malta - and of Sicily, of which it was once a part - is long forgotten despite the fact that over a thousand years ago, Malta reputedly had as many mosques as days in the year.

The origins of the Maltese are still much debated, shrouded as they are in the mists of time. But the arrival of the Arabs around 870 AD from what is now Tunisia created a new culture. It is seen still not only in the language but also in place names. The old capital is called Mdina, and just outside it is Rabat. There is Marsa (port), Gzira (Island), Birzebbuga, Birkirkara (Bir, a well) and so many other Arabic place names. Streets are called "triq." There is, however, little material evidence from the Arab period - it ended in 1091 AD - other than Kusksu, a soup derived from couscous. However, the construction of terraced farmland and irrigation is thought to come from the Arabs (not just in Malta, but also Sicily and Corsica) and Maltese fishing boats are still painted with an eye on the prow which they call "the eye of Allah". Indeed, the Maltese word for "God" is "Allah".

Saudi will therefore have no difficulty making being understood there. The language is as much a dialect of Arabic as the Arabic spoken in Tunis or Algiers. The fact that it is written in Roman not Arabic script and that modern Maltese uses many Italian loan words - thank you is "grazie" - does not really matter. After all, in Lebanon "thank you" is "mersi kathir".

For Saudis, there is an added language attraction. The heritage of 150 years of British colonial rule is that Malta is also English speaking. Apart from Ireland and the UK itself, it is the only other fully English-speaking member of the European Union. Everyone speaks English - in shops, on the streets, in restaurants, hotels, banks, cinemas. English is as much the language of Malta as it is of London. Indeed, the Maltese are now busy marketing English language courses. There are some 40 English-language centers, many geared to specialist interests - business, medicine, engineering, the law, financial services, information technology. Learning can be done in intensive courses, longer-term academic ones or courses combined with holiday trips. It is a lot cheaper than studying in the UK or Ireland.

For the tourist, there is something for almost all tastes. There are beach holidays, a plethora of hotels to suit all pockets (from five star down to small, family-run places), restaurants, plenty of entertainment, spa facilities and wellness centers, everything for the boating enthusiast (Malta is an important yachting and sailing center) and for those who need a serious dose of culture while on vacation, a wealth of history that other destinations can only dream about. That is because Malta is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Apart from the Arabs, many others came and left their mark - the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Normans, the Spanish, the Knights of St. John, the French, the British. The result is that nowhere else on earth is more history crammed into such a small space. There are Neolithic temples that predate the pyramids and are the oldest freestanding buildings in the world - and there are more than to be found in the rest of Europe combined. There are walled cities, forts, palaces and exquisite churches - the town of Mosta in central Malta has the largest unsupported domed church in the world after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London.

But the great treasure are the palaces, baroque churches and squares built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th and 17th centuries. These are to be found in the city of Mdina, the island's old capital, in the present capital Valetta, the fortress city built in the late 16th century, and, across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, in the so-called "Three Cities" of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea. The Three Cities served as the Knights' earlier capital before Valletta was built and until recently was wholly ignored.

Today, Valletta (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is still the most popular tourist destination on the island, with its remarkable Co-Cathedral of St. John (one of the most decorative cathedrals in the world) as well the Grandmaster's Palace and the various different "Auberges" (headquarters) of the different national groupings of the knights, not to mention its shops and outdoor cafAs. But Vittoriosa, with its museums, palaces and baroque buildings - and its marina, is increasingly drawing the discerning tourist. The fortified city, dating from Roman times, used to be called Il-Birgu, Arabic for a tower - which almost certainly relates to Fort St. Angelo on the city's promontory, once one of the most important forts on the island. The city was renamed Civitas Victoriosa (for short Vittoriosa) after the epic siege of Malta in 1565 when the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, tried to capture the island but failed.

On the opposite side of Valletta is Sliema, the island's main commercial center, and beyond it is St. Julian's and Paceville with their smart hotels. To a certain extent, it is misleading to talk about different towns. Across Malta, one town tends to merge into another. Much of it one great big metropolis rising out of the Mediterranean - and at 245.7 sq km in size, it is not even half of the size of Jeddah. Only as one heads north do the buildings end and the countryside appear, but not for long. Another major tourist resort is to the north of the island around Bugibba and St. Paul's Bay. Those who want a quieter time may prefer to go to the island of Gozo, a short ferry ride away from Malta's northern tip.

Tourism remains Malta's prime foreign currency earner thanks to its Mediterranean climate and the relatively cheap cost of staying there - every year there are plenty of visitors from the UK, from Germany, France, Scandinavia; even from as far away as Australia. But Malta is increasingly making its mark as a financial center. Ever since it joined the EU five years ago, there has been a steady flow of finance-related businesses to the island, including corporate banking, investment services and insurance. In particular, Malta had marked itself as a major European hub for the captive insurance industry. Other financial areas are also growing - the pension industry, trust-related activity, while a number of multinationals have set up operations centers - all driven in no small way by the fact that Malta is English-speaking, high-skilled and with labor costs a great deal cheaper than London, Frankfurt or Zurich. In addition, the sector is well capitalized and, thanks to regulations, has managed to avoid some of the damage suffered elsewhere in the present economic downturn. The combination of low costs, English language and financial stability will probably ensure continued strong growth in the future.

Will that be enough to pull Saudi money? That remains to be seen - although, in one way, Saudi Arabia already makes a great deal of money there, all its money; Malta is where Saudi banknotes are printed. Saudi money to Malta would therefore be something of a homecoming.

Not the only homecoming. If today, Malta is wholly unknown to most Saudis there is every reason why it should attract Saudis, whether for business or pleasure. Those Arab ties beckon. Language and history can be a strong bond.

Copyright: Arab News 2009 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Feb 23, 2009
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