Iceland baffled as China asks for icy barrens to play golf
Struggling to stand upright against a howling wind, Bragi Benediktsson looked out over his family's land - a barren expanse of snow and ice that a Chinese billionaire wants to turn into a golf course - and laughed. "Golf here is difficult," said Benediktsson, a 75-year-old sheep farmer.world Updated: Mar 27, 2013 01:22 IST
Struggling to stand upright against a howling wind, Bragi Benediktsson looked out over his family's land - a barren expanse of snow and ice that a Chinese billionaire wants to turn into a golf course - and laughed. "Golf here is difficult," said Benediktsson, a 75-year-old sheep farmer.
It was 11am, and a pale sun had only just crawled sluggishly into the sky. The snow, which began falling in September, will probably continue until May. Even for Icelanders accustomed to harsh weather and isolation, Grimsstadir is a particularly desolate spot.
But thanks to a poetry-loving Chinese tycoon with a thing for snow, it has become the setting for a bizarre Icelandic saga featuring geopolitical intrigue, tens of millions of dollars and a swarm of dark conspiracy theories. At the centre of the drama is Huang Nubo, a former official in the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department who, now a property developer in Beijing, wants to build a luxury hotel and an "eco golf course" for wealthy Chinese seeking clean air and solitude.
"It never seemed a very convincing business plan," said Iceland's interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, who last year rejected a request that Huang be exempted from Icelandic laws that restrict foreign ownership of land. "I put many questions and got no answers," the minister added.
Prodded by diplomats from the US and other countries to take a hard look at Huang's intentions, Jonasson questioned what might lie behind China's curious interest in Grimsstadir.
Rebuffed in an initial attempt to buy a vast area of wilderness covering more than 100 square miles, Huang's Beijing-based company, the Zhongkun Group, is now pushing for a long-term lease arrangement instead - and counting on the prospect that elections in Iceland next month will lead to a new, and perhaps more welcoming, government.
The current government in Reykjavik, a left-of-centre coalition, has mostly given Huang the cold shoulder. Even ministers who favour Chinese investment wonder what is really going on.
Foreign minister Ossur Skarphedinsson said that he saw no reason to block Huang's hotel venture, which is expected to cost more than $100 million, but that he was puzzled by Huang's desire to build a high-end resort in a place so isolated that "you can almost hear ghosts dancing in the snow."
Huang could not be reached for comment: he was off climbing a mountain, his company said. In response to written questions, Xu Hong, a vice president at the company, dismissed speculation of a military purpose or other ulterior motives as "the guesswork of post-cold-war thinking." Xu said Grimsstadir had been chosen because "there is market demand in China" for peace and quiet. "Most Chinese now don't like to travel to dirty, noisy places," she said.
"Nobody knows what the devil they are up to," said Einar Benediktsson, Iceland's former ambassador to Washington and a critic of his country's expanding ties with Beijing. "All we know is that it is very important to China to get a foothold in the Arctic, and Iceland is an easy prey."
Huang's enthusiasm for Iceland at first stirred little concern. Nobody paid much attention when, in 2010, he suddenly popped up in Reykjavik to renew a long-dormant friendship with Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson, a translator of Chinese literature he had roomed with at Peking University in the 1970s.
Sveinbjornsson doubts his old roommate is part of an elaborate gambit by China. "If we had not shared a room he would never have even heard of Iceland," he said. He is not sure that Grimsstadir will work as a resort: "It is not the first place I would have chosen." But, noting that Huang "is not an idiot," Sveinbjornsson said that "maybe it takes somebody from the outside to see the potential."
During his first trip to Iceland in 2010, Huang made no mention of any business plans but focused instead on poetry, announcing that he would put up $1 million to establish and finance the China-Iceland Cultural Fund. Led by his ex-roommate, the fund has since organised two meetings of poets.
Less than a year after his first visit, Huang returned to Iceland and offered Benediktsson, the sheep farmer, $7 million for his land and that of some relatives and a second family.
While exotic golf courses are all the rage now, this one seemed to many here a long shot. But Huang's business strategy has apparently impressed the state-owned China Development Bank, which, according to the Zhongkun Group, last year reached a "cooperation agreement" with the company worth about $800 million.
Benediktsonn, the sheep farmer, has been swinging back and forth on whether he wants to sell his property. He does not like the idea that the area would be flooded with Chinese tourists and golf carts, but doubts that the resort will ever materialise, and, mindful of his own advanced age, calculates that if it does he will not be around. "When the hotel goes up, I'll be down in the ground," he said.