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BELGRADE (Reuters) - The vista of rusting boats and drab wasteland that greets visitors passing over the river Sava into Belgrade is set to be transformed into a futuristic forest of skyscrapers under ambitious redevelopment plans that have left Serbs deeply split.
Construction for the Belgrade Waterfront project is due to kick off this summer, bankrolled by Gulf Arabs, and will forever change the appearance, and critics say also the character, of Serbia's capital city, home to around 1.3 million people.
The project crowns an unlikely but fruitful alliance between Serbia, an aspiring European Union member, and the United Arab Emirates that spans defense, agriculture and cheap financing.
A UAE property developer plans to spend at least three billion euros ($3.26 billion) building 5,700 apartments, 2,200 hotel rooms, offices for 12,700 people, a curvaceous 200-metre tower and a sprawling shopping mall on the 1.8 million square meters of prime riverside land.
The project marks the first foray into central and eastern Europe by Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills and board member Mohamed Alabbar, the UAE real estate tycoon behind the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa.
Supporters say the development will create thousands of jobs, address a severe shortage of office and retail space in downtown Belgrade and put the city firmly on the investment map of eastern Europe.
However, detractors say it is folly - a Xanadu conjured up without public tender or consultation, soulless, elitist and jarring with the look of the existing, centuries-old city. A contract has yet to be signed even as land is cleared apace, fuelling complaints about transparency.
"It's still unreal to me," said Dejan Ubovic, founder of KC Grad, a cultural center in the graffiti-riddled Savamala district that has become a mecca for tourists and artists and stands on the perimeter of the proposed Waterfront site.
"Nobody normal would have anything against some kind of improvement," he said. But this 'megalomania' "has very little to do with ordinary Belgraders".
Fearing for Savamala and the city itself, activists face a tough fight to block a project likely to define - for better or worse - the rule of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Vucic's nationalist-tinged but pro-Western policies have won him a hold on power not seen since late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose war in Kosovo brought NATO bombs down on Belgrade in 1999.
"We've never seen (such a project) in the whole of Central and Eastern Europe," said Andrew Peirson of property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle. "Serbia's the first to get them (Gulf Arab investors) and I think people are wondering why."
Eagle Hills did not respond to a request for comment on its involvement in the Belgrade Waterfront, but the answer may partly lie in Serbia's EU ambitions.
The project gives the UAE a toehold while costs remain relatively low in a country likely to join the EU, the world's biggest single market, in the next decade. It can also avoid the tough public procurement rules, transparency and regulation demanded of EU members but more easily circumvented in Serbia.
The first collaboration between Serbia and the UAE was a $40 million equity investment by Abu Dhabi's Etihad airline in Serbia's national airline. Other deals quickly followed.
Real estate experts say Belgrade Waterfront would address the city's chronic lack of good quality office and retail space, a shortage hindering Serbia's efforts to lure foreign investors.
Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali, a Vucic ally, says the new work for local building firms would also help drive the anemic economy. He dismisses the project opponents as "paid critics".
"Do they (the critics) want hundreds of huts, shacks, people living in abandoned railway wagons? ... Do they not want an investor to come and invest several billion euros, to put to work the local construction industry and employ 20,000 people?" he said in an interview with Reuters.
Peirson said Belgrade had plenty of work to do before it could expect investors to start queuing up.
"This city needs everything ... You can get the government to fly out to Palo Alto and meet with Google and Facebook and tell them they need to move people to Serbia, but there are no office buildings," he said.
But opponents question the overall viability of such a project in a country where a fifth of the workforce is unemployed and the average monthly net wage is 350 euros. The economy is facing a second straight year of recession as Vucic's government tries to overhaul a bloated and costly public sector.
"There's no question that it needs to develop on the riverfront. The key is, when you see those plans, how long will it take to build that up?" said Peirson. "Because they're going to have to follow the demand of the market, and not try and build it and then expect the demand to come."
Mali said construction would take up to 20 years, depending on market conditions. Serbia will pay for infrastructure upgrades outside the limits of the site, costs put by Mali at just under 300 million euros but at much more by the critics.
Purists like Belgrade former chief architect Djordje Bobic fear for the city's distinctively erratic architectural heritage.
"Belgrade," he said, "will be left to peer shyly from behind a bunch of senseless, aggressively scattered skyscrapers."
($1 = 0.9211 euros)
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai; Editing by Gareth Jones