It has become even easier for real estate tycoons to take over public property. They have already taken over the al-Daliyeh area and today they have set their sights on Ramlet al-Baida. This time, however, their scheme is more shrewd and pernicious. On the surface, the real estate tycoon holds “different” religious identity and political affiliation. The project, too, is dressed in a new garb. The sandy beach is the target. Either the municipality acquires it for at least $120 million, as listed, or it becomes a private beach. The people behind the project are also the city’s guardians but they have chosen to erase the city’s only public beach from the memory of its residents.
Beirut’s last outlet to the sea, Ramlet al-Baida, is in danger of expropriation by real estate tycoons who have a high level of political clout. This could be a catastrophic disaster in a society that keeps silent about the systematic and extensive seizure of public spaces. It is a repeat of the Daliyeh scenario. The project is also dangerous in terms of its commercial and political ramifications as it reflects an alliance between political families that have engaged in real estate dealings with local officials.
The first option for this group is to take over Ramlet al-Baida’s beach and annex it to a huge tourist resort that extends from Eden Rock resort to the edge of the Movenpick Hotel. It will cater to wealthy Lebanese and Arabs and will make astronomical profits for the group. The second option is to withdraw from this project for the right price. That, too, will yield ample profits, even if it is through wielding political influence, which in Lebanon, is above the law that is supposed to prohibit closing off the beach or building on it.
Real estate tycoons
The case over al-Daliyeh is not over, as companies owned by Rafik Hariri’s heirs seek to take over public properties in its broad sense, which include state-owned property and private property that is used by the public. At the height of the opposition to fencing off al-Daliyeh and seizing control of its famous rocky area, a similar case in Ramlet al-Baida emerged with a minor change in form and malicious intent. In the Ramlet al-Baida area, which extends along the sandy beach between the Movenpick and the Eden Rock resorts – that is along the Corniche – there are a number of properties located within the 10th real estate area, 5th section. To the north, there is a piece of property owned by the Beirut municipality and it represents the end of the sandy beach. Its plot number is 5069 and has an area of 7,119 square meters (76,628 square feet). According to regulations “It is prohibited on this property to build any structure of any kind or to change the natural surface of the land.”
To the south of this plot of land, there are three pieces of property on the sandy beach itself that were owned by Rafik Hariri’s heirs, that is, Bahaa, Saad, Hind, Nazek, Fahd and Ayman. Other owners include Mohammed Hariri and Fouad Siniora in addition to a few shares owned by employees and lawyers who worked for Rafik Hariri before his assassination in order to be named members of the boards of directors in these “fictitious” companies.
Ownership of these three pieces of property is through two companies: Mediterranean Real Estate and Bahr Real Estate. The new business records of these two companies indicate that known real estate businessman Wissam Ashour now owns 99.9 percent of the company Bahr Real Estate while the rest of the shares are owned by the Hariri heirs, Siniora and others through their ownership of the company Irad Investment Holding whose board of directors is headed by Fahd Hariri. Eighty percent of the other company, Mediterranean Real Estate, is now owned by Ashour and 4 percent by the company Irad Investment Holding.
The first company owns two pieces of property numbered 4027 and 4026. The first piece has an area of 5,152 square meters (55,456 square feet) and is connected to the seashore. The property statement issued by the Real Estate Department refers to “a sandy piece of land by the sea,” with no building rights permitted on this property and no leasing or work of any nature “for any purpose no matter what kind it is.” The second piece of property owned also by the Mediterranean Real Estate company has an area of 4,635 square meters (49,891 square feet). It is also a sandy piece of land connected to the seashore and no building, leasing or work rights are permitted on it.
The second company, Bahr Real Estate, owns property number 2369 which has an area of 18,040 square meters. It is located within “the fifth section where it is prohibited to build any structure of any shape or to change or modify the natural surface of the land,” according to the real estate statement. This property is mortgaged by the Mediterranean Bank for $19 million.
A business deal
In other words, a significant part of the shares of the two companies and their bank debts were transferred to Ashour. However, this was not a random move. It was subject to an agreement between the two sides making the structure of the legal ownership of the two companies that own the property not final. According to some insiders, the deal between Hariri’s heirs and Ashour includes partnership in some real estate business and having the man represent them in some deals, especially after al-Daliyeh affair that damaged the image of Hariri’s children in Beiruti public opinion which did not appreciate fencing off al-Daliyeh, seizing public property in that area and preventing Beirut’s poor from going to the sea… His children tried to avoid a repeat of this clash with Beirut’s residents by partnering with Ashour and putting him up as a front in this scheme that aims to take hold of Ramlet al-Baida’s beach.
The story of the partnership with Ashour emerged when the man filed a request with the Beirut municipality asking for its approval to fence off the three pieces of property. Ashour’s request triggered a long debate between members of the municipal council and Mayor Bilal Hamad.
Some members viewed these changes affecting Beirut’s seafront with suspicion. Whether in al-Daliyeh whose owners – Hariri’s heirs – asked to increase the investment factor from 20 percent to 200 percent. Or in a nearby piece of land owned by an influential financier from Tripoli who had procured a change in the investment factor to 100 percent but was still unsatisfied therefore requesting that the municipality increase it to 200 percent. Or what is happening in Ramlet al-Baida’s beach and Ashour’s request which was seen as exerting pressure on the municipality to acquire the property by paying $120 million for a piece of land that is considered “dead.”
The price of owning the property was discussed between Hamad and the members of the municipal council as he argued that owning the three pieces of property is the best solution to save the last beach in Beirut from the clutch of real estate tycoons and give Beirutis what is originally theirs. No one knows that Ashour is nothing more than a front for the whole scheme. People who have adopted this theory maliciously point out that there is a political cover to divide the seashore area. Hariri’s heirs took al-Daliyeh, i.e., the Raouche area. That means that Ramlet al-Baida – allocated along sectarian lines to the Shia and geographically closer to the Dahiyeh – will go to the sect’s representatives.
Of course, no one knows why or which standards are applied to raising the investment factor in Beirut’s seafront to this extent, especially that this will only benefit real estate owners because it will enable them to increase construction multiple times more than the area permits. This will make them obscene profits as the price of a meter of land on the seafront exceeds $10,000 per square meter based on current prices. Describing this property as “dead” is based on the fact that it is located within the 10th real estate area in the 5th section. According to the general design guideline for the city of Beirut issued in decree 6285 and its amendments, “building and changing or modifying the natural surface of the land is prohibited” in the 5th section. This decree explains the terms included in the real estate regulations about prohibiting building, leasing or doing work. This means people are not allowed to invest in these pieces of property, have any changes, lease them or move one grain of sand.
The reason for this is that these pieces of property, like al-Daliyeh, represent public space that constitutes the connection between city residents and their history and reality. Beirut was always open to the sea and the sea was its constant companion that made a commercial city open unto the Mediterranean coast. Besides, Ramlet al-Baida beach is not just a symbol of the identity of the city, it also represents an element of its social fabric because it is a refuge for the poor who want to swim in a public, free place without the cost of going to other free beaches outside the city. After the takeover of al-Daliyeh, residents of Beirut have nowhere to go but Ramlet al-Baida beach. However, the nightmare has followed them there too!
Some fear that there might be an attempt to prompt Beirut’s residents to accept the loss of al-Daliyeh under the pretext of saving Ramlet al-Baida beach. This fear is based on inflating the cost of acquiring a piece of property where building is forbidden and is in violation of the law.
The projects of the real estate tycoons
Insiders say that the landowners are planning two parallel projects. They put Wissam Ashour as a front to deflect any suspicions towards the Hariri family while business between them has been ongoing for a long time and has led to many deals on lands they sold or bought and developed in order to sell apartments.
The first project comes in the form of requesting to fence off property in order to annex it to a piece of land owned by Hariri’s heirs located to the south next to the Eden Rock resort. If his heirs manage to modify the design guideline for this piece of land in a way that allows them to build a wall that separates Ramlet al-Baida beach-goers from the three pieces of property, then the land will be a “paradise” for the resort’s visitors with their luxury cars and large yachts and the investment will yield obscene profits and it will compete with all the resorts and private facilities that occupy the coast of Lebanon and perhaps even the region.
If public opinion is against fencing off the property and people rose up on account that the area is a working-class beach in practice and not just in theory, then the municipality will have to acquire the property under the pretext of the “public good” and pay the price determined by the appraisal committee.
But there are plenty of questions about the power and influence that property owners wield. Will the appraisal committee take into consideration that no construction is allowed on the land or change in its use as a beach? Doesn’t that mean that the value of the land is cheap and almost free? Why is the mayor arguing in front of municipal council members that acquiring the land for $120 million is inevitable and necessary? Is there no other solution?
In reality, modifying the design guideline for this land in order to allow construction on it requires the approval of the directorate general of urban planning, Beirut’s municipal council and the cabinet.
The land’s original classification as non-aedificandi, i.e., an area with no building development, came in the context of exercising control over public property that was transferred into private hands due to the influence and power exercised during and after the Mandate era. This issue was addressed through article 17 of the Urban Planning Law which indicates that compensation is required when the designation of a piece of property as public puts restrictions on land development. In this case, compensation should equal half of the difference between the value of the land before it is designated as public and its value after it is designated as public on the date the decree is issued.
Compensation must be claimed subject to a statute of limitations whereby the claim can no longer be validly filed five years after notifying the relevant party of the decree that certified the designation. The compensation is determined according to the provisions of the law of eminent domain and it must be paid in installments over three years at the most.
The three pieces of property are connected to the seashore and they were at the center of more than one project for Rafik Hariri who owned a piece of property to the east of the Corniche near the park planned in that area. He intended to build a tunnel from there to the three pieces of property in order to turn the area into a private beach. In 1983 Ramlet al-Baida became a public beach as a result of a decision by the Beirut municipal council under the government of Shafik al-Wazzan. The decision recognized the social significance of this area as a principle element in the social fabric of the city and its suburbs.