Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Solidere

And what is this virtual wealth that Lebanese enjoyed? Didn’t think Lebanon has any of these multinational financial “Moral Entity”

And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing?

Since 1993, and during late Rafic Hariri PM, Lebanon virtual wealth was built on selling debts that nourish real estate and government bonds bubbles, in the name of maintaining the peg in a failed state, and end up in the pockets of the political and financial elite under a veil of bank secrecy.

Lebanon was promoted as a Prime Real Estates to be looted, seashore and entire mountain tops sold for cheap.

Open air, open investment on public facilities and infrastructures. What happened in Russia during this infamous Yeltsin.

Lebanon was to emulate the economy in Dubai and investment was to pour in from Saudi Kingdom and the Gulf States.

Downtown Beirut were structured under a company called Solidere for 30 years, and renewed unlawfully for the Hariri clan.

And the government and Parliament received loans to be distributed to the militia/mafia leaders. Everyone of these leaders were reserved a war treasure coffer. A small part was for the leaders to “invest” in their electoral communities and assign their members in the government institutions.

Suddenly we woke up and realized that this was an illusion….

They are trying to unite?

After dozens of years of virtual wealth, the Lebanese people are rocking irreversibly into real poverty.
And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.

After dreaming of leaving our children a better life, we can only promise them an existential regression, like that of thousands of young Iranian (initiatives), gifted, over-educated, broken dreams, whose only horizon is a career Taxi driver or home help.


And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.
In the face of the insecurity of the times we live, people’s savings have been eliminated in return for the cancellation of public debt, with impunity, irresponsibility of those responsible for disaster and increasing inequality.


And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.
In the face of the delegation of the International Monetary Fund, a divided, inconsistent team with divergent ideas, and conflicting diaries, which promises the failure of negotiations even before they begin.


And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.
After years of collusion between double violence of money and that of weapons, we are fighting in the context of double violence, the lack of money and the omnipresence of weapons, which strengthens our failed state status to hold a monopoly on legal violence or to define and protect its borders.


And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.
And then what? Without external financing, self-financing. Money flawed, stolen, corrupt, transfer abroad in an immoral way, will buy everything, public goods and private goods, and the return to normal will raise the wall between those who rule and the ruled, whose existence is likely to settle properly in misery.


And what are the hundreds of civil society groups doing? They are trying to unite.
If the lack of sovereignty, lack of future, promised poverty, existential regression, impunity, inequality, the despoliation of private saving and public resources have so far failed to unite the groups of civil society, it’s that there’s a problem somewhere.

Beirut Shoreline: Before and after Solidere catastrophic tampering

One of the great things about the internet is that there is just so much floating around out there–like all the plans for Beirut that seemed to have magically disappeared.

There was/is(?) a plan to re-create part of the old promenade of Beirut, the original corniche, which was known as Avenue des Francais:

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Today’s seaside esplanade or corniche is an extension of this historic Avenue.

But the bay was filled in with garbage during the Lebanese war and according to Solidere (the private firm of Rafic Hariri holding that was created to rebuild central Beirut) the original coastline was “lost” and the plan was to use the garbage dump as a landfill and further extend the shoreline, thus creating hundreds of thousands more square meters of real estate property in the process.

For now, we won’t get into the controversy of how Solidere was formed and who profits from it (I’ve written about that extensively here and here).

Instead, let’s look at one of the many promises it made to the public to build green and publicly accessible space as part of its rebuilding narrative.

One of these projects is called Shoreline Walk, a series of interlinking gardens retracing the original coastal outline of the city as seen in the top photo of the Avenue.  It’s marked below by red lines.

We can also see how the large landfill created a new coastline enclosed by a new breakwater sea wall and yacht marina (which has also become a cash cow for Soldiere):

shoreline-walk-11

Designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, The Shoreline Walk was meant to “restore the energy and vigour of the old Corniche promenade” with “green infrastructure” that aims to “re-establish east-west links and connect together a series of new public squares and gardens for the enjoyment of the community,” according to the firm’s website, which contains the images below:

walkgarden.jpg

The project was designed 14 years ago in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of 5 million GBP (around $7.2 million) according to a company presentation.

So where is it now? I’ve been living in Lebanon for most of my life and I’ve never seen or heard of it.

Here is an image of the design from Gustafson:

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It wasn’t easy to place the gardens on today’s Google map because so much has been constructed. So I resorted to an old aerial shot from the late 1990s to align the plots:

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And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:

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As compared to:

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So where is it?

Conceived 14 years ago, it’s due date is nearly six years past, and beyond a few shrubs and a short row of sidewalk trees, the area remains largely baren and off limits to the public.

The only garden that is completed is Zaytouneh Square, on the lower left.

But in reality, this is a hardscape space with few trees or shade:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:

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Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:

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…than it does in reality:

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On the other hand, the company seems to have had no trouble fulfilling its promise to construct blocks of high end towers for sale, with very few undeveloped plots remaining.

Yet Solidere’s green map is often touted in presentations and interviews with the press.

Soldiere’s urban planner recently told design students at a university conference that the city center contains “60 parks and public spaces.” Many students were probably left wondering where these are, as the presentation did not specify if these were existing or planned projects.

In fact, Solidere has plenty of parks and public projects on paper.

These include a range of archeological gardens, museums, fountain pools, even a large “central park” on the reclaimed new waterfront as seen above in the company map.

But 22 years after Solidere began excavations in 1994, few of these spaces have materialized.

And as seen by the example of the tiled Zaytouneh Square, the spaces that have been built often take the shape of sterile expanses with little seating that feel more like modern art to compliment private properties around them rather than inviting spaces for the general public to enjoy.

But is that even the goal? Would the general public, most of whom are poor, be invited to mingle amongst the high security multi-million dollar apartments and luxury shops of the city center?

The Shoreline Walk was celebrated in a piece published last year by a landscape magazine which described the completed phase– Zaytouneh Square– as “daring, unique and dramatic.”

It added: “The sleek, bold, ultra-modern look of the square matches the character of the surrounding buildings and gives us the impression of a more modern, edgy Beirut

Here’s another image of that space:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network 

Personally, I have never seen more than a handful of people loitering around the area and many of them tend to be private security. But will this change when the other “gardens” are completed? Will they be more green than this?

Although the magazine article was published last year,  curiously it makes no reference to the 14 years that have passed since Shoreline Walk was announced, neither does it ask any questions about when it will be ready. Soldiere’s web page on the Shoreline Walk also provides no explanation for the delay or any revised completion dates.

Perhaps the firm will say that political turmoil has hurt progress. Yet why has the same political turmoil not affected the completion of residential towers, sprawling condominiums with hanging gardens, a yacht marina and high end seafront shopping center (Zaitunay Bay) that have all been completed over the last decade? Are glass and steel towers easier to build than minimalist landscaped gardens?

Or does the $8 billion firm prioritize real estate gains for its investors over public space for the community? Perhaps someone out there has the answer.

 

 

Are sterile shopping malls proof enough of growing gap between rich and poor? Lebanon case

The destruction of cities in Syria and the terror tactics in Iraq are the focus of the world’s attention (at least publically).

In this context it might seem churlish to draw attention to the problems of another city in the Middle East such as Beirut, not currently in the midst of conflict.

The “soft” destruction of Beirut is something that many of its citizens – who have seen their fair share of civil war – are watching with horror.

The greed of Lebanon’s politicians and real estate developers is slowly but surely decomposing the city’s social fabric. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is now wider than ever.

The Souks shopping mall in Beirut

‘The Beirut souks were once a place where the scent of rare spices filled the air. Today, all you can smell in are cleaning detergents and what you hear is ambient music.’ Photograph: Mattia Sobieski/Alamy

To understand the nature of real estate development in Beirut, one needs simply visit the new city centre, which was rebuilt after the civil war (1975-90) by a company called Solidere.

The new centre boasts expensively restored French-era buildings which, apart from some shops and offices, remain eerily empty, “A movie set”, to quote a Canadian film professor.

As for the newly refurbished Beirut souks, they were once a place where merchants haggled and the scent of rare spices filled the air.

Today, all you can smell in this open-air shopping mall are cleaning detergents, and what you hear is ambient music. Hardly a word of Arabic can be heard – even emergency signs are in English. “This could well be Heathrow airport,” noted one British visitor.

The most unsettling thing about the city centre is its “exclusive” aspect.

Although its shops are not necessarily aimed at wealthy visitors (as is often claimed), it is a good Lebanese example of what some have called “hostile architecture”.

Run like a private property, its streets are lined with surveillance cameras and security guards, some with watchdogs. Try to photograph the synagogue or stop in awe in front of an old church and prepare to be swarmed by paranoid guards.

This “hostile architecture” has set a trend across the country, especially among politicians and the ruling class.

While some old aristocratic families, such as the Sursock-Cochranes, have maintained a certain tradition of hospitality and kept their gardens open to the general public, members of the current elite have turned their Beirut residences into veritable fortresses inside the city, squatting public space.

Stories abound about unwitting passers-by being harassed by the private security guards who surround these residences.

While men in power take hold of entire districts, other parts of the city are being gentrified. These include the district of Mar Mikhael, with its charming traditional houses.

A century ago, survivors of the Armenian genocide and their children took refuge here and made their livelihoods from craftsmanship.

For four years, trendy bars and art galleries have been sprouting up next to garages and repair shops, attracting a more affluent, differently educated population. Real estate predators soon followed, destroying some of the traditional houses in favour of oversized luxury towers.

Out of fear of being completely driven away, to the outskirts of the city, the more modestly earning Armenians crossed out the name of the main street in Mar Mikhael and re-named it “Armenia Street”.

The great canyon separating the social classes in Lebanon can be seen in no more spectacular manner than in Mar Mikhael.

On my visit to a trendy art bookstore there, I found a glossy publication in which was gathered articles and work by the glitterati of the Beirut “conceptual art” scene. One feature displayed objects gleaned in a poor Beirut suburb, such as a matchbox and other everyday utensils, as if they were exotic finds in a faraway land of savages.

This could well have been the catalogue of a colonial exhibition in 19th-century Europe.

While trendy districts and luxury projects are beneficial to the economy, could they not be designed to be more inclusive? As the rich and powerful Lebanese barricade themselves in squatted land and gated communities, the poorer population is being confined to the margins and inside refugee camps.

As for the public space in between, it is either slowly disappearing or turned into shopping malls and parking lots. A paradox to be pondered, in a time when new technologies are meant to bring people together.

One of the last open spaces in Verdun, which is already crowded with shopping centers, will be cleared for yet another ABC mall.
 in his The Beirut Report posted this February 7, 2014

Rare Verdun greenery cleared for another mall

Photo: Qaph blog
Have a good look at those trees– they’ll be gone soon, if not already dumped somewhere.  Construction has already started according to fellow blogger Gino, who posted this picture today:
Photo: Gino’s Blog
For years the site had been gated, but the gate seemed rather old.
Here is a picture posted by blogger Qaph, who was the first to break the story earlier this month:
In his post, Qaph wrote that the site was formerly the grounds of a St. Joseph school, and judging by the sandstone, it was probably quite old. So why was it demolished? And who sold it to developers?
I had driven by the lot for years but paid little attention to it until I heard Abir Saksouk-Sasso‘s talk about the lack of public space in Beirut at the DiverseCities conference earlier this year.
Saksouk-Sasso, who is part of the amazing performance activism group Dictaphone, argued that despite state efforts to control and limit public spaces, the public has appropriated “left over spaces” and one of these was the Verdun plot.
So why couldn’t the state or the municipality of Beirut (which has an estimated wealth of near $1 billion) save one plot for its citizens?
Photo: Skyscraper City
Plans to build a park were once announced by late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–at least according to Qaph’s post.
But ironically those leading the mall project are Hariri-owned companies. Did the late prime minister change his mind?
First announced in 2005, the mall complex was to be built by Hariri son Bahaa’s firm, Horizon and Kipco, which is largely owned by the Kuwaiti royal family. Here is the initial press in early 2005:
Photo: Skyscraper city

But those plans, which included a hotel/residential tower and cineplex, have changed markedly over the years. From 2005:

Photo: Skyscraper city

To 2008, where the tower seems to have been reduced significantly, according to this picture posted on Skyscraper city, which still exists on the Horizon website: To no towers at all in 2013, according to this rendering published by Beirut.com early last year:

According to a piece in business magazine Lebanon Opportunities, the Kuwaitis are apparently out, and are now replaced it seems by Lebanon’s ABC group at a 40% share.
Meanwhile Hariri’s son Bahaa has switched from Horizon to his other construction company, Verdun 1544 Holding. The project is reportedly worth $200 million.
Do all the changes indicate a decrease or renegotiation in capital or relationships?
One thing is for sure, no company in this eco-system represented Beirut residents’ rights to green spaces or the fate of these trees, which are all probably firewood by now.

Downtown Beirut: Memory erased…

A waiter surveys a row of empty tables beneath the Place D’Etoile clock tower seen on so many postcards of Beirut.
Once a gritty, bustling hub of the city, the square was sandblasted and transformed into a posh cafe district in the early 1990s after the ravages of the Lebanese war. Tonight, hundreds of glasses and plates are laid on fine place mats, but there is barely a single customer in sight.

Habib Battah published in the January issue of Al Jazeera Digital Magazine, available on iTunes.

“You will be lucky if your restaurant gets two tables per night,” says 26-year-old Rami. “If you get three or four, you are king of the street.”
He is among a dozen wait staff dressed in starched shirts and vests standing around, waiting for things to pick up. They’ve watched some 13 restaurants shut down over the last year and more closings are scheduled, leaving only a handful of establishments still lit up on the once crowded strip.
Beyond the clock tower circle, the slowdown is more grim. Entire surrounding blocks are empty, with hundreds of vacant, dusty glass storefronts lining the pristine cobble stone streets.
Fifty-one-year-old Lina manages one of the few boutiques still open, but with an average of one sale per day, she spends much of her time drinking coffee on the curbside.And yet rents in the redeveloped old city, rebranded after the civil war as Beirut Central District, are among the highest in the country.
Some establishments reportedly pay up to $150,000 per year in rent alone.
Downtown Beirut was bustling with hooka cafes before the conflict in Syria, catering mainly to wealthy tourists from the Arab Gulf countries. Now waitstaff stand around, fearing the loss of their jobs.
Before the Syrian war began, Beirut Central District– which spans about two square kilometers–had become a tourist magnet, attracting hordes of wealthy visitors from neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia during summer. But many of those countries have since imposed stiff travel bans on Lebanon, where there is intense hostility toward Gulf states for funding the war next door, particularly among the many pro-regime parties in the bitterly divided country.
“They think Lebanon is a terrorist country,” says waiter Rami. So now he is looking for jobs in other parts of the capital that are still thriving despite the conflict and subsequent fall in tourism. And that, perhaps, underscores a deeper problem with the redevelopment of downtown Beirut: the commonly held belief among locals that the once vibrant old city was reconstructed, not to be used by the Lebanese residents, but as a spectacle to attract foreigners.
“This area was built for Khaleejiyi,” Rami says, using the colloquial term for Gulf Arabs. “It’s not me and you. It won’t come back. Everything that goes away, doesn’t come back.”
An island for the rich
Lebanese economist and former finance minister Georges Corm is not surprised by the disparity between the performance of the central district, which occupies a surface area of less than one percent of the capital, and the rest of Beirut.
“I said from the beginning this project is going to create an island instead of the reconstitution of the social and architectural fabric,” he explained from his office overlooking the cranes at work near downtown.
This was a place where all the social classes of would mix. It was the biggest symbol of coexistence in Lebanon. Now it’s a kind of no man’s land for rich people.”
How old Beirut evolved into a luxury district few Lebanese could afford is rooted in an enormous real estate privatization process that began in the early 1990s spearheaded by the late prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, a billionaire developer, took office in 1992 after a power-sharing agreement to end the Lebanese civil war was signed in Saudi Arabia, where he had amassed much of his wealth in the construction industry and enjoyed close ties to the royal family.
Hariri had eyed the Beirut reconstruction process as early as the 1980s and had commissioned a private firm to develop plans to rebuild the city center well before coming to office. It has even been suggested his construction firm, Saudi Oger, undertook demolition works in the 1980s to lay the groundwork for the planned reconstruction.
Over a dozen restaurants have closed on the main strip in the central district this year and dozens more store fronts on side streets remain unoccupied.
In fact in 1990, two years before Hariri came to power, the head of Hariri’s Saudi Oger was appointed to lead Lebanon’s state reconstruction agency, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
Once in office, Hariri established Solidere as the lead developer, a private firm traded on the Beirut stock market, in which he would become the largest shareholder. Meanwhile, through a decree signed by his government, the rights of thousands of Beirut tenants and landowners were ceded to Solidere, in exchange for shares, valued by government committees. The decree was signed by then finance minister Fouad Siniora who had previously headed banks owned by Hariri.
(Mind you the Jews who immigrated from Lebanon to Israel, many decades ago, got the full worth of their properties, not in shares but in cash…)
Attorney Mohammed Mugraby, who has represented some 50 property rights owners in suits against Solidere, says his clients were denied the right to challenge the company’s actions and claims judges were paid by Solidere through the CDR to issue share appraisals, which were exponentially undervalued.
“Solidere is an unprecedented violation of the Lebanese constitution and rule of law,” Mugraby says. “Legally it does not exist. Solidere is nothing but an arm of the Hariri establishment.”
Despite multiple requests for comment, Solidere’s press office and representatives could not be reached for an interview. The company has often argued that an expedited private management structure was the most feasible approach to the reconstruction process at the end of the war.
An image of rebirth
Marked by rows of gutted, bullet-riddled buildings, open sewers and vegetation growing through the streets, the old city center had become an eyesore that interfered with the image of rebirth Hariri had hoped to sell investors during his post-war reign.
The Lebanese economy and  institutions had been crippled by 15 years of savage shelling and the lure of multi-million dollar contracts and the promise of renewed business flowing into the capital was undoubtedly a powerful motivator for widespread acceptance of the sweeping changes proposed by the prime minister.
In the 1990s, Solidere told its story in the form of ubiquitous television commercials with time lapse footage of individual buildings slowly restored to their former glory by workers on scaffolding. It published coffee table books featuring large glossy artist impressions of what the city would look like, with vignettes on the offices and marina designs Solidere would borrow from places like Barcelona, Monte Carlo and New York City.
Excluded from this narrative was the razing of entire historic neighborhoods such as Zeitouni, Wadi Abou Jamil, Safi, the Souks and the whole of Martyr’s Square, save for its namesake statue.
There are more pigeons than customers on an average day in the city center. Critics say the scheme to rebuild old Beirut created a Disneyland effect, replacing the once gritty streets that drew a mix of social class with an island for the wealthy, divorced from the rest of the city.
Among the hundreds of destroyed buildings were “the last Ottoman and medieval remains in Beirut” wrote American University of Beirut professor Nabil Beyhum in the Journal The Beirut Review in 1992. Much of the damage had been done through unapproved demolitions in the 1980s and early 1990s, bringing down  “some of the capital’s most significant buildings and structures,” wrote UCLA professor Saree Makdisi in the journal, Critical Inquiry, in 1997.
To increase Solidere’s surface area, relatively undamaged buildings were collapsed through the use of excess dynamite, according to Makdisi.
Seventy-five-year-old Mugraby is also a rights owner himself and says four shops owned by his late father in the vaunted Souks of Beirut were demolished in mid-1983– not by militias but by bulldozers belonging to Hairi’s Saudi Oger.
Mugraby and others say they have been punished for opposing Solidere. He claims the company launched an illegal attempt to disbar him and was even jailed for three weeks following his allegations of corrupt payments to Lebanese judges. Mugraby says it has taken a decade to clear his name: “I became so busy defending myself, I had little time left to fight these guys.”
Company or country?
Fadi Al Khoury, the owner of  Beirut’s oldest and most storied hotel, says Solidere has consistently denied him the right to rebuild. Opened in 1929, the St. Georges had been featured in countless films, books and postcards of the city, famed for its water skiing matches, yachting club and James Bond-like guest list. But today Solidere has landfilled the hotel’s beach access to build its own marina and the St. Georges is now better known for the giant “Stop Solidere” canvas that covers its still bullet riddled facade.
Al Khoury says his refusal to sell the property to Solidere has resulted in him being repeated denied work permits over the last 19 years through the company’s vast influence on city officials.
“They are more powerful than the government,” he says from his home in the hills above the capital, which he admits to now rarely visiting. “Having one company bigger than the country can disrupt the rights of the people.”
With rows of empty buildings, it is unclear how many shops remain vacant in Beirut’s central district. Unable to afford the high cost of maintenance imposed by Solidere, most original tenants have been forced to surrender their properties in exchange for shares in the company
Solidere is by far Lebanon’s largest company. According to its website, the firm’s current real estate and financial assets are close to $10 billion, which is nearly one quarter of the country’s entire GDP.
Even for the few whose properties were spared by the bulldozers, Solidere has made the price of holding on very high.
The Ahliah School, one of the city’s oldest, had managed to stay open during the worst days of the civil war, but was still forced to pay Solidere some $350,000 to continue operating once the fighting ended, the chairman of the school’s board, Nadim Cortas, explains. Solidere had claimed the fee would cover “infrastructure costs” such as road and plumbing work in the Central District, and was calculated as a percentage of a property value.
Solidere would also claim rights over the schools “sky” space.
Before the war, Cortas said he had been granted a right to build several additional floors to expand the campus, which has been hosting students since 1875. But now even if the school needs to build an extra room, Cortas says that space must be purchased at market value from Solidere.
And because the neighborhood has been transformed into one of luxury towers at the costs of millions of dollars per apartment, the value of land has risen exponentially to thousands of dollars per square meter.
Meanwhile Cortas says Solidere also demolished the Ahliah school’s annex elementary building— which remained intact during the war and was recently renovated– to make way for a parking lot (thought it had promised to transform the space into a garden.) In exchange, Ahliah received shares in the company, which he says are worth hardly a fifth of the property’s current value.
Still the chairman of the board says he has “mended bridges” with the developer. He touts Ahliah, a non-profit institution, as one of the few schools in the Beirut to have maintained a non-sectarian curriculum with a mixed student body, including some 30 percent of students supported by financial aid.
He said the school had recently achieved the coveted New England certification and is keen to move beyond the challenges of the past.
Indeed many property owners are reluctant to speak critically about Solidere. The company maintains a say over all approvals and sets very strict building standards, often forcing owners to purchase high cost imported materials.
“Everything we need to fix requires permission,” said one property owner on the condition of anonymity. “If I need a new door, they will choose the most expensive paint. If we need to replace a window, they make us buy cedarwood because they say the original windows were cedarwood. So we have to import the windows from the USA.
“If you make a fuss, next time you ask for permission to renovate, they will keep your request in their drawers for 6 months.”
When a property owner fails to comply with Solidere’s strict building codes, the owner is forced to vacate and accept shares in the company. And because central Beirut had not been a luxury district, it would be hard to imagine most residents and small business owners could afford lavish furnishings, particularly after 15 years of harrowing conflict.
But, in other cases, more coercive means may have allegedly been deployed. Mugraby produces a court indictment in the case of 11 persons killed during a demolition in February 1996 because, he says, a family refused to move.
Had Solidere offered comment, one assumes they would have denied responsibility for much of the above. Of course accidents happen on construction sites and the notion that change will always be difficult for some parties to accept is a mantra of developers everywhere.
A ‘manicured’ city
“Any big organization undertaking a task this large is really going to upset people along the way,” says Karim Makarem, managing director of Ramco, a Beirut-based real estate consultancy.
Each night the tables are set and the televisions are turned on in the hopes of luring customers. Staff say they would be lucky to fill two to three tables per night.
Makarem blames the current slowdown in the central district on the lack of tourism and says added security measures have made the area difficult to access, even for locals. With the country’s parliament and the prime minister’s offices close to the Etoile square, streets are often cordoned off due to protests.
“It’s extremely uninviting,” he says. “The BCD [Beirut Central District] has suffered more than any other area because of the political situation, yet in my opinion, it has the best future.”
Despite the high rents, Makarem is confident that there exists a market of wealthy Lebanese living abroad, particularly in newly built Gulf cities like the Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to fill the gap.
“A lot of these people want the benefits of living in a manicured part of town. Once you’ve been living in that type of sanitary environment, it is very difficult to live in the mess that is the rest of Beirut.”
Because Solidere leveled much of the old city, it was able to install new cabling, sewers, power sub stations and sidewalks. Whereas in the rest of the capital–which is roughly 20 times larger than Solidere– much of this infrastructure had collapsed during the years of war. Power lines are haphazardly strung, street flooding is common and sidewalks are broken or missing.
“There are a lot of positives,” says Makerm of Solidere’s urban planning. “It’s the only place you can walk downtown. I’m very optimistic,” he adds. “The minute you get these tourists and expats in the country, I think they will appreciate what the BCD has to offer.”
Changing history
Yet critics also question what the Central District has offered the local population. In a country with an average monthly income of around $1,000, most Lebanese struggle to find somewhere to eat or shop within their price range.
For years, Solidere has promised to build parks, museums and cultural spaces. Much touted projects include an archaeological exhibit, dubbed The Garden of Forgiveness, a city museum to be built beneath Martyr’s Square and a lush central park–all announced to much fanfare over a decade ago.
Yet today these sites remain vacant, with little indication about completion dates and barely a mention on Solidere’s sleek, recently revamped website.
Despite the lack of business, cafe owners are faced with some of the highest rental prices in Beirut. If the lack of tourism continues, the few remaining outlets are expected to close.
Meanwhile, well over a dozen hotel, office and residential towers have gone up over the same period. And in 2007, Solidere had announced plans to create Solidere International, which would help develop multi-billion dollar residential projects in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Solidere’s general manager announced that the company had amassed over $700 million in cash, with an annual income of $50 million–this in addition to land and real estate assets worth over $8 billion.
“With all the profit that has been made, you don’t have one cultural project in a city that in the worst of times had theatres and performances,” says architect Mona Hallak.
Hallak is among several activists and academics who have long argued that any project to rebuild the city center should aim to bring original residents back in an effort to stimulate post-war reconciliation over a profit-making enterprise. But she has lowered expectations considerably.
“Just give me one building, that would have shut me up,” Hallak says, rolling off a list of promised cultural centers that never materialized.
Hallak has spearheaded the Beit Beirut museum, which will be housed in a shrapnel-pierced apartment block that had become the most-feared sniper’s nest on the line dividing East and West Beirut during the civil war. Hallak spent over a decade of her life fighting to save the arcaded 1930s-era building, which lies just outside of the Solidere area, and was four days away from demolition in the late 1990s, she says. But the slightly graying activist is exasperated by the battle for the BCD.
“I think we deserve Solidere. The people of Beirut don’t understand that it was the biggest rip-off–a real estate company taking over a downtown. I mean, it’s crazy. It changed the whole history and identity of the city. For me, Solidere is a question of erasing the memory of Beirut.”
Still visions of old Beirut live on.
At his wood-paneled law office in Hamra, a few miles from the city center, Attorney Mugraby leans back in his chair when asked about his final days in the old city. It was 1976.
The civil war had gone on for about a year but there was a lull in the fighting. The militias had withdrawn and the barricades were removed. Crowds of shopkeepers and residents had returned to check on their properties.
There was a large impromptu gathering at Martyrs square. Even strangers embraced, asking about friends and families. Mugraby pauses and turns away.
“It was touching, I tell you,” he says, voice cracking. A slight tremble runs over his lips and wrinkled face. For a brief moment, his eyes fog up.
“It’s difficult for me to discuss.”
Words and photos by Habib Battah

Reconstruction of Beirut city center? Like Solidere? By whom again?

Solidere (Societe Libanaise de Reconstruction) is a chartered company in charge of reconstructing and managing the city center of Beirut. The concession was supposed to be valid for 25 years, and Fouad Seniora PM extended the permit for 75 years in November 2005. Seniora was the right hand of late Rafic hariri PM who was assassinated on Feb. 14, 2004.

This private company owns a third of the city center or (108,000 sq.metres). In Sept. 2010, a year after taking office, Saad Hariri PM (son of Rafik) took private possession of 30,000 sq.metres of downtown Beirut and paid for by Solidere.

Solidere was created in 1992 with the total backing of Saudi Arabia and the blessing of the financial neoliberal decision-makers in the US.

Through figure heads, Rafik Hariri gathered the majority of the shares.

Destroyed and badly damaged properties in the city center were expropriated under dubious circumstances and bought judges and ther controlled municipality of Beirut, and the owners of the properties were compensated by shares in the company.

The trick is that Rafik manipulated the stockprices and bought shares at ridiculous prices from panicked shareholders.

What Solidere does?

It sells and rents apartments and offices that guarantee huge profits. How?

1. Prime Lands were acquired virtually for free,

2. The cost of construction was minimal due to cheap Syrian work labor,

3. The investment in infrastructure was mostly done by public money,

4. Public money were poured in the Hariri contracting firms, and at inflated cost estimates

5. The side public institutions related to finance, reconstruction, and internal security… were attached directly to the Prime Minister (Rafik Hariri)

6. The former shopping centers and areas such as Hamra Street and Achrafieh were totally neglected for several years so that the city center attracks all the traders and banks andforeign multinational companies…

7. The network of urban highways and tunnels mainly served the city center to encourage companies to relocate to Solidere Real Estates

8. The airport was 15 minutes away and the seafront less than 5 minutes far, and the city center was located in the main axes to enter and leave Beirut…

9. The prime land of Ouzai district, an extension to Beirut’s seafront of luxury hotels, was inhabited by southern Moslem Shiaa, refuggees from the civil war, and they refused to vacate this district.

The planned Alissar luxury project was blocked temporarily.

Hariri undertook to have a highway run through Ouzai in order to have a legal leverage to pressure the people to leave, and he failed.

If Hariri had the best interest of the people in mind he would have built a flyover express highway as the one crossing the Armenian district of Burj Hammoud in East Beirut. And the highway to the south is detached in several places because of the rapacious personal  interests of the Hariri clan.

Building permits in this lucrative city center, if the projects do not get a go by the Hariri oligarchy, are routinely blocked by Beirut municipality, totally in control of the Hariri clan. And the Hariri clan can side step regulations on urban development to match their interests and the Saudi princes and Emirs of the Gulf…

For an entire decade (1992-2002), Lebanon was run by a triumvirate of Rafik Hariri PM, President Hrawi, and Chairman of parliament for life Nabih Brrri, with the total backing of Syria, saudi Arabia and the USA administrations.

The Lebanese chapter of Transparency International has abundant substanting documents on this matter. The chapter wrote:

As a result of this arrangement, late Hariri became the sole decision-maker on the reconstruction process of the city center, Nabih Berri (chairman of the parliament for life) was given the charge of the reconstruction and relief programs for south Lebanon. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze warlord was given the relocation of refugees Box, and president Hrawi was interested in the oil and gas sector…”

After the failed preemptive war of Israel in June 2006, the opposition coalition put the pressure on the Seniora government to desisit from its oligarchic policies. They set up tents in the city center for 16 months (Oct. 2006 to May 2008). a sit-in symbolizing the exclusion of the people’s re-appropriation of their city center

As a result, investors shifted their interests to Ashrafieh and Hamra Street. The Hariri clan was taken aback and lost vast amount in profits.

Solidere considered moving its wealth to Jordan, in the Al Akaba, Red Sea seafront, to invest in the vast luxury contracting project of the elder son of Rafik Hariri.

The neoliberal expatriate wealthy class forced on this pseudo-State over $70 bn in debt that Lebanon didn’t need so that they satisfy quick wealth to all the warlords and their clientelist political sectarian bases.

The irony is that this neoliberal system is stating that the first $30 bn generated from the potential gas and oil offshore extraction will go to servicing the debt.

They never learn from previous experiences of other States who opted to default and are now well grounded on their feet and prospering.

Note 1. In the Middle-East, the relatioship between political regimes and space is based on political patronage. A city is a place of power to control the space and influence the central government.

This reconstruction project is viewed by the elite classes (foreigns, expatriates, and local bank owners…)  as success story. It is viewed as a striking failure by the Lebanese in resolving unstable social and political class-divide.

Note 2: This urban planning of Beirut city center is inherited by the recent Arab Gulf Emirates Real Estates development programs (Dubai…) with the explicit purpose of attracting foreign investment… This project wanted the Lebanese to believe that “neoliberal globalization” will save Lebanon from its endemic insecurity from its regional enduring conflicts (Israel, jihhadist…)

Note 3: Article inspired from a chapter by Fabrice Balanche in the book “Lebanon After the Cedar Revolution


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

May 2020
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