Those who designed the statue celebrating the life of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri may have never imagined that it would gaze upon a massive billboard condemning his legacy.
The giant “Stop Solidere” banner, draped over the battle-worn St. Georges Hotel, has gone up and been taken down several times over the past few years, most recently this summer.
Its placement embodies an epic real estate battle between the St. Georges hotel’s owner, Fadi Al Khoury, and Hariri– a war that began while the former Prime Minister was still alive and now continues well after his death in 2005.
Though Hariri is often celebrated today as the architect of Lebanon’s rebirth (including by American diplomats who saw him as an ally against Syria) his project to rebuild downtown Beirut, known by the French acronym SOLIDERE has been heavily criticized within Lebanon. Among his staunchest critics is Mr. Al Khoury, who claims the multi-billion dollar project is unconstitutional and governed by corrupt interests. (To be clear, it also limited St. George’s access to the sea, and thus hurt Al Khoury financially.)
In a bizarre twist of fate, the blast that ripped apart Hariri’s motorcade (just steps away from his memorial site) also blew off the entire front facade of the St. Georges, an iconic 1960s Beirut hotel which had been under reconstruction at the time.
For its part, SOLIDERE denies any wrongdoing. Supporters say the project serves as an important investment magnet, attracting much needed foreign capital and tourism to Lebanon by restoring the capital’s image from that of a bullet riddled ghetto to that of a modern glass and steel metropolis. Turning downtown Beirut into a de facto private corporation, with the largest shareholder as prime minister, does seems to hint at a conflict of interest though.
Nevertheless, and despite several lawsuits and Hariri’s brutal assassination , Solidere is going strong today. Apartments in the area are selling for $5 million and up (way up) and hotels under construction or nearly complete include the Four Seasons, Hyatt and Hilton. In fact, Hariri’s statue now looks out onto a sprawling mega yacht marina, a testament to the wealth that has been drawn to the area.
But for journalists, Solidere has always been a tricky subject.
As the biggest corporation in the country, its hard to ignore. Yet because of its large shareholding by the late prime minister and now his son (who is also set to become prime minister) covering the subject can be somewhat problematic, to say the least. I hope to share more of my personal experiences– both with Solidere and Mr. Al Khoury at some point. For now, to read more about the controversy, check out some of the articles on this site.