Tags Posts tagged with "Environment & Public Space"

Environment & Public Space

The Environment minister’s Facebook status above was posted this afternoon and comes in the wake of weeks of activism, protesting the privatization of Dalieh, the city’s last undeveloped shore. Some have dismissed the activism, arguing that the property developers are too powerful and politically-connected to be stopped. But the Minister’s strong opposition to the fence may create more attention, complicating matters for the developers and lending traction to growing grassroots efforts.

Earlier today, citizens had unfurled protest banners during a major rock climbing event organized by the municipality of Beirut, which has remained silent on the fencing of Dalieh:

Activists say the fencing is both a public hazard and an illegal attempt at barring access to the coastline:

Today’s highly publicized climbing event saw local man Michael Haddad scale the rocks, despite being paralyzed in some 75 percent of his body. 
Michael made it to the top with the Lebanese military standing by for support. And as officials gave speeches largely ignoring the fate of this natural habitat, average citizens made their voices heard too, demanding public access and preservation. 
Today both Michael and the Dalieh activists defied the odds and the cynics. They proved that a lot is still possible even in Lebanon, whether the obstacles are physical disability or entrenched political power and business interests.  
Thanks to Justin for pointing out the minister’s status. 

Ah the post card image of Raouche. Now imagine it surrounded by a giant fenced off marina, full of concrete structures and gas guzzling yachts.

Well that very well may happen if people continue to ignore the major development now underway there, despite its very shaky legal status. Some activists showed up last week, but not nearly enough to make a statement loud enough to capture the attention of the public and the parliament.

After the rally, I decided to check the area out. I never knew there were so many natural pools:

And interesting rock formations:

Then there is a series of caves:

We took a boat ride to explore further:

In this cave, the fisherman said they have seen a family of seals, who apparently live in one of the deep passageways:

 I had heard about the seals a few weeks ago from an environmentalist. It reminded me of this guy who was spotted in Tyre last year:

We headed out of the cave:

And then through the natural tunnel in the main Raouche rocks:

Finally we entered into a third cave. Our guide said it stretches 100 meters deep:

We got back to the loading area, where the boats are hoisted up with makeshift cranes:

The cranes appear to be made out of old electricity poles:

Fastened together with some pretty ancient looking engines and metal work:

And operated with stacks of old oil drums:

These guys should win the DIY award of the year or be featured in a Discovery Channel show or something.

We wandered around and found other natural bays and inlets:

The guys in the photo explained how they have been coming here for years. “It’s the best place to swim in Beirut,” one said. “You can easily reach Dalieh from any part of the city, Ras Beirut or Dahieyh. Who can afford those beach resorts? You have to pay entrance fees, you can’t bring your own food, so you have to spend $50 to have a good time.”

And unlike the fancy resorts, the small coffee shops around this natural harbor were recently bulldozed for being “illegal”

It’s always interesting how the law is applied to the poor, while multi-million dollar resorts continue to operate across the coast nationwide with no permits.

The men explained that developers are trying to evict the fishermen who use another nearby harbor:

The work has already begun. Giant concrete blocks have been brought to the center of the Dalieh peninsula:

Providing an odd backdrop for the horse and camel rides:

It’s an eerie feeling to walk through them:

Some people are even using the barricades for shade to picnic:

After all that’s what Dalieh has always been. A place for families to spend time

Pitch a tent

Put some chicken on the barbecue:

Enjoy the views, take pictures:

Aromatic wild Zaatar grows here:

But now those views will be obstructed:

Not just for those on the coast, but also those on the corniche, which will be blocked with construction walls, as you can see by the poles going up on the left:

This means a huge chunk of the seafront will soon be blocked from public view, including those postcard Raouche Rocks:

And the entire Dalieh area–caves, pools and all–may be soon inaccessible to the public, if not concreted over.

There remains only one small entrance left to Dalieh, a hole in the fence:

Hundreds flow through this entrance on the weekends to get to the grounds below. But some say they have had to fight to keep it open:

One of the fishermen pointed to two holes in the sidewalk and said they were caused by gunshots. Some told me the police had tried to enforce the closure.

One said: “This door is our livelihood,” in reference to the fishing, boat tours and horse rides.

So what can you do to keep Daliah open and safe from bulldozers? The only way authorities will recognize this space and resistance to developers claims, is if people actually use it.

This weekend activists say they have arranged activities for all ages including kites, games, an outdoor market.

You can join them at 3PM on Sunday and spread the word by liking the Facebook event page as well as the group page Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

To read more about the controversial changes in property laws that have allowed this to happen, see this previous post for background and a video presentation delivered by researchers last week at AUB.

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The word entrepreneur has become ubiquitous in talk about the future of Arab business. Some have even claimed a quiet economic revolution is at our feet, running in parallel to the political uprisings across the region. But who is making money in the young Arab tech industry? Who has access to the ‘eco-system’ and what potential is there to bridge the digital divide, empower communities and help meet the demand of some 100 million jobs that the region desperately needs? From Riyadh to Amman, I set out to find some answers in the following magazine piece, published in the May issue of Aramco World.
With no streetlights and its row of abandoned late-Ottoman-era buildings, the Beirut neighborhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq seems to live up to its Arabic name, “the dark ditch.” It is home to some of the city’s poorest residents, many displaced by war, squatting for decades in crumbling, shell-pierced dwellings.
But on a recent evening in March, the Khandaq was lit up with a bright white party tent. Valets lined up outside and Arabic beats pulsated from within. Inside, amid a cacophony of excited conversations, a hip young Lebanese band remixed traditional melodies while Beirut’s finest restaurants served up steaks imported from Australia, gourmet Black Angus burgers and artisan cold-press juices. The attendees were smartly dressed in “dotcom casual”—suits open to ironic T-shirts, Converse sneakers and jeans—many still wearing bright yellow lanyards branded “ArabNet.”
Aramex founder and ceo Fadi Ghandour has emerged as a key investor in the region’s growing technology sector, having helped launch several major startups and venture-capital funds. He serves as chairman of leading regional tech news site wamda.com, and he is now partnering with the United Nations to fund 200 “microbusinesses” in his native Jordan.
Aramex founder and ceo Fadi Ghandour has emerged as a key investor in the region’s growing technology sector, having helped launch several major startups and venture-capital funds. He serves as chairman of leading regional tech news site wamda.com, and he is now partnering with the United Nations to fund 200 “microbusinesses” in his native Jordan.
The three-day conference, now in its fifth year, is one of the largest gatherings of the Middle East’s budding startup industry, and tonight’s dinner was one of the many afterparties where the region’s future business leaders get to network and capitalize on a regional e-commerce market that will be worth $15 billion by 2015, according to estimates by PayPal.
If all goes according to plan, much of the shrapnel-scarred Khandaq area will be transformed too, into the Beirut Digital District, a 10-year initiative to build some 10 high-rises that planners hope will house the new industry just a few blocks from the luxury glass-and-steel residential towers now going up in downtown Beirut. Subsidized Wi-Fi and fiber optic cables are expected to flow freely throughout the area, which aims to rival similar new regional facilities like Oasis500 in Jordan or Flat6Labs in Egypt, which have been hosting, training and investing in hundreds of tech-based startups, just like CKS Global – industrial keyboard platform and buoyed by millions of dollars in new venture capital funds that are cropping up across the region.
Hours before the party, a scale model of the Digital District was on display at ArabNet, held in a sprawling banquet hall in Beirut’s newest Hilton hotel. With the backdrop of a 14-meter (45′) electronic display, dozens of young, aspiring entrepreneurs from across the Arab world took to the stage to deliver two-minute “Ideathon” pitches with infomercial-like zeal to the crowd of some 600 it professionals. More-established ceos were also on hand, speaking at panels covering everything from social-media marketing to venture-capital opportunities to forging links with Silicon Valley. There was a brief discussion of Bitcoin and the process to buy bitcoin, as well as corporate social responsibility, better known by its industry buzzword, csr.
“Why do csr?” asked twenty-something digital-media strategist Ralf Aoun as he paced the stage with a headset microphone. “It’s good for business, good for pr and good for karma!”
But what about regional turmoil, asked moderator and industry veteran Mike Butcher, who was making his third visit to ArabNet as editor of TechCrunch, one of the world’s most popular technology news sites. He put the question also to co-panelist Stephanie Holden, formerly of Priceline and Walt Disney and now the head of Saudi-owned television giant mbc’s investment arm, mbc Ventures. Touting her firm’s investments in nine Arab startups, she said regional entrepreneurs faced more of a threat from government bureaucracy than armed violence. Butcher himself had come to a similar—if blunter—conclusion the previous evening at another off-ArabNet event.
“Amid everything going on, you guys are still kicking ass,” he said to cheers from an audience that had gathered at Coworking 961, yet another technology incubator space in Beirut. Butcher had been one of the judges at a pitching contest at the space, which occupies the guesthouse of a 19th-century palace. Under its castle-like turrets, the representatives of young Lebanese firms had presented their ideas on a projection screen in the garden, a rare patch of lush greenery in the exhaust-choked city.
Known for sealing the biggest Middle East tech deal to date, Samih Toukan cofounded the first major Arabic-language Internet provider, Maktoob.com, which sold in 2009 for some $175 million. More recently, his investment firm has acquired Souq.com, the region’s largest online retailer.
Known for sealing the biggest Middle East tech deal to date, Samih Toukan cofounded the first major Arabic-language Internet provider, Maktoob.com, which sold in 2009 for some $175 million. More recently, his investment firm has acquired Souq.com, the region’s largest online retailer.
The winners that evening were the developers behind Roadie Tuner, a handheld piece of hardware that tunes guitars and other stringed instruments. It was born out of the frustration faced by 27-year-old engineer Bassam Jalgha while tuning his ‘ud, or Arab lute. In 2009, Jalgha had entered and won the mbc reality-tv show for innovators, “Stars of Science,” walking away with a check for $300,000 from the Qatar Foundation. He would later team up with friend, fellow engineer and flute player Hassane Slaibi and launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that netted nearly $180,000—three times their stated target. Jalgha has since traveled to China to oversee the first batch of production, and he expects Roadie Tuner to hit stores sometime this summer.
“I don’t think you guys need any help from us,” said Butcher after awarding the duo tickets and a table at the 2014 TechCrunch Disrupt event in New York City. “Awesome job.”
Taking second prize at the challenge was Ki, a plug-in usb security device that reads a user’s fingerprint with both security algorithms and biometrics developed in Beirut. “That seems like overkill,” said one of the judges. “Why not buy the technology from the us?” “What guarantees that the nsa hasn’t tampered with it?” rejoined the twenty-something developer, to laughs from the crowd. The judges also rewarded Jihad Kawas, who was pitching an app that connects buyers and sellers of used items within close proximity. This wasn’t Kawas’s first app, and he is 17.
Of course, many of Lebanon’s most successful developers no longer need to pitch at such events.
Twenty-six-year-old Hind Hobeika has already raised over $1 million in investment capital for her hardware innovation, Instabeat, which had just won a 2014 design and engineering award at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The product is the first waterproof, goggles-mounted heart-rate monitor, which allows swimmers to hone their workouts and also track their performance after a swim. Hobeika, a former varsity swimmer and engineering student at the American University of Beirut, saw the need for such a device when she couldn’t find it in stores. After more than two years of development and nine prototypes, production is scheduled to begin this summer, and Hobeika is negotiating distribution deals in the US and Australia.
Still other products have already gone to market, many in the form of mobile apps. Perhaps the most successful of these has been Poo, a virtual pet users can feed, stroke, buy gifts for and watch grow. Created by 24-year-old Paul Salameh, the application has proven viral. In press interviews, Salameh has claimed up to 300,000 downloads per day, with Poo having reached the number-one spot in the kids’ games category at app stores in more than 65 countries. Revenues will likely soar with in-app purchases to feed and dress your Poo, available from $1 to $11. YouTube videos celebrating the game in various languages have seen millions of views while Poo’s Facebook page has garnered more than five million likes.
But runaway success stories like this are still somewhat rare in the region, where the tech industry is still understandably finding its feet after barely a decade of existence. And developments in Lebanon, as one of the Arab world’s smallest countries, amount to just a fraction of the region’s newest industry.
Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodeling part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main goal is collaboration,” he says.
Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodeling part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main goal is collaboration,” he says.
There have been few opportunities in the Arab tech industry like that which was seized by Jordanian Samih Toukan. After completing his mba in London, Toukan went on to work as an IT consultant for AndersenConsulting in Amman, but sensing demand, he left the job in the mid-1990’s to start his own business. Toukan had made a proposal to one of his former Andersen clients, fellow Jordanian Fadi Ghandour, ceo of Aramex, the region’s largest courier service. Internet penetration was still nascent in the region, and very little of it was in Arabic. The solution seems obvious today: Create Arabic content and an email server for its readers. And by the late 1990’s Toukan did just that by launching Maktoob.com.
As a first market entrant, the site exploded from 100,000 users in 2000 to 10 million by 2005. Yahoo bought the company in 2008 for $175 million. It was the kind of “exit” or sell-off that gave impetus to the regional industry.
“Before that exit, the industry was nonexistent. Maktoob was a turning point,” says Toukan from his new offices in Dubai. “It was the beginning of the industry. After that exit we saw an acceleration of ideas and investment.”
Toukan, Ghandour and a handful of others have grown into major drivers of that trend. The proceeds from the Maktoob deal helped Toukan launch Jabbar Internet Group, which has invested in products like Hobeika’s Instabeat as well as Souq.com, an online retailer akin to amazon.com in the us. With a thousand employees, Toukan says Souq.com already generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, but he will not disclose exactly how much. In March, South African media giant Naspers invested $75 million for a 36 percent stake in the firm, after having put $40 million into Souq.com in 2012.
“Give us three years and you will see a company bigger than Maktoob,” Toukan says. “This could be a much bigger exit. I think the industry is beginning to materialize,” he says.
Flat6Labs ceo Ramez Mohamed has overseen the company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from $10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs received 10-15 percent ownership.
Flat6Labs ceo Ramez Mohamed has overseen the company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from $10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs received 10-15 percent ownership.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian monarchy is placing bets on similar success stories beginning with the launch, shortly after Toukan’s watershed sell-off, of Oasis500. Established in 2010 with the backing of King Abdullah, Oasis was given a mandate to mentor, invest and help launch 500 regional startups over six years.
With its colorful wall murals, futuristic furniture and even an adult slide that spirals through a large atrium, the Oasis building in Amman is every bit the dotcom space one would expect. In addition to providing coaching and co-working office space for young firms, Oasis has a $6 million fund from which it invests up to $30,000 in startups in exchange for a 10 to 20 percent ownership stake.
So far, Oasis has invested in 70 startups and trained an additional 1500 entrepreneurs through its monthly “bootcamp” workshops, according to the investment manager Salwa Katkhuda. One of its first successful exits has been the online sports retailer Run2sport, which sold a majority of its stock for $2.5 million to Toukan’s Souq.com. Another Jordanian startup, online-payment gateway Madfoo3atCom, raised more than $500,000 from private investors. Both deals took place in 2012 and Katkhuda says Oasis is now expanding into the United Arab Emirates (uae) and Saudi Arabia.
“We are at the very beginning of an entrepreneurial era in the region, but it will take a long time for the market to mature,” she says. “The early players have a huge advantage and opportunity by being the first risk-takers.”
Trominent among those early risk-takers is Ahmed Alfi, who after nearly two decades as a media and technology investor in Los Angeles returned in 2006 to his native Egypt to launch one of the region’s first venture capital funds. In 2011, he opened Flat6Labs, which offers services for startups similar to those offered by Oasis500. So far it has graduated 36 companies, and it offers facilities and loans from $10,000 to $15,000 in exchange for 10 to 15 percent ownership.
“There’s quite a few breakthroughs that will happen this year,” Alfi says from Cairo, where he is busy giving a tour of the facility. “A lot of companies are on the cusp.”
Among the Flat6Labs success stories is Instabug, an application that helps developers find and report programming bugs through physically shaking a mobile device. Developed by a pair of Egyptian 22-year-olds, the app won a $50,000 MIT business competition award and is now celebrating over 1.7 million downloads. Meanwhile, 1Sheeld, a device that can help automate objects and appliances, won the audience-choice award at last year’s TechCrunch Europe Disrupt event. The product was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal of $10,000 within hours, raising a total of $85,000. Then there is Kngine, which Alfi says is similar to Apple’s automated voice assistant, Siri.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat, that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat (below, right), that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat, that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
“We are finally getting outside firms interested,” he says, naming Samsung Ventures and Vodafone Ventures as parties negotiating potential deals.
Following on the success of Flat6Labs, Alfi is now expanding. He is building Egypt’s largest technology park by converting nearly an entire city block of buildings that were formerly used by the American University of Cairo. Known as “Greek Campus”—which comes from its original use as schools for Greek expatriates—Flat6Labs has already attracted 20 companies that have moved into one building, while four more buildings are planned to open this summer with the goal of attracting hundreds of companies and creating some 3000 jobs. Alfi says the word is getting around quickly.
“People were coming up to us when we were moving in, as we were doing construction. Eighty percent of the companies I had never heard of before. These are not even people who knew me,” he says excitedly. “These are people who wanted to be part of the community.”
The idea is to create a campus environment, where innovation and talent can spread quickly, which has been a major challenge for the Arab tech industry. “Everybody knows my main goal is collaboration, and collaboration will accelerate the development of the tech sector,” Alfi says. “Networking is one of the major missing components. If you are building something and you meet somebody who has already made subcomponents, you can collaborate. Networking is an educational tool to learn what other people are doing. Networking helps create teams faster to attack problems faster.”
But once teams are built, regional entrepreneurs, particularly in a place like Cairo, face the additional challenge of turning profits in a region with generally high unemployment, low per-capita incomes and low levels of disposable income. In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, fewer than 10 percent of the population have bank accounts, and among the entire Arab world population of 350 million, fewer than 10 percent own credit cards.
Not surprisingly, many tech firms are looking to the Arabian Peninsula, where salaries are higher and growing consumer markets are more lucrative.
Plans by Jordan’s Oasis500 to expand into both the uae and Saudi Arabia this year will enable it to “serve a much larger market,” according to investment manager Katkhuda. ArabNet has also begun targeting the Gulf with new annual conferences in both Dubai and Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Flat6Labs has already graduated six firms from its recently established accelerator program in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and it has five firms enrolled in a new cycle. Flat6Labs Director Ramez Mohamed is bullish on the Gulf region. “Our main focus will be in the Gulf over the next year,” he says, disclosing plans to open yet another accelerator program in the uae as well as a branch in North Africa.
“Our perceptions about the Saudi market were wrong,” he admits. “We thought they wouldn’t be able to start successful companies or lack passion or qualifications, but these were all proven false. When we went there, we found entrepreneurs very eager to succeed and they had something really presentable on demonstration day.”
Alfi concurs. “Saudi youth are coming up with good ideas, more importantly, a desire to succeed,” the Flat6Labs chief says.
Indeed, Saudi talent has gone internationally viral with the success of media startups like Telfaz11, which produced a satirical spoof of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” late last year that earned 11 million YouTube views. It has also produced dozens more high-production-value videos, animations and short films, with many on the site garnering up to three million views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers for its webisodes.
30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together hundreds of it professionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together hundreds of it professionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
Prominent Saudi investor Rachid Al Balla says he is proud of young Saudi creatives and the “geek societies” that have emerged, such as Riyadh Geeks, Jiddah Geeks and Banat [Girl] Geeks. The challenge, he says, is to harness and mature their skills to help build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Some of the groups have up to 2000 members, he explains, but they often lack the grassroots organizing or funding to meet and create networking opportunities to form a more solid community. “There is no venue large enough for them to meet,” he explains. “They are free organizations.”
While governments in the region are spending billions on transportation infrastructure such as railways and financial cities, Al Balla argues that many of these projects target established business that can afford high rents, and thus they are not often suited for young entrepreneurs. He suggests a need for more community spaces, perhaps subsidized by sponsorships.
Al Balla says too often there is skittishness about spending and waste and a fear that government programs will overlap.
“When you invest billions, there will be waste and repetition, but that’s okay,” he notes. “In Korea, for example, you’ll find hundreds of programs competing with each other for the same objective. Over-irrigating is less risky than under-irrigating.”
Another challenge is the high salaries paid in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which he says may create a disincentive for young professionals to take risks: “If you are making $10,000 per month, why would you work for a startup and leave at 10 o’clock at night, when you can leave in the early afternoon?”
“I don’t think there is lack of liquidity,” he says. “There are trillions of dollars. There’s a lack of maturity among investors, entrepreneurs, regulators. What needs to be done is to create an ecosystem.”
It’s high time, he asserts, for regional telecom companies that are already making billions to invest in the sector. “If an ecosystem does not mature fast enough, it’s going to be given to international companies who will set up shop here.”
For Ahmed Zahran, the future of economic growth is “off the grid” in the swaths of the Middle East not served by national electricity networks. In 2011 he cofounded KarmSolar, which is building one of the world’s largest solar-powered water pumps and aims to bring renewable energy to desert farming and tourism across the Sinai Peninsula.
For Ahmed Zahran, the future of economic growth is “off the grid” in the swaths of the Middle East not served by national electricity networks. In 2011 he cofounded KarmSolar, which is building one of the world’s largest solar-powered water pumps and aims to bring renewable energy to desert farming and tourism across the Sinai Peninsula.
From his offices in the heart of Dubai’s new financial district, Toukan looks down at the rows of towers that line the city’s main thoroughfare, Shaikh Zayed Road. Though there are no exact figures, he estimates the current value of the Arab tech industry to be worth the equivalent of a couple of the $100-$200 million skyscrapers below.
“If only one percent of what is spent on real estate would go into technology investments,” he laments. “Investors are used to traditional investments. Tech is new to them. We need to prove it. Over the last 10 to 15 years, I have done a lot of convincing. I can see things changing. In the beginning people didn’t believe at all in what we were doing, but when they start hearing about things like WhatsApp being sold for $19 billion, I mean this all helps,” he exclaims with a laugh.
Though there are new funds coming online, such as Saudi telecom-giant stc’s launch of a $50-million fund to invest in small- and medium-sized businesses, Toukan says this is not enough. “We should be talking about billions not millions.”
Alfi says the pool of major investors, known in industry-speak as “angel investors,” needs to broaden: “The people of my generation—myself, Fadi Ghandour, Samih Toukan—these people are not that many. If there were a few hundred of us, the sector would move a lot faster. So now Fadi funds 50 companies, I fund 50 companies, but if there were hundreds of us it would be fantastic. Hopefully in the next 10 to 15 years, the new generation of entrepreneurs will be playing our role but for a much broader sector.”
Another challenge cited by Toukan, Al Balla and other investors is the difficulty of mobilizing talent in the region with the complications of visas procedures, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
On the other end of the spectrum, while poorer countries like Lebanon may be more desirable and accessible destinations, they are beset by massive infrastructure challenges.
Despite the buzz over Beirut’s new Digital District, Internet connections in the country remain among the world’s slowest. The government has promised to deliver discounted fiber optics to such facilities as Berytech, an incubator and one of the first tenants in the district. Berytech has a $6 million fund to invest in startups, and it accelerates three firms per year. But so far the facility has obtained just 12 megabits per second of bandwidth that it must share among dozens of tenants, resulting in individual speeds that hark back to late 1990’s dial-up era. And yet the costs of even this minimal service are staggering.
“We pay $12,000 per month for 12 megabits,” exclaims Berytech Director Nicolas Rouhana. “How am I supposed to help entrepreneurs if I pay that much?”
Meanwhile, the poverty of crumbling neighborhoods like Khandaq al-Ghamiq—visible from the windows of Berytech and the Digital District—is an aching reminder of the deeper challenges of job creation, both in Lebanon and across the region, where the World Bank estimates 100 million jobs will be needed in the coming decade to absorb new workers.
As suggested by the title of his 2013 book, Startup Rising, writer and investor Christopher Schroeder argues that the new generation of Mideast entrepreneurs is poised to have a sweeping impact on the region and its economic future.
“Technology offers an irreversible level of transparency, connectivity and inexpensive access to capital markets unprecedented only five years ago,” he writes.
Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
The product of a year of traveling throughout the region, Schroeder’s book is a catalog of the dozens of startup successes across the Arab world. He makes frequent reference to the potential of the region’s youth population of 100 million under the age of 15, and Internet and smartphone penetration growing at double-digit rates in many countries. Convinced of the industry’s future, Schroeder now sits on the boards of both Oasis500 and Wamda, a Beirut-based tech-news agency and organizer of entrepreneurial workshops from Casablanca to Doha.
“The youth, well-educated and unleashed, are really an asset. Entrepreneurship generally, and tech availability specifically, offer us tools and capabilities not even on the table to discuss five years ago,” he wrote in an email.
Yet at the same time, it’s hard to deny that a great number of the industry’s young stars come from privileged backgrounds or have attended prestigious universities, often in the West, and that they are generally comfortable in English. In fact nearly every session and speaker at ArabNet in Beirut spoke entirely in English, despite the fact that 80 percent of the Arab population speaks only Arabic, according to the United Nations 2005 Human Development Report.
And entrance into the industry is not cheap. A single desk at facilities like Oasis500 or Berytech rents for a starting price of $300 to $350 per month, which is about the same as a discounted youth entrance fee to a three-day ArabNet conference. This may not seem expensive in the West, but these numbers are roughly equivalent to or greater than the average monthly salaries in much of the Middle East.
In response, organizations like ArabNet and Oasis500 say they offer scholarships and massive discounts to financially challenged individuals with compelling applications.
“There are a lot of ways to get in if you can’t afford the fees,” says Omar Christidis, ArabNet founder and director. The 30-year-old Yale graduate notes that all who participate in the Ideathon pitching session receive free event access.
“In theory, most of the opportunities are open to anyone regardless of class,” he explains over a choppy Beirut Skype connection. “Now does education play a role in filling out the application form? Yes.”
Saudi national Joumana Al Jabri cofounded Beirut-based Visualizing Impact, which produces data and graphic-based storytelling to map out Middle East social and political challenges not covered in depth by news media. “There’s a lot of talent in the region and it’s not being utilized in areas that need it most,” she says. “Our ambition is to create a precedent that can both address pressing issues and engage highly creative people in data-science technology and design.”
Saudi national Joumana Al Jabri cofounded Beirut-based Visualizing Impact, which produces data and graphic-based storytelling to map out Middle East social and political challenges not covered in depth by news media. “There’s a lot of talent in the region and it’s not being utilized in areas that need it most,” she says. “Our ambition is to create a precedent that can both address pressing issues and engage highly creative people in data-science technology and design.”
And Christidis acknowledges that many of the region’s youth may not have the luxury of experimenting with entrepreneurial ideas due to commitments to earn a living. “If you are a breadwinner for your parents, you may be less likely to take the risk,” he adds, while cautioning that these same digital divides characterize most world tech markets. “Is entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley catered to those with little means?”
Industry veteran and Aramex ceo Fadi Ghandour says he too is aware of the divide, and he touts a new partnership with the United Nations Development Program to help fund 200 microbusinesses in Jordan. The initiative, which Ghandour says will also be extended to Lebanon, is offered through Ruwwad, a youth empowerment and volunteering organization that he also chairs.
“The Internet abolishes divides, and it is an equalizer and has brought down the cost of innovation and doing business substantially,” he says. “So the divide exists, but that does not worry me as much as red tape, access to capital and building the infrastructure for enabling people and businesses to transact online.”
Indeed, those worries may also endanger the Arab world’s ability to retain the precious talent it has built. For example, young hardware developers like Hobeika of Instabeat are weighing options for future locations.
“I think we will have a lot of trouble scaling in the future when we want to create more than one product,” she says. “We’ve been looking into relocating, places in Europe, in the us. We are definitely exploring. You want to hire senior people and high-level expertise.”
Sitting in a Beirut café, Bassam Jalgha, the creator of Roadie Tuner, is also torn, facing his next trip to China to oversee the first production cycle. “I want to give hope to people, to tell them it is possible, that we are doing it, even if the situation is bad, that you can still do it.” But as car bombs continue to go off in Beirut, he has been considering spending more time in China, and he is learning Chinese. “I like it,” he says wistfully. “The sad part about being here is nothing is getting better. I came back after six months in China and now it’s worse.”

Startups for Refugee Relief

By the end of 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is predicted to reach two million, equivalent to a nearly 50 percent increase in Lebanon’s population. With many refugees living in tents across the country, technology has empowered several grassroots aid efforts. Inspired by the Syrian families peddling goods on the streets near her university in Beirut, college student Tanya Khalil cofounded the “I am not a Tourist” initiative. Using a highly publicized Facebook page and partnering with relief groups, she organized a clothing drive that in a single day filled more than 25 trucks with winter clothing and bedding.
Rainboots for Syrian Children, spearheaded by furniture designer Hala Habib, mobilized dozens of young volunteers to provide waterproof footwear for refugee children living in muddy campsites. With an online gateway that allows donors to purchase a pair of boots for $5, to date the initiative has delivered more than 10,000 boots to refugee children across Lebanon.
And time is of the essence. Governments and institutions that constrain investment or opportunities now are making “terrible choices” that may affect generations, author Schroeder argues. “Technology moves so fast,” he says. “If a country falls behind, it is hard to catch up. They will lose their best talent.”
But Ghandour remains confident for the longer term: “I understand the risk very well, and I know the rewards. Profits are important, but this industry needs to be built and nurtured, and investors and entrepreneurs have to be very patient before pushing to see profits. Like all business or startups, everything takes time to build.”
Ghandour’s team at Wamda is now raising a $75 million fund to support entrepreneurs, a more than tenfold increase on Wamda’s previous $7 million fund launched just three years ago.
“The trends in all areas look good. Green shoots everywhere. We just have to keep pushing and pushing and continue believing and investing,” says Ghandour. ”Pathfinders are people that are going to take the biggest risks. They are the most courageous and most committed. Their work will be rewarded. History tells us that all the time.”
Habib Battah Habib Battah (habib.battah@gmail.com and @habib_b) is a Beirut-based investigative journalist, filmmaker and author of the blog www.beirutreport.com. He is also a regular contributor to Al Jazeera, bbcWorld and The Daily Star newspaper. He is a two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award.
David Degner Cairo-based freelance photojournalist David Degner (degner@gmail.com) is represented by Getty Reportage. He studied philosophy and photojournalism at Western Kentucky University.
This article appeared on page 22 of the print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Instabug as having raised funds on Kickstarter, when it was the fellow Egyptian app 1Sheeld that raised over $85,000 on the crowd-funding site.

Batroun coast last weekend. These shores along with others in the North and South are still swimmable.
As beach season approaches, many would assume Lebanese citizens have a right to know what is in the water. But government health officials who have been testing the coastline for decades beg to differ, offering conflicting excuses for not making water sanitation information transparent and publicly available. See what they have to say for themselves–and where it is still safe to swim– in a piece I wrote on the topic a few months back. 
Our Beaches: A Mix Of Beauty And Filth

First published in the August 2013 issue of Bold Magazine
By Habib Battah  


Are Lebanon’s beaches safe for swimming? The official answer to this question is about as murky as the waters. 


Earlier this month, an article published in The Daily Star dubbed the country’s coastline a “giant toilet bowl,” and quoted the president of Lebanon’s Green Party describing the situation as “an emergency.” 

“People should not be swimming at Lebanese beaches,” Nada Zaarour told the Beirut-based daily, in comments that could bankrupt dozens of resorts nationwide. 

But that was only half the truth. According to tests commissioned by Environment and Development Magazine, on which the Daily Star article was based, about half the country’s beach resort locations were actually listed as “good.” These include beaches in Batroun, Chekka, Jbeil and Amsheet in the North and Jiyye, Damour, Remeil, Tyr and Naqoura in the south – home to some of the country’s most celebrated beach clubs and public swimming areas. 

The danger, the study said, was posed by unregulated sewage dumping in highly urbanized regions, including the entire greater Beirut and Keserwan seaboard stretching all the way from the capital to Tabarja as well as Tripoli. Though many older beach condos exist in these areas, they typically offer little beach access and mainly rely on pools. 

However, this doesn’t mean that no one swims in the water, representing a serious risk to public health for those who cannot afford the more luxurious resorts in the North and South or transportation to get to public beaches there. According to Raghida Haddad, executive editor of Environment and Development Magazine, exposure to sewage infested waters can cause diarrhea, dysentery and exposure to diseases. 

Among the worst results were those collected from Beirut’s only free beach, Ramlet el Baida, which is crowded with thousands of citizens on summer weekends. 

The deceptively beautiful sands of Ramlet el Baida are fine for lounging but the state has failed to warn citizens not to swim there. 

So what is the government going to do about it? Surprisingly the sewage 
findings are not new; the state-run National Council for Scientific Research is well aware of the problem as it has been testing the water for decades. 

“It’s good that they do that,” Haddad says. “The problem is they do nothing with the results.” 

“If you ask they won’t give them to you.” 

Haddad suggested that government bodies, such as the Environment and Public Health Ministries, publish a weekly bulletin on water safety to alert citizens. But a senior source at the Public Health ministry shrugged off the results, saying: “Yes the beaches are polluted. Do you want me to tell you they are clean?” 

The source, who described himself only as “an employee in the ministry,” was not immediately familiar with the study, but suggested citizens needed no warning from the government. 

“The citizens know where it’s clean.” 

The source suggested journalists take on this task of informing the public: “Why don’t you journalists warn people? That would be good if you did that.” 

However in a subsequent phone call, Health Ministry Director Walid Ammar, acknowledged that the country faced “a sewage problem” but insisted that test results were available to the public online from the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), whose duty he said was to warn municipalities and relevant ministries. 

“Please call them, go to their website and have a look. Ok,” Ammar said, before abruptly ending the five-minute call. 

But the most current data that could be found on the CNRS website was a three-year-old highly technical journal, largely in French and covering topics such as “entomophogenic nematodes in North Lebanon.” There were no titles on beach safety. 

Contrary to the public health ministry’s claim, CNRS director Gaby Khalaf confirmed that no studies on beach safety were published on the body’s website, though he said it has been taking monthly samples for “around 40 years.” 

“We don’t give (the test results) to anyone,” said Khalaf when reached by phone. 

Asked how average citizens would be informed about possibly-diseased waters, Khalaf said results were “sometimes” discussed in TV interviews. However releasing documents to the press had once led to “misinterpretation” and “people were attacking us.” 

Khalaf explained the CNRS was working on making figures accessible on their website, but “not now, not this year.” Like the Health ministry director, he insisted that data were being shared with relevant municipalities and ministries. 

Yet an official at the Environment Ministry’s communications office who was familiar with recent awareness campaigns, said there were no public announcements about beach safety this year. 

The official, who was not authorized to speak to the press, said recent campaigns included TV spots, documentaries and conferences covering topics such as UV rays and protection of sea turtles. But the official could not remember when or if any campaigns covered the sewage in which many citizens are currently swimming. 

Another official said the ministry was more focused on abiding by “EU conventions” than testing beach water. 

Multiple calls to the Ministry of Tourism were not returned. 

Several clean beaches can be found in the South, including the coast near Mansouri, which offers a rare virgin sand beach.
See map below to locate reportedly clean beaches. Blue is safe, Red is not. Green is ‘borderline’

Source: Environment and Development Magazine


English map available here.

Photos: PID Levant
A few weeks ago, Beirut was in the international headlines due to a shooting incident. But what many people don’t know is on the same day there was a positive transformation happening in another part of the city. 
A group of designers, urbanists and activists had come together to help one community beautify its streets–transforming a wall appropriated by political parties and violent slogans: 
Into a fresh canvas ready for a colorful mural:
The project is called the Khodr Neighborhood Initiative and also saw activists help residents organize a campaign to clean their streets and encourage recycling, with workshops and entertainment for children:

The initiative was spearheaded by Public Interest Design Levant, a new collaboration between young designers, architects, urban planners and NGOs to encourage responsible citizenship, sustainable development and community participation. Interestingly a pillar of the group’s working framework is a “human-centered approach” listening closely to community members to assess needs while taking into consideration environmental, social and cultural issues. It’s a far cry from the approach of the Beirut Municipality, which operates largely without public consultation or transparency in projects that have torn down heritage and green spaces in favor of highways, contractors and real estate developers.    

Public Interest Design Levant is planning a lot more work in the Khodr neighborhood, which is located near the port of Beirut, between the Sleep Comfort headquarters and Karantina. The plan is also to encourage sustainable transport with bike friendly streets among other citizen-centric initiatives.

They are always looking for volunteers so subscribe to their Facebook page for updates. The next event is coming up next week– a bicycle festival known as Baskil.

The all-ages festival starts on Wednesday 23rd and goes through Sunday the 27th. See a list of events here, including competitions and a bike tour around the city.  

Here’s the trailer:

Yes that’s right, Beirut a city with over a million residents and among the most influential in the region, has no official website. And it has been offline for over three years, according to this amusing post which noted the phenomenon back in February 2011. This is not an April Fool’s Joke. Check it yourself.

So what info might be available on such a website? For one, what about the budget? How much money does the municipality of Beirut have? Some reports have rumored it to be over $1 billion but there are no exact figures. Why?

I put the question once to a high level council member. His answer: “I don’t know. It’s not published, but it is very transparent and well-known.”

How is that?

And how exactly is the money spent every year? Surely $1 billion is enough to buy some green space for the exhaust-choked residents. Yet the biggest park is closed to the public and the city council watches as developers eat the last swathes of open space, such as the new Verdun mall going up. Meanwhile activists and architects have designed a major park for the Hikme area in Ashrafieh but the city is ignoring them and building a road instead, which many urban planners find wasteful and irrational.

Why not spend a chunk of that $1 billion on public transport projects?

Where is the money spent anyway? How many roads are being built today in Beirut?

How much money do the roads actually cost the city? For example, some officials say the Boutros road will cost $23 million, some say it will cost $75 million. Some activists say it will cost over $150 million. So what’s the real answer?

And when a road or a study is commissioned, where is the bid announced? Which contractor gets the bid? What is the time frame? Where are the cost-benifit studies? Environment studies? Traffic impact studies?

Maybe if the municipality had a website it could publish some of this info to inform taxpayers how their money is being spent and avoid miscommuncations? Maybe it could have an events calendar to announce meetings and encourage residents to be part of the process, part of their city? Are there any public meetings?  Surely $1 billion is enough to start a website with this basic info. But why has it taken three years?

Since journalists and city residents are banned from tomorrow’s meeting with the mayor at AUB, maybe the students can ask some of these questions.

AUB engineering students have arranged a rare question and answer session with the mayor of Beirut over the most controversial civil works project in recent memory, but the media and activists have been barred from attending.
As noted in the event’s “about” section, only AUB students and faculty will be able to attend, effectively banning any news coverage or tough questions from activists who have been following the issues closely:
Now I have been to dozens of AUB lectures and conferences over the past ten years–at the departments of public policy, architecture, Middle East studies and many others. They have all been wonderful, insightful and free and open to the public.
This is the first time I have seen such an aggressive banning of public participation from journalists, students and faculty from other universities as well as experts and outside members of the community. Is this unprecedented or very rare in the history of AUB? Shouldn’t the residents of Beirut–not just students of an elite university– have access to their mayor?
When asked by one of many architects that have spoken out about recent municipality plans, how such a ban would be enforced, one of the student organizers suggested IDs would be checked at the door to the lecture hall:
Now how often do you hear that at AUB? When asked why the students were taking such an aggressive policy, no direct answers were provided. One suggested this was student policy and commented “check the website” but there is no mention on the Civil Engineering Society website that such a policy exists and it appears that it has not been implemented at past CES events.
So why the restrictions and what is different this time? In fact, this is not the first time activists have been shut out of municipality meetings.
The mayor is scheduled to speak about the now infamous Boutros Road, a four-lane tunnel and bridge system that will pummel through one of the city’s greenest neighborhoods and destroy up to 30 historic buildings and green properties.
Activists block Armenia road during a march for a park last month
Architects and urban planning experts from Harvard, AUB and other prestigious institutions have opposed the $75 million plan. Not only will it destroy some of the city’s few remaining green and pedestrian areas, it may also cause increased traffic jams by putting added pressure on congested roadways, multiple experts told me in an investigative piece I wrote last year for The Daily Star.
At the time, the municipality refused to divulge plans for the project, curtailing any public discussion by independent analysts or members of the community. In fact, after waiting for two weeks for the documents I was told by government officials that: “the consultant working on it had to leave for an emergency.”


So it was with great surprise last November that the deputy mayor of Beirut announced during an international AUB conference that the municipality was very transparent and had held a “Town Hall meeting” to engage the public in its planning efforts. 

I was surprised because I had never heard such a meeting took place and neither had some of the largest activist groups in Beirut including Save Beirut Heritage and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
I approached deputy mayor Nadim Abu Rizk after his short presentation and asked how someone like myself might get invited to such a meeting. I also asked if very visible groups like SBH and APLH had been invited. “I don’t think so,” he said. Asked who then was invited: “I consulted my friends,” who sent out emails to all the ‘concerned experts’.
So it turns out the Town Hall meeting the municipality had been touting before international experts at AUB last year, was actually an “invite-only” meeting and the most prominent activist groups who have proposed alternatives to the road were not invited.
And among those that did attend the meeting, there were reports of time constraints and exclusion of any detailed discussion.
“A serious and real discussion between the municipality and the participants was not conducted,” wrote the youth organization Nahnoo in a letter to the deputy mayor on its website.
“… it didn’t leave us time to conduct a discussion concerning the topics represented,” it said, adding that media coverage was scant and “only certain people” were allowed to participate in the discussion.
Was this a genuine attempt to engage the public, or was it merely an attempt to create a media image that “the civil society was present” Nahnoo asked.
Giving credence to the later explanation, the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government body which is undertaking the Boutros project, told me:
 
“Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects. It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.”
 
The same official also told me that there was “no need” for an environmental impact study because there were “no flora or fauna” in the area:
One of Beirut’s last farms which, like many green spaces, falls in the path of the Boutros project. Activists want to build a park here.
Also despite recent ‘engagement’ statements, the municipality has completely rejected a plan proposed by activists and urban planners to build a park in the place of the highway, to better serve the community. Such plans have been adopted by municipalities around the world, argues Hashim Sarkis the Agha Khan Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard. In a recent essay he gives multiple examples of alternatives to the road and writes that the municipality plans:
“…reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.”
He adds:
“Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist… no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project.”
Interestingly the plans for a park were initially included in the latest AUB event flyer:
But these were swiftly removed by the “CES student society” in favor of a more flattering image of the mayor, divorced from the controversy:
Why all the fuss about how the event is presented and who attends? Is there a desire to please those at the top?
Finally, despite the municipality’s insistence on its plan, it was announced that it would break ground in “summer 2013”. But now, several months later, the municipality says it is engaging in a new study that won’t be ready until the end of summer 2014. There are few details on how this study was commissioned or how much it will cost. But the delay of over one year is substantial. Did the questions and protests of activists play a role in this possible backtracking?

2


Here’s a copy of my latest “Media Uncovered” column for Bold Magazine.

Excellence Isn’t An Attitude

SLICK PROMOTIONAL CAMPAIGNS PUT ON BY LEBANON’S BANKS EQUATING ACHIEVEMENT WITH APPEARANCE SUGGEST SUCCESSFUL IMAGING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SWEATY LABORS. THIS HELPS ENCAPSULATE WHY THE COUNTRY CONTINUES TO FOSTER FAILED INSTITUTIONS WHILE ITS INFRASTRUCTURE CRUMBLES 

By Habib Battah


F

ew billboards capture the social ailments of post-war Lebanon better than the latest piece promoting Lebanese bank Société Générale de Banque au Liban, known as SGBL. Plastered across Lebanon’s highways, the advertisement features renowned television personality Marcel Ghanem with his trademark ear-to-ear smile. The caption: “Excellence is an attitude.” 

But is it? Those who achieve great things will probably tell you excellence is neither an attitude nor a smile we put on our face. Excellence is about hard work, usually unseen hard work, earned by blood, sweat and, sometimes, tears. 

But in the local context, SGBL may not be totally off-base. The notion that excellence is indeed largely about appearances is one we encounter frequently in Lebanon, evident in our failed institutions and crumbling infrastructure. The fact that news talk show host Ghanem, one of the country’s most visible journalists, is the poster child of such a campaign is fitting in an oligarchical media environment that is dominated by press conferences and other events staged by public relations firms. 

In fact, SGBL lives up to its whimsical motto in the high-production television commercial that goes along with its latest campaign. Set to soft piano music, it tells the cliched account of Lebanon rising from the ashes of the war. Actors play the role of citizens looking up to the sky – Ghanem is among them reading the poetic narration, rich in metaphor. Despite the “dark nights … we never surrendered … we always returned (to our country).” Toward the end of the clip, the sun is rising on a destroyed town, and in the morning light, a crew of dozens of workers marches with shovels in hand toward the horizon. 

The scene is reminiscent of the hit US television show, “Extreme Home Makeover,” in which benevolent local corporations pool their workers together, marching through the streets to build a new house for an impoverished family. But how often has this happened in Lebanon? How many times has SGBL – or any other Lebanese bank for that matter – sent its employees to build a home for a poor Lebanese family? God knows there is no shortage. About a quarter of Lebanon’s population, or around 1 million people, live in poverty according to government estimates. But you would never know that watching banking commercials promising rebirth, development and the like. 

Perhaps it is just about the “attitude” or appearance of doing good, just as the SGBL billboard proclaims. These are actors in a commercial after all; the bank is not actually building a home. So what then of the promise of “We stand beside you” in rebuilding the nation? Is this also just an attitude? 



Of course there is no need to single out SGBL. It is one of dozens of uber-wealthy Lebanese banks, and the PR devices it uses are not new at all. The soft lighting, the rising sun, the inspirational music, the violins. All these are the well-worn elements of the Lebanese bank commercial. Often there is a ballerina or a child with flowers, such as the one famously employed by Fransabank during its 90th anniversary, inserted a la Forest Gump in old newsreels of Lebanese history, gathering white roses along the way. 

Bank Audi, Byblos and BLOM have all used similar symbolism to connote innocence, nostalgia and wholesomeness. They are taking a page from major US corporations, like telephone and oil companies, desperate to re-work their image, having been accused of fleecing consumers and damaging the environment. 

In the Lebanese context, the banks cast themselves as the defenders of national unity, the builders of the state, pillars in the reconstruction process. But was Lebanon ever reconstructed? Over 20 years since the war ended, wages have stagnated, taxes and the cost of living have risen dramatically, and poverty is widespread. Yet, over the same period, the banks have only gotten richer, counting $120 billion worth of deposits – some three times larger than the gross domestic product – and growing. 

Much of their wealth has been made off the absurdly high national debt, which stands at 140% of GDP, one of the highest ratios in the world. At the end of the war, local banks were paid exorbitant interest rates, reaching annual averages of around 30 percent on government bonds to fund “reconstruction” projects. Yet today citizens lack basic services such as electricity, water and health care. Meanwhile much of the government’s revenues from taxes go toward servicing that massive debt owed to the same Lebanese banks. It’s no secret that many of those banks are owned by incumbent politicians or their close associates. 

As Lebanese society emerges from the crises of its own civil war to deal the the crisis of the Syrian one, perhaps it is time local banks pitch in some of their stellar earnings to help out. Infrastructure projects that provide jobs for the poor could be a good place to start – a way to demonstrate real citizenship by putting real money behind all the talk of “corporate social responsibility,” which has become the latest catch phrase in marketing circles. Because in reality, the true beneficiary of bank dividends seems to be those production companies that create an image of excellence, but only long enough for the cameras to capture.




After reading a piece about beach pollution in The Daily Star, I thought Beyonce was trying to tell me something: stay in the pool this summer!

After all, the article says Lebanon’s coastline is used as “a giant toilet bowl” due to severe problems with waste management.

Also quoted in the article is the head of Lebanon’s green party, Nada Zaarour who warned: “This is an emergency. People should not be swimming in Lebanese beaches.”

But one big piece of information missing in the article (which contradicts Zaarour’s blanket statement) is that many Lebanese beaches are indeed still safe for swimming, according to the same survey.

In fact, the blue dots below represent “good” beaches and these coincide with many of the country’s most popular resorts in Batroun, Amsheet, Chekka, Dammour, Jiyye, Tyr and Naquora.

See the blue dots below:

The problem is that the map published by the Star is really low res and hard to read. But if you know the geography and have good eye sight, you can make out the areas I mentioned above.

Now all this is not to say that the article shouldn’t have been published. It says that 7 out of 19 areas have really unsafe levels of sewage content. These are areas like Ramlet El Baida–Beirut’s public beach–and the very urbanized coastline of Antelias-Jounieh-Tabarja, which a lot of people try to avoid.

But it is also true that plenty of people–largely the poor– swim in those densely populated areas. This may not affect a lot of the tourist resorts, casting doubt on the article’s claim that the results will be damaging to the industry.

But in a way, the article may do that damage itself, as evidenced by the questionable blanket statements like that of Zaarour, which are likely to spread widely, as seen by the article’s viral level of Facebook likes.

Again this is a very serious issue. Where are the ministries of environment, public health and tourism? Shouldn’t they have warned the public? And what is the state of sewage treatment plants? Why is the government spending money on new highways while many people are swimming in waste?

Serious questions, which should not be overshadowed by exaggerated claims and “giant toilet bowl” metaphors that may do more harm than good.



“The flora and fauna are virtually nonexistent. There are a few trees in the area, no water tables.” This is what the lead government engineer on the Boutros road project told me when asked why no environmental impact study had been made before the state decided to tear apart one of Beirut’s greenest neighborhoods to build a series of highway overpasses.You can read my full report on the $75 million project this week in The Daily Star. (Update: rally to stop the project this Saturday March 1st)Opponents have launched a number of arguments against the 1960s era Boutros road plan, saying it is outdated, wasteful, inefficient and destructive to heritage buildings, and have proposed a park instead.

I visited the area after interviewing the government engineer and his words kept repeating in my head.

“The flora and fauna are virutally nonexistent. There are few trees in the area…We have not found any good elements to worry about in terms of environmental impact. “

But in reality, the neighborhood is one of Beirut’s greenest. It contains a rare terraced orchard, one of the capital’s last surviving farms, hidden behind a row of triple window Levantine mansions on Armenia street in Mar Mikhael:

Among its rows of olive and acadini trees is a giant berry bush:
  …which provides an umbrella of shade about 30 feet in diameter:
Still standing in the middle of the orchard is what appears to be an old stone farm house:
Here are some more of the trees on the orchard, which is across the street from the EDL building:
Among them is a giant oak, right:
Activists say the orchard is ideal for a park that would exhibit the capital’s agricultural heritage…
In a place where centuries-old farming traditions are still carried out today:
Who knows how old these walls are?
There are plenty of other green spaces in the narrow streets above the orchard in the neighborhood known as Hikme:
Like this massive pine right, which towers over the 19th and early 20th century homes, which will all be torn down to make way for the road.
There is also an old banyan tree behind this one-story home (slated for demolition), which activists say could be one of the city’s oldest:

The only other place I’ve seen banyans is near the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University, both established in the late 19th century by American missionaries, who planted them.

I wonder if they passed by the Hikme neighborhood as well:

There are so many other green nooks and crannies in the area–all are slated for demolition:

…but who needs an environmental assessment?
UPDATE 2/28/14: The project has been delayed since this post was first published but now plans are back on the table. There is a rally this Saturday March 1st to oppose it.