Tags Posts tagged with "Hariri"

Hariri

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With tensions between Lebanon and GCC countries rising everyday, it is essential to examine how Lebanon’s economy has become dependent on oil-producing states and the man who helped make it happen. Paul Cochrane reviews the latest biography on arguably the most powerful Prime Minister Lebanon has ever seen.   

 

By Paul Cochrane 

Academic Hannes Baumann notes early on in Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neoliberal Reconstruction (Hurst, 2017), that “Rafik Hariri became even more politicized in death than in life”. This is especially true when it comes to powerful political figures with sizable organizations behind them that want to capitalize on assassination.

Posters of Hariri, like so many other slain Lebanese politicians still adorn billboards 12 years later, while for years outside the Mustaqbal TV building in Kantari there has been a billboard demanding al haqiqa (the truth, about his assassination) with an electronic ticker beneath showing the number of days since Hariri was killed in a macabre blast outside the St. George’s Hotel on Beirut’s Corniche.

The son of a Saida fruit-picker, Rafiq Hariri in some sense bucked the historical trend, having been neither a militia leader nor one of the  established zu’ama. While a ‘self-made man’, Hariri was nonetheless politically assisted to be twice prime minister and a driving force in the country’s post Civil War political-economy landscape.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who inherited tremendous wealth from a benefactor, Hariri benefited from the largess of the Saudi royal family, initially with construction deals and later as an interlocutor for the House of Saud in Lebanon during the civil war.

Hariri emerged, like Najib Mikati and others, onto the Lebanese political scene as the result of petro-dollar contracting fortunes initially made in the Gulf, crucial to understanding Lebanon’s post civil war environment. This is why Baumann, a German academic currently teaching at Liverpool University, opted to use an individual biography – Hariri’s – to explain social, political and economic change in Lebanon.

Neoliberal Lebanon

While there was little inkling in the 1980s that Hariri would rise to such political prominence, he certainly had business interests in the ‘old country’. In 1983, Hariri took control of top positions of Banque Mediterranee (BankMed, now 100% owned by the Hariri family), and in the same year drew up plans to reconstruct downtown Beirut. As Baumann put it, “it is hardly surprising that a contractor such as Hariri would regard a real estate project [Solidere] as his country’s salvation”.

Preliminary work began that year via Hariri-owned Oger painting the facades of buildings in the Mara’ad area and building a prototype block of houses in Suq Tawil, while the army, backed by the Lebanese Forces, fought an eight hour battle to evict the war-displaced squatters from Wadi Abu Jamil. Such moves reflected Hariri’s ability to wheel-and-deal to get projects off the ground, working with President Amin Gemayel to develop downtown, the littoral north of Beirut (around Dbayeh), and the southern suburbs.

Yet while Hariri had Gemayel’s backing (but not political support, at least to be appointed prime minister as the Saudis wanted) it did not allow him to develop the southern Beirut shoreline into high-end tourism and luxury residences: “The predominantly Shia inhabitants of the area interpreted the resettlement plans by the Maronite president and the Sunni contractor as an attack on their community,” writes Baumann.

Baumann’s text, emphasized in the subtitle Lebanon’s Neoliberal Reconstruction, is particularly adept at explaining how Hariri brought the global economic zeitgeist of the post-cold war era – neoliberalism – to the country and gave it a local twist.

As Baumann observes, “Hariri and his technocrats were importing global templates of neoliberal urbanism, currency management and privatization, but regional and domestic factors were setting the limits of Lebanese neoliberalism.”

Neoliberalism is one of those sticky terms that is hard to exactly define, as Baumann explains. He defines it as both an economic orthodoxy and a class project that restructures the state, emphasizing these inherent contradictions of “illiberal and monopolistic practices with free-market rhetoric.”

Privatization for example is a top goal of neoliberal doctrine, but Lebanon’s clientelist structure prevented the selling-off of state utilities and assets, as politicians wanted to keep hold of ministries and, importantly, retain jobs for their constituencies.

“Hariri’s policies concentrated wealth, resulting in high unemployment and continued poverty, while most Lebanese remained dependent on politicians for the provision of jobs, education or health care. This was the economic basis of clientalism. Inequality and a lack of public services were a direct result of Rafiq Hariri’s neoliberal economic policies.Neoliberalism thus reproduces the political economy of sectarianism,” writes Baumann.

Solidere

When it comes to Solidere, the company created in 1994 to reconstruct downtown, Hariri used the neoliberal logic of the state playing a major role in extracting value from the city at the expense of the populace. This included signing over the land reclaimed from the Normandy landfill to Solidere, tax breaks for 10 years and not properly compensating many of downtown’s original property owners (a point still made in big letters on the side of the St. George’s Hotel: ‘Stop Solidere’).

As Baumman observes, “the mechanism by which property was expropriated illustrates one of the contradictions between neoliberal orthodoxy and practice: while one of the main functions of the liberal state is to defend property rights, Solidere represented an enforced, rather than a voluntary, transfer of such rights. The interventionist neoliberal state enables new forms of accumulation by dispossession.” Hariri’s real estate obsession as a core economic driver has also had long lasting negative ramifications: a building bonanza that has squeezed the less well-off out of the capital, cemented over archaeological sites, and privatized the few remaining public spaces, including beaches.

Hariri’s plan for economic reconstruction being based on physical infrastructure was a “fallacy”, writes Baumann, as instead the Lebanese economy was absorbed into the rentier system of the Gulf oil states and as an outlet for Gulf capital (by rentier he means an economy which derives all or much of its income from resources, such as hydrocarbons, while another definition is an economy deriving income from property or securities – so not industry or manufacturing). Without the Gulf and its petrodollars, argues Baumann, Lebanon would be on a slippery downward economic slope.

Indeed, Solidere gives an indication at the micro level of how the whole country could be in economic dire straits if the Gulf connection sours. For several years downtown (Beirut Souks excepted) has been a ghost town with restaurants shuttered, and stores having moved out due to the drop in Gulf tourism. As of August 2017, 18.7 percent, or 250, of all residential apartments in downtown have not be sold, worth $750 million (the average value per apartment is $3.1 million), according to RAMCO figures.

The current malaise in much of downtown is indicative of one the problems of utilizing a neoliberal urban model in a not very stable part of the world: the Arab-Israeli conflict and its ramifications for Lebanon; Syria; and regional and global powers’ involvement in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.

Baumann links Hariri’s Solidere plans to his technocrats, supposedly apolitical globalization experts that were above Lebanon’s political sectarian fray, who developed Solidere and then joined his government. “They spoke the language of neoliberalism as an economic orthodoxy. They had allied themselves with the Gulf capitalist Rafiq Hariri, who was using neoliberalism to assert the power of this faction of capital in the Lebanese economy”, colonizing “state institutions and repurposing them to serve their goals”.

But these ‘apolitical technocrats’ got caught up in sectarian politics, not just by virtue of being connected to Hariri, while Hariri himself had to increasingly play the sectarian card in his own politics, especially from 1998 onwards among his Sunni constituency to get his party elected.

Hariri began “to pose as the main defender of his community’s political interest, and his philanthropy allowed him to claim Sunni leadership in Beirut by neutralising the Maqasid association – thus political damaging Tammam Salam – and expanding Hariri Foundation health centres”.

It was a strategy however that did not always work. As Baumann observes, in 2004, Hariri was far from popular among his Sunni constituency, including in his hometown of Saida – “a list backed by Nasserite MP Musata Sa’d won all 21 seats on the council, defeating Hariri’s list”. In Beirut, the Unity List won all 24 seats, “but a low turnout of only 23 percent undermined the image of victory”.

As Baumann observes, politicians were willing to play along with neoliberalism when it suited them, but not when it would challenge their power base.

Banks, Debt and High Interest

It was Hariri’s meddling with fiscal policy however that had major ramifications for the country, which continue to hang like a Damocles Sword over all Lebanese heads. Hariri made the decision to peg the Lira to the US greenback and seriously ramp up debt to fund reconstruction.

This led to a ‘merry go-round’ of government borrowing at high interest rates and Lebanese commercial banks overwhelming financing that debt. On the one hand this has caused Lebanon to have one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world, while secondly has enriched the elite and the banks. As AUB’s Jad Chaaban has noted, some 5 percent of the population control over 70 percent of the wealth in the banks.

Equally devastating for the economy, and where Hariri’s neoliberal agenda differed from elsewhere, was that high interest rates discouraged the banks and the wealthy from investing in new businesses or the Beirut Stock Exchange (which has just 15 listed companies, including Solidere). Indeed, why would you, when you could get around 15 percent during the early Hariri years, and today, 6 percent or more on the Lira.

As Freddie Baz, chief financial officer at Bank Audi, said in 2010, “Today it is a rentier economy; if I can still get 6 to 8 percent interest, why should I understand (invest in) the stock market?”

Billions of dollars in profits have been made from the debt, and in typically neoliberal outcome, little has been given back, while banks are strongly linked to politicians.

As Baumman notes, “lending to the Lebanese government remains the backbone of the banks’ business. In October 2015, claims on the public sector accounted for 20.6 percent of total assets of Lebanese commercial banks, while 38.1 percent were deposited with the central bank.”

A vessel for Gulf investment

Baumann ends his book on a negative note on the country’s contemporary situation. He argues, as have others, that Lebanon could very well be banking on magic, given the high debt-to-GDP ratio, the weak economy, minimal foreign direct investment, and the lack of a comprehensive economic policy.

Furthermore, the local economy is overly dependent on Gulf petrodollars, be it in terms of remittances from Lebanese working in the Gulf (two-thirds of all remittances), to Gulf investment, capital and tourism. The latter has largely dried up due to the Syria conflict, and the Gulf’s economic fortunes are looking less rosy than they have been in decades, due to low oil prices and economic diversification moving at a snail’s pace.

“Lebanon has become a vessel for Gulf investment, and is now almost completely dependent on the oil monarchies. Rafiq Hariri was the chief architect of this dependence…Lebanon is tied to cycles of boom and bust in the Gulf,” writes Baumann.

The Gulf states have left it too late to wean themselves off oil, and Lebanon has left it too late to wean itself off the Gulf. As Baumann acerbically concludes, “Lebanon still has little to offer beyond mountains, beaches, a pleasant climate and clever bankers. Rafiq Hariri took no steps to transform the Lebanese economy to a more sustainable model. His political rivals – mainly former militia leaders – have no workable model of economic development beyond predatory rent-seeking through state largess.”

While Hariri’s political-economic legacy negatively impacted the majority of Lebanese and has saddled the public with a gargantuan debt, even his actual death has cost the Lebanese a pretty penny. The Special Tribunal For Lebanon (STL), set up to investigate his assassination, has already cost north of $325 million, with 51% coming from UN member states, the remaining 49% from Lebanon.

Paul Cochrane is an independent journalist based in Beirut, covering the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has been featured in over 80 publications, including Reuters, Money Laundering Bulletin, Middle East Eye, Petroleum Review and Jane’s. You can find his work at www.backinbeirut.blogspot.com

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In a space of a few hours, one can witness two radically different visions for Beirut’s future.

On a recent afternoon, under the shade of ficus trees, a town hall meeting was held by Beirut Madinati, the new political collective comprised of activists and urban professionals running in the city’s municipal elections. The group is campaigning on an issue-based platform that seeks to look beyond traditional clientalist and militia-style Lebanese politics. As such, they have organized a series of these town halls in city parks and public spaces dubbed Masahat Niqash (spaces for discussion) to get feedback from citizens-which is rarely if ever done by mainstream parties, who often rule by cults of personality built around feudal strongmen.

Dozens of citizens spoke up. Each was given a two minute intervention. They raised their hands and waited for their turn. The atmosphere was passionate yet orderly.

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Beirut Madinati town hall in Ashrafieh
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Any participant could speak but with a limit of 2 minutes per speaker

Citizens produced a range of detailed ideas and questions related to the problems of water distribution, traffic, pollution, lack of maintenance of streets, sewers and sidewalks, municipal taxes and accountability. The questions and suggestions were written down and Beirut Madinati candidates responded with answers and proposals.

About an hour later, I was walking through Sassine Square, feeling slightly more optimistic about Beirut’s political future, when I heard loud music and honking in the distance. Soon the cacophony grew louder and suddenly a convoy of cars approached the intersection.

They included loudspeaker trucks, black tinted SUV’s, loud police-style sirens and an escort of young tough-looking men on scooters–all with the candidate’s face plastered on the front:

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Candidate convoy enters Sassine Square

The scooter men drove toward the center of the intersection—one of the busiest in Beirut– and began blocking cars from crossing. They held up traffic for several minutes as the entire convoy of some 50 vehicles blaring horns and sirens passed through a red light.

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Campaigners use scooters to block all lanes at one of Beirut’s busiest intersections
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Scooter men direct the convoy through a red light at Sassine

Here is a video of the affair:

Not only did the campaigners break multiple traffic and public order laws by seizing an entire intersection in broad daylight, using illegal tints, police sirens and running red lights– they also seemed to create their own laws.

This included allowing a fellow tinted-window “important” Jaguar to pass through the convoy. Clearly this car could break the rules, even the fake rules, perhaps due to his Wasta, i.e political connections.

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Campaigners make an exception for a luxury car
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Tinted windows will take you places in Beirut

At one point, some people began honking their horns–one man got out of his car and shouting erupted. Lawlessness had broken down to violence. But within a few moments the convoy cleared and the scooter men dispersed. The police were nowhere to be found.

Although it only lasted a few minutes, the scene can be read as a microcosm of how politics is often practiced in Lebanon. The powerful rule through force, they flout the laws when it is convenient to self-interest, while allowing exceptions to allies. This often leads to clashes between citizens because the police have abdicated their posts or lack any sort of power to confront feudal or militia strongmen. Thus the powerful act with impunity.

Lastly, the candidate appropriates public property with his posters attached to street lamps around Sassine. His sectarian identity is clearly displayed with a visible golden crucifix around his neck.

There is no platform, no issues, no listening to citizens’ concerns, no patience and thoughtful contemplation. There is shouting and pushing, monopolizing the streets for the interest of a few, while the rest of the population is held up in traffic, at the mercy of these cults of personality and their intimidating ground operatives.

 

Meanwhile, Beirut Madinati continues to hold town hall meetings in an attempt to reach out to several neighborhoods. Last weekend they were in Kaskas, Horsh Beirut.

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Beirut Madinati town hall in Horsh Beirut
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Kaskas residents voiced concerns about unemployment and lack of services

The working class and poor neighborhood has traditionally voted for Beirut’s most powerful political dynasty, the party of ex-prime minister Saad Hariri. But rather than offer any sort of platform for fixing the city’s problems, he has merely used the clientalist patronage of his late father as incentive, superimposing his image in adverts:

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Hariri municipality list as advertised on Facebook

Hariri’s campaign is using the slogan “Campaign for the Beyerti” a colloquial term, which for many, connotes notable Beirut Sunni families, the “real” Beirutis. Many find the term exclusionary to the city’s hundreds of thousands of residents that settled in the capital over the last few decades, including Lebanese Shia and Maronites as well as Palestinians, Syrians and others. Many point out that Hariri’s claim of authenticity is ironic considering the fact that his family actually hails from the southern town of Saida, and rather than address the city’s needs, his family’s massive real estate interests have only helped commodify the capital, erasing public spaces to facilitate massive real estate deals for wealthy Gulf investors that have helped fund his father’s political career.

The memes have already begun to voice that critique:

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Source Swaha Cartoons

Beirut Madinati is not the only reform party. “Citizens Within A State”, headed by activist and ex-minister Charbel Nahas, is also proposing an issue-based platform and taking Beirut residents on free bus tours of corruption around the city.

Still, it will be hard for such groups to compete with the power of well-established political machines and the grip they have over public services and utilities as well as the meager handouts they offer the poor in exchange for votes. But whether or not they win, these new parties are introducing practices of Lebanese politics that differ significantly from their established rivals, offering a path toward change to build upon or at least the possibility of one.

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Weekend gathering in Dalieh. Source: Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

Activists have claimed that a multi-million dollar real estate project by world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas is being planned for Dalieh, one of the last undeveloped coastal areas in Beirut.

If confirmed, the project would mean that Dalieh, a public swimming and picnic area for generations of Beirut families, may now be restricted to the richest segment of the population, depriving the city’s lower and middle classes of any picnic or recreational grounds.

This news comes in sharp contrast to a statement made by the property owners to Executive magazine a few months ago when asked what was planned for Dalieh: “No construction or any other permit is being or will be sought in the foreseeable future as far as I am aware” a representative of the Hariri family, which owns a majority of the land, told Executive in August.

Activists with the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, which include architects, engineers, urban planners and professors, released the announcement in a letter to Koolhaas published in Jadaliyya today, discussing the manipulation of laws and environmental protections that have allowed the project to go forward.

Here is an excerpt:

“…private real-estate developers have lobbied affiliate politicians to pass multiple exceptions to existing laws that serve their interests, allowing intensive building exploitation ratios at the expense of the city’s livability. The lobbyists behind these regulations are not only property owners, but also policy-makers, ministers, and other members of the political elite who have turned law into yet another tool that serves their private interests. Your client is a member of one of the most powerful players among that elite. Thus, while the entire zone of the project was non-ædificandi (unbuildable) until 1966, exploitation ratios have gradually increased reaching a whopping sixty percent rate, according to the most recent modification of April 2014. The effects of these exceptions to the law are clearly visible on the city, where miles of public beaches and open spaces have been turned into a gated private resorts and landscapes. A design intervention that works within this usurped legal framework will serve the interests of a handful of policy-makers/property-owners who are blatantly manipulating the law to their own advantage, at the detriment of the city, its natural environment, and its dwellers.”

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One of several natural pools in Dalieh, used by Beirut residents for generations.

 

Through the help of lawyers, the activists uncovered significant irregularities in the laws that have made the project possible (passed during the chaos of the civil war) and they have recently launched a major lawsuit you can read about here.

Not only does the project threaten human activity, but activists also say it poses a danger to Dalieh’s unique wildlife and archeology that had previously been protected by Lebanese government bodies:

“Numerous studies highlight the ecological value of this area, particularly as it includes representative marine habitats, namely underwater caves and vermetid reefs where a unique sea-life flourishes. We cite, for instance, the National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territories (approved by decree 2366/2009) that identifies this site as a distinguished natural area of utmost importance to be protected, as well as Plan Vert de Beyrouth(2000) proposed by renowned architects and urbanists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment (2012), Greenpeace’s A Network of Marine Reserves in the Coastal Waters of Lebanon (2012)”

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Dalieh contains several natural caves, inhabited by wildlife

For more images of the possibly endangered natural caves and pools of Dalieh, see this previous post. The site is also the place for many popular celebrations, such as Nowruz, as covered here.

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Last year’s Nowruz celebrations in Dalieh by Lebanon’s Kurdish community

The new property owners have recently fenced off the area with barbed wire, a move Lebanon’s minster of environment called “scandalous.” For more on the grassroots activism to protect this site see this post.

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Finally, you can find the entire letter to Mr. Koolhas, which I have republished below:

 

“We have recently learned that the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has been commissioned to develop a design for a projected development on a prime sea-front location in Beirut (Lebanon): the Dalieh of Raoucheh. Proposing a private development over such a prime social, national, archeological and geological landmark in Lebanon has generated an ongoing public outcry, in the form of protests, letters to officials, discussions, andmedia mobilization. We are writing today to alert you to the disturbing facts behind the project, and solicit your support in outlining an alternative vision for Beirut’s seafront. Here are the facts fuelling the dispute over the project:

1. The project erases an important social space and a national landmark

For decades, the site where the project is being designed has been a prime social and public gathering for Beirut dwellers, but also a national landmark for Lebanese citizens. The site included traditional fishermen ports, informal restaurants, and a vibrant informal economy that lived off such temporary recreational activities. These activities have recently been interrupted as the site was reclaimed as “private property,” and fenced-off, displacing its long-term users.

Adding to the social and symbolic significance of the site is its immediate proximity to the Raoucheh rock, perhaps the main city landmark that holds enormous symbolic significance at national and international scales. Frequently used as a metonym for Lebanon’s natural beauty, the Rock has appeared on national currency as well as in numerous films, histories, and imageries of the city. Any architectural intervention that modifies this seafront landscape, particularly one that privatizes a natural extension of this public landmark, will have resounding negative impacts.

2. The project is built on property that was partially acquired illegally

Dalieh properties were the result of the visions of Ottoman and later French authorities to entrust the city’s commons to the main families of the city, as its custodians and protectors. Until 1995, these properties had multiple owners, who were all members of the so-called “old families of Beirut.” One investor managed to buy these property shares, consolidate single private ownership and expand it over what was the city’s collective commons. This take-over operation has been represented as a de-facto reality that overshadows the historical communal practices in Dalieh and represents them as illegal squatting of private land. This led to the fencing-off of the area and the subsequent prohibition of access to the sea.

Historical and contemporary property records we have obtained unequivocally demonstrate that property boundaries in the area have been modified to encroach on the public maritime domain, in contravention of the law. In other words, a large section of the area where the project is currently planned has been illegally privatized. This includes the fishermen port that, until recently, secured the livelihood of over seventy-five families, and also served as a recreational space for thousands of others. Implementing this project in this location will make theft of public land a fait accompli.

3. The project serves the narrow interests of an elite group of politicians and real-estate developers

While urban and building regulations had relatively protected Beirut’s seafront for decades, making of the promenade along the coast a landmark communal space in the city, regulations have been considerably modified over the past twenty-five years. Indeed, private real-estate developers have lobbied affiliate politicians to pass multiple exceptions to existing laws that serve their interests, allowing intensive building exploitation ratios at the expense of the city’s livability. The lobbyists behind these regulations are not only property owners, but also policy-makers, ministers, and other members of the political elite who have turned law into yet another tool that serves their private interests. Your client is a member of one of the most powerful players among that elite. Thus, while the entire zone of the project was non-ædificandi (unbuildable) until 1966, exploitation ratios have gradually increased reaching a whopping sixty percent rate, according to the most recent modification of April 2014. The effects of these exceptions to the law are clearly visible on the city, where miles of public beaches and open spaces have been turned into a gated private resorts and landscapes. A design intervention that works within this usurped legal framework will serve the interests of a handful of policy-makers/property-owners who are blatantly manipulating the law to their own advantage, at the detriment of the city, its natural environment, and its dwellers.

4. The project threatens a unique ecosystem

Numerous studies highlight the ecological value of this area, particularly as it includes representative marine habitats, namely underwater caves and vermetid reefs where a unique sea-life flourishes. We cite, for instance, the National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territories (approved by decree 2366/2009) that identifies this site as a distinguished natural area of utmost importance to be protected, as well as Plan Vert de Beyrouth(2000) proposed by renowned architects and urbanists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment (2012), Greenpeace’s A Network of Marine Reserves in the Coastal Waters of Lebanon (2012)

5. The project will destroy a rich archeological site

The site is etched with features that could be traced back to the geological history of Lebanon. In fact, it may be the last remaining coastal karstic outcrop on the Beirut city coast, which is the backbone of the city’s visual landscape. Among other sites on the coastal strip, it is also by far the most extensive and important site that presents evidence of the Stone Age in the Levant.

In light of the above, we are appealing to you in your roles as founder and lead architect of the firm, and as an educator and a public intellectual, to side by us in advocating to your client, but also to planning and urban authorities in Beirut the preservation of a site with unique characteristics, and withdraw services on this project. If such advocacy efforts falter, we urge you to dissociate yourself and your firm from this contentious project.

We remain open, as a campaign, to meet with your office to discuss in more detail various aspects of this controversial project and this key national site.

Sincerely,

The Civil Campaign for the Protection of the Dalieh of Beirut”
http://www.facebook.com/dalieh.org

 

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UPDATE 12/18/14: Rem Koolhaas has responded to the letter in a Facebook thread below the Jadaliyya article. Here is the full text:

Dear Civil Campaign team,

Thank you for your open letter from the 15th of December. I appreciate its tone and its content.

Several months ago we were asked to think about the Dalieh of Raoucheh site. From the beginning our client has shown an awareness of its uses, its history and its beauty, and is clearly expecting us to respect and preserve these qualities in the development of our ideas.

Since we have become involved, our research has convinced us only more of the site’s uniqueness, its importance as a public space on the Beirut coastline, and its role in the civic life of the city. The directions that we are beginning to develop do full justice to these qualities, and are compatible with the pleas expressed in your letter. It is, for instance, our intention to actually enhance public accessibility of the site. As in all our work, we are trying to preserve what works well and add only with discretion and intelligence.

I should emphasize that at this point there is in fact no project, just a series of initial explorations. If in due course a project takes shape, we look forward to continuing communication on a more concrete basis. For the time being, please know that we take your letter seriously and that we hope to together maintain a substantial conversation about the issues your letter justly raises.

Best regards,

Rem Koolhaas

The poster above features an aerial shot of Dalieh, the little known big brother of the famed Raouche Rocks, just left of it.

The poster reads roughly: “Get your construction site off of our Raouche” and was a produced by a group of architects, urbanists and activists trying to save this space, known as the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh.

The rocky Dalieh peninsula has been a public watering hole for decades…

Source: Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

 ….but now developers want turn it into a private luxury marina, accessible by the few who have means to pay.

It has natural caves and has been used by fishermen for generations:

Daily Star/Hasan Shabaan

As one of the few public spaces on the coast, Dalieh has also been used for picnics and public festivals such as the annual Nowruz celebrations by the local Kurdish community:

Source: The Beirut Report

 But today the site is being fenced off:

Source: Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh 

Source: Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

The campaign has released some great vintage photos of people using the space:

On Sunday (tomorrow) at 3PM activists are holding a press conference to discuss their plans to oppose the project. You can join the event page here and show support by showing up. (Stay tuned to the page for upcoming events as well.)

You can also watch a talk by one of the organizers Abir Saksouk-Sasso at AUB this week. She looks at how the property was controversially transformed through various acts of legislation from a protected area to an area for development. And how a company affiliated with former prime minister Hariri has taken control of the space:

You can also read recent articles in The Daily Star and Al Akhbar English for background on Dalieh and the legal situation.

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Dormant for years, the digital “truth” ticker has been reactivated on the upper right of the Rafik Hariri billboard above. It has been marked as day 1 in line with the start of the long-awaited trial in the Hague today, investigating his assassination.

The billboard had originally gone up shortly after the former prime minister’s murder in February 2005 and had read “The Truth.” The digital clock was soon added, with the aim of counting the days until Hariri’s killers were brought to justice. Years went by and the counting went into the thousands, prompting the somewhat embarrassing addition of a different size screen to compensate for additional zeros. A few years ago, the digital clock was removed altogether.

Now the text on the billboard has been changed from “The Truth” to “Era of Justice.” It also appears that the original 3-digit screen has been replaced with a 4 digit one. Will it lead to anything this time? And can justice really be served in a state where most of the incumbent politicians are pardoned war criminals?

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Here’s a copy of my monthly column in Bold Magazine

The Day Good Journalism Died

WORD THAT BEIRUT’S HARD ROCK CAFE WAS CLOSING ITS DOORS PROMPTED A FLURRY OF ARTICLES DEEMING ITS FAILURE A CATASTROPHE FOR LEBANON. BUT HARDLY A REPORTER BOTHERED TO CONSIDER WHETHER SOMETHING ELSE WAS TO BLAME 

By Habib BattahThe American restaurant franchise Hard Rock Cafe has suffered mixed success in many global markets. Over the last decade, the chain has shut down some 50 outlets, according to fan and memorabilia sites that track worldwide openings and closings religiously. Closures this year in Mexico City, Ottawa and Nicosia generated few headlines. But when word spread that Hard Rock was closing its doors in Beirut, a media frenzy ignited. 

Mountains of articles, blogs and tweets can be found bemoaning the end of the US chain’s local presence as a national tragedy. Lebanon’s Daily Star called the kitsch theme restaurant “a symbol of post-war reconstruction.” The National in the UAE deemed the closure “an indicator that Lebanon’s economic feast was turning into a famine.” Meanwhile a headline in Al Bawaba cried: “The day the music died.” 

Based entirely on circumstantial evidence, many journalists drew a direct correlation between one restaurant’s failure and an entire country’s political and economic climate, blaming Hard Rock’s demise squarely on the war in Syria and the subsequent fall in tourism. Interestingly, none of these factors were noted in all of three sentences issued by Hard Rock management following the move. In a message posted on Facebook, the owners simply thanked patrons and promised continued “expansion in the region” while “looking forward to finding a new site for a Hard Rock Cafe … in Beirut.” 

This last line “offered a glimmer of hope,” according to The Daily Star. But since when are dated theme restaurants national economic indicators? And what does it say about our future when “hope” is contained in the “possible” return of “Beer and Wings Mondays”? More importantly, what is the state of our business journalism when barely a single reporter entertains the possibility that Hard Rock’s product or management may have also played a role in its bankruptcy? 

If a steady stream of worldwide Hard Rock closures were not convincing enough, why not consider the death of many American theme restaurants in Lebanon? The articles above reminisce about Hard Rock’s opening in 1996 during the “brighter days” of postwar reconstruction, which was dominated by the neoliberal Hariri administration. But it was precisely during Hariri’s reign in the 1990s – and well before the Syrian war – that many American chains shut their doors. 

Few may remember the sprawling, hangar-like Sbarro Pizza outlet in Jounieh that opened and shuttered within the space of a few months in the mid-1990s. Or what about the memorabilia-stocked Planet Hollywood and TGI Fridays, which were some of the first foreign chains to open in post-war Beirut? Both lavishly furnished, multi-story establishments were also among the first to close. How about Johnny Rocket’s ill-fated drive-in theatre, which now serves as a parking lot and billboard in downtown Beirut? The details of these failures remain shrouded in mystery, but one would be hard-pressed to understand the logic of opening such enormous initial outlets in a country with barely a middle class that could afford them. 

This odd habit of entering the food and beverage market with a massive “5-star” space continues to fascinate some Lebanese investors as we saw with the opening of a three-story Fuddruckers branch – larger than any I have seen elsewhere in the world – in early 2011. It closed earlier this year, again sending shock waves through the blogosphere that the country was headed for economic doom. 

Opting not to rely on costly imported products, wiser Lebanese restaurateurs came up with a different business plan by the early 2000s. They created local brands that could offer the same nachos and cheese sticks at far more affordable prices. And they started small with modest, working-class locations. Today these home-grown outlets such as Crepaway, Roadster and Zatar W Zeit dominate the diner market, contributing significantly to the losses of their foreign counterparts. When visiting Hard Rock several years ago, it was so empty I was surprised it managed to stay open. 

This isn’t to say all US chains are fated to fail here. Burger King, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and the like seem to be perpetually expanding, popping up in the most unexpected provincial areas. Sure these restaurants have powerful marketing strategies, but price point is equally important. Far more Lebanese will be able to afford a Big Mac than a $15 sandwich from TGI Fridays or Fuddruckers. 

There is no denying that instability and falling tourism numbers will affect many local businesses, particularly those offering products beyond the reach of most households. But over the past two years, there have also been many new openings from Lebanese chains. And as Hard Rock was going bust, an equally famous Damascus-based establishment had just opened its first branch in Beirut. Unlike the vast and expensive Hard Rock location at a towering seaside hotel, Al Farouk – for whose shawarma Syrians are known to drive for miles – has opened a one-room diner on a side street of pedestrian-friendly Hamra. 

Like the local brands that preceded them, Al Farouk’s owners understand that Lebanon’s demographics are changing. It may be a gamble, but by exercising a bit of humility, they will be a lot less likely to fail or at least cause a national drama if they do.

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    I watch a lot of Arab TV, but I’ve never seen anything like this. This popular TV show host is actually challenging a member of the clergy on national television–and not just any member, the grand Mufti, who is among Lebanon’s highest-ranking spiritual officials.

    He is urging the Mufti to withdraw his recent Fatwa against civil marriage and he’s calling the Fatwa “unhealthy” even “hateful” and possibly violence-inducing. He then reinforces these arguments by quoting verses from the Quran.

    And of course this isn’t any TV host we’re talking about. Nadim Koteich is one of the stars of Future Television, widely seen as the mouthpiece of the Hariri dynasty, which is still the biggest force in Sunni politics. I use that term with great skepticism and it’s the hope of many civil society activists that allowing civil marriage will help bring a gradual erosion to the categorization of our politics in strictly religious/sectarian terms.

    The issue of civil marriage has picked up a lot of momentum in recent weeks following the marriage of a Sunni-Shia couple via an archaic loophole in the law–and encouraged by Lebanese President Michel Slieman, who tweeted in favor of the union. Other pro-Hariri media outlets have also been boldly assailing the Mufti’s stance.

    This could mean big changes for Lebanon as Elias Muhanna points out. But beyond Lebanon, the impact could also be significant.

    Although religious talk shows make up a huge amount of the content on the Arab satellite television dial, much of what is broadcast takes on a form of preaching with little debate over interpretation and, much less, challenging of the leadership from below. Perhaps we will be seeing more of that as well.  

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    Thanks to Qifa Nabki for tweeting the video.