The Ramlet al-Baida beach controversy and claims of ownership over one of Beirut’s last public beaches has returned to the forefront. In what seemed like a resting period after news of possible investment on said shores emerged a few years ago, excavators proceeded to destroy the northern entrance of the beach on Tuesday, removing a kiosk off the sandy stretches that line the waters.
The act of course did not go unnoticed, with lifeguards and beach-goers protesting the excavation works, and many saying that plans to take over the beach for the purpose of privatization are now in full gear.
According to al-Akhbar, citizens were told that the excavation works were related to the maintenance of sewage pipes that have long polluted the waters of Ramlet al-Baida. Upon deeper inspection, a myriad of other issues were unearthed, namely the construction of the luxury Eden Rock resort, rampant corruption, and claims of ownership over public lands.
The Ramlet al-Baida controversy is nothing new. In April 2015, Beirut Judge of Urgent Matters Zalfa al-Hasan issued a decision to cordon off three major sections of the beach that constitute roughly 28,000 square meters of the area. A few months later, Hasan issued two decrees that ultimately reversed the decision to allow private real estate companies from blocking the entrances of said beach, claiming that her more recent decision was taken on the backdrop of new information she received that showed that the concerned real estate companies had intentions aside from protecting private ownership.
So how is it that this decision is now being violated? Question one.
And how were these public lands obtained? Question two.
Before diving in, a kind reminder:
There are pumps dumping tonnes of untreated sewage into the sea on both sides of the Ramlet al-Baida beach. Raw sewage and chemical pollutants contaminate the waters at an alarming rate, according to a recent study published by National Center for Marine Sciences, posing health risks to swimmers. Exposure to sewage infested waters can cause diarrhea, dysentery and other diseases.
The Ramlet al-Baida beach is one of the only places left open to limited income persons who can barely afford treatment and who in many cases do not have apt healthcare. So it is safe to say that it may be well within the interest of people not to swim in the waters until the issue is solved. Cleaning up the Ramlet al-Baida beach should be the number one priority and demand, alongside keeping it open to the public.
The Council for Reconstruction and Development (CDR), which is tasked with building the country’s wastewater collection network, has “for years” been meaning to stop the outflow of excrement into the Mediterranean, but work is slow and costly, Assem Fedawi of the CDR told Executive in September.
Interestingly, in 2013 South for Construction won a contract to build a pumping station to transport the wastewater pouring on to the Ramlet al-Baida beach to a treatment plant further south – the same year that the lands were reportedly obtained.
The sewage pumps have yet to be moved, and my thoughts say that they will remain in place so long as investors are not making a profit from the beach.
Controversy of land ownership:
The sandy stretches that compose the Ramlet al-Baida beach are divided into several parcels. According to Article 2 of Order 144 of the first law to regulate coastal properties issued in 1925, the “sea’s shore until the farthest area reached by waves during winter, as well as sand and rock shores belong to the public”.
This law however has been largely ignored and several decrees have been issued to justify land ownership in the years that followed.
It’s a can of worms. But let’s start with claims of ownership.
Along the Corniche of the Ramlet al-Baida area, which extends along the sandy beach between the Movenpick and the would-be Eden Rock Resort, exist a number of properties located within what is zoned as the 5th section of the 10th real estate area. Beirut municipality owns plot number 5069, which is located at the north, and which demarcates the end of the sandy beach. The land is 7,119 square meters in size.
To the south of this plot of land, lies three pieces of sandy beach parcels, owned by late Rafik Hariri’s heirs: Bahaa, Saad, Hind, Nazek, Fahd and Ayman. Other owners include Mohammed Hariri and Fouad Siniora, in addition to a few shares owned by employees and lawyers who worked for Rafik Hariri prior to his assassination. The three pieces combined are an estimated 27,827 square meters in size.
Current ownership claims of these three pieces of property are being made through two companies: Mediterranean Real Estate and Bahr Real Estate for the purpose of constructing the large-scale Eden Rock Resort –a multi-million dollar venture.
Mediterranean Real Estate and Bahr Real Estate, both owned by Wissam Achour, now claim partial ownership of parcels number: 4026, 4027 and 2369 to be specific.
Achour is a businessman and a real estate investor who happens to be Speaker Nabih Berri’s former son in law.
How were these plots of lands obtained?
In Mandate Era Lebanon, specifically in the year 1995, Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri obtained several parcels and their respective deeds, registering them all under his name. His original plan was to build a resort entitled NARA (the first two letters that spell his and his wife’s first names: NAzek, RAfik). The project was to include two towers and a 160m long deck, but was cancelled due to public pressure.
After Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005, all properties were naturally passed down to his respective heirs -deeds of “ownership” to the plots of land in Ramlet al-Baida included.
Eden Rock Resort is said to be a continuation, or a reincarnation, of NaRa.
The original owners (circa 1957) of the area include Manuel Youness, Farid Trad, Michel Zaghzaghi, Jean Tiean, and Nicholas Trad. According to decree 14699 that stipulated the transfer of ownership to the State, the abovementioned [former] owners were ordered to build two roads, and support walls, as well as give up lands for the creation of a public area free of charge -all of which were completed.
Their former plots that include parcels 4026, 4027, and 2369 were therefore handed over to the State in what should now be classified as public property. Instead, the plots of land are being passed off as privately owned by the Hariris, Achour et al.
Smoke and Mirrors:
Achour is only the front man to what is really a Hariri based deal. The man is making profit of course, but he is also protecting the image of the late Prime Minister’s heirs in light of past occurrences that brought about public discontent.
By using Achour as a cover, Hariri’s heirs hope to avoid a repeat of events with Beirut’s residents, similar to what had occurred with the Dalieh affair.
The new kids on the block:
Mohammad Samih Ghaddar is set to purchase the Msaitbeh 4285, 2233, 4011, 2231 parcels. Parcel 3689 stretches through the remaining plots, that extends towards parcel 4285 and other plots, by way of the constructed road.
Fahd Hariri who claims ownership of parcel 2231, the largest of the lot, wants to sell it for a hefty price. The prospective buyer is said to be a man from the al-Dabbagh family.
Who else is involved?
-The Eden Rock Resort project contractor is Lecico, owned and run by former MP Salim Diab who was also one of the closest advisers to both Rafik Hariri and Saad Hariri. You may also remember him as the man who was grilled by the judges of Special Tribunal for Lebanon regarding his knowledge of a number of individuals with ties to the Syrian regime who were initially arrested for the assassination of the former Prime Minister. Diab evaded answers to those questions, the same way he did to other inquiries by STL judges pertaining to parliamentary electoral violations, namely bribery.
-Three weeks ago, the status of parcel 4285 was changed from a ‘no-build zone’ to an area where construction is allowed. Parcel 4285 stretches through three other plots by way of the corniche. Sources say the change in classification was approved by the Directorate General of Urban Planning (Tanzeem Madani) with the official endorsement of Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib; raising concerns of legality, especially since such a decision should only be sanctioned by the Council of Ministers. The change in classification would allow the area to be used for the construction of large scale projects.
-It has been said that the only way to save the beach from development is by buying back the “privately owned” plots. al-Akhbar reports that former Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad had attempted to finalize a $130 million deal, directly funded from the municipal treasury prior to the end of his term, but was met with failure. The [past and current] municipality denies those claims.
What the law says:
Order 144 of the first law to regulate coastal properties was issued in 1925 by Maurice Sarrail, the then-French High Commissioner in charge of Syria and Lebanon for one year during the French mandate. The law says property owners are prevented from erecting buildings on beaches because of the loose, sandy landscape.
“The sea’s shore until the farthest area reached by waves during winter, as well as sand and rock shores belong to the public,” Article 2 of that decision says.
Activists point to the abovementioned article to argue that investors have no right to build in the public maritime domain.
However, Article 3 granted those who owned parts of coastal properties, before the decision was issued, the right to use them for commercial purposes. It is unclear whether the lands that once belonged to original owners were in fact registered prior to the 1925 law, but in the case that they were, the original owners as mentioned above had already settled the deal in 1957. In 1983 the entire Ramlet al-Baida beach became public as a result of a decision by the Beirut municipal council under the government of Shafik al-Wazzan.
The law is clear in stating what can and what cannot be done, but several decrees that follow seem to navigate the clauses.
What needs to be done:
Activists, who include Nahnoo, a social association for the promotion of more shared public spaces, are calling on the Public Works Ministry to demarcate public land from private land in a bid to put an end to the fiasco.
Mohammad Ayoub, Director of Nahnoo, is calling for the formation of a committee comprised of members from the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, the Governorate of Beirut, and Beirut Municipality to help recognize and protect public property. He says the Lebanese government by law is not required to pay large sums of money to re-obtain what is legally its property. All maneuvers that have changed the status of said land from public to private come within the framework of corruption and forgery, he confirms.
The final decision is ultimately in the hands of the concerned authorities, but Ayoub is not pinning his hopes on them. He says only public pressure can stop the project, the same way it put an end to the Dalieh takeover, and in same manner in which it is now impeding the construction of a hospital in another one of Beirut’s public lands; Horsh Beirut.
A protest will be held to voice objection to what is currently happening in Ramlet al-Baida on June 25, 2016. For more details click on this link.
To stay updated on the affair, follow Nahnoo’s Facebook page.