Beirut Golf Club: Where the Grass is not Greener
By: Ahmad Mohsen
Published Saturday, February 25, 2012
A remnant of the mandate era, Beirut’s Golf Club has turned into a prestigious social venue that rakes in millions of dollars in membership fees annually while continuing to pay less than a meager US$1 for renting out its state-owned premises.
When The Beirut Golf Club was established in 1923, it seemed out of place in Beirut, like an implant aimed at raising the city to its colonial masters’ expectations. Eager diplomats joined “distinguished” Lebanese in founding the club and buying the first plot of land before investing the rest.
It was registered as the Sporting Club of Beirut, and it acquired lands overlooking sand embankments and pine trees in Bir Hassan. Beirut had been ringed by these in the early 19th century by the Ottoman governor Ibrahim Pasha. The hills became Ramel al-Ali, and the pine trees along the Airport Road were wiped out.
The scene has changed today. Caddies drive golf carts behind golfers and carry their clubs for LL15,000 (US$10) or LL30,000 (US$20) at best. Sometimes they don’t work. When it rains, they stay at home.
The grass is usually better in the summer, as the ground “holds,” they say. But out of 3,000 visitors, only about 200 play golf, despite the presence of excellent trainers, and golfers passionately driving their shots over the lush spruce grass-covered hillocks.
The only thing that seems “nominal” about The Golf Club of Lebanon is its name.
The golfers are far outnumbered by the socialites. “They’re the ones who trip over their clubs,” whispers one worker, adding, “They think they’re cigars.”
He points to a man who, 30 years ago, used to work here like him, “fetching balls for the ladies.” Today he is a member of the club. He does not particularly like golf, but he wanted to join as a status symbol.
With time, golfers gradually gave way to “members.” The Golf Club of Lebanon, which according to its president used to attract golfing enthusiasts from all over the Arab world, has become better known as a prestigious social venue.
This is despite the fact that it has improved considerably as a course. It expanded from nine to 18 holes, after doubling in area following the purchase of another 200,000 square meters of land, and now meets international specifications.
The Golf Club of Lebanon went through something of a golden age after the end of the civil war. The late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose portrait adorns the management entrance, visited three times. It is rumored among members that there was a dispute between the club’s founder, Salim Ali Salam, and Hariri, who eventually agreed to let it carry on as it was “for the sake of tourism.”
Today, gambling and snooker tables are what interest most visitors to the club. The few who use the course itself, however, seem to genuinely find it a second home more than a mere playground.
Some, however, are concerned about the presence of foreign workers and would prefer if they were all Lebanese. Others are unhappy with the construction sprawl in Ouzai. Someone stepping out on a balcony could spoil their concentration.
A Free Ride
Since its founding in 1923, the club underwent a major change 40 years later. The club’s management agreed to relocate from its site on what is now Beirut’s old Airport Road, to a new 200,000 square meter plot belonging to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in nearby Ouzai.
The “agreement” between The Golf Club of Lebanon and the directorate was based on a 15-year bidding contract and awarded in 1963 in exchange for an annual rent of Lebanese Lira (LL) 1,100 (then a considerbale sum but now worth US$0.73). The directorate’s purpose was to stabilize the site in question with grass. It feared sand blowing off the plot would be a hazard to air traffic. The club could in return use the land for golf and other sports. Also, pending the construction of its own facilities, the club was allowed to make use of buildings and structures owned by the directorate that it had no current use for.
The Golf Club of Lebanon’s president, Jihad al-Husseini, might be right in saying that its intentions at the time were in the public’s interest. Most of its members belong to a social class that is supposed to disdain profiteering. But it is something of an understatement to describe the rent paid by the club as “nominal.”
The Golf Club of Lebanon management says that it took possession of the site one year later than agreed, in September 1964, under a contract ending in September 1979. It was at this point that the extensions began.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Al-Husseini spreads papers before him and recounts dates. Before the contract expired, the Lebanese Cabinet renewed it “consensually,” without seeking other bids in May 1979. The new contract extended until September 1987.
In May 1985, the management requested a further renewal of the contract, again on the basis of the original terms, that is 15 years for the same annual rent of LL1,100. The then minister of public works and transportation, Walid Jumblatt, quietly agreed to extend the period until May 2000. A formal letter, numbered 153, was issued from the ministry confirming the extension on 17 June 1985.
The Civil War ended and the golf course remained. There was some debate about the “nominal sum” set for rent and whether it was appropriate to keep it unchanged. In June 2000, the Cabinet opted to extend the contract for just six months, pending the findings of a committee that would be set up to “prepare a study for a new lease at new prices,” settle the controversy, and enable the publicly-owned land in question to be put to optimal use.
The committee included a judge representing the justice ministry, representatives of the prime minister’s office, the ministries of finance and tourism, and the Director General of Civil Aviation.
But for reasons unknown, the committee did not make quick progress. A former politician who has followed the case remarked that the committee did not fail, but was foiled. As a result, the Cabinet had to extend its work for another six months, until May 2001, keeping the same members.
Sure enough, they completed their work in just three months. A report was prepared on “the legal nature of occupancy,” which suggested a number of legal resolutions to the problem. Most notably, it proposed providing The Golf Club of Lebanon with a license to continue occupying the site “in return for a new fee commensurate with the value of the property.”
Legal experts confirm that the contract under which the golf club leases its premises violates the law on several counts. Airport-owned land can only legally be leased out by open tender, and for a maximum of four years. Other legislation on public property reaffirms that.
But nothing came of the committee’s recommendations. They were adopted by the public works and transportation ministry and it came up with alternative legal proposals. The Golf Club of Lebanon could be licensed to retain temporary occupancy of the state-owned property so long as it continues carrying out the associated public works, in return for a fee to be determined under the relevant legislation. Alternatively, it could be granted an annually-renewable temporary occupancy license for a nominal fee one year at a time. Or the club could be deemed a tourism project and treated in accordance with the law relating to investments in that sector.
Yet when May 2001 came, the contract was extended for another year under the 1964 terms, as though nothing had happened. After another extension to August 2002, the Cabinet agreed to renew the contract for another four years in September 2002, then four more in October 2006, taking it to September 2010.
Two months ago the latest extension was approved by the government for a period of seven years.
But all this is nothing as far as the current club management is concerned. It is demanding more government support.
The Golf Club of Lebanon’s managers do not see this as absurd. After all, golf brings a bit of paradise to earth, and grass needs a lot of care.
But contrary to appearances and reputation, al-Husseini insists that The Golf Club of Lebanon is “broke” and needs more financial support to organize golf tournaments – even if the snooker and poker players outnumber the golfers.
He laments the decline in Lebanon’s standing as a regional golfing center and that it has been overtaken by Arab Gulf countries “which used to be way behind it.”
The club is home to about 1,000 members. Non-corporate initiation fees range between US$10,000 and US$15,000, and annual memberships between US$1400 and $2000. Yet, al-Husseini believes that the government should assist the club, “because the grass needs care.”
The Golf Club of Lebanon has 130 employees. They have separate dining areas and bathrooms – an important detail, as al-Husseini assured one member that he “sternly reprimanded an employee because he used the members’ bathroom.”
The employees include 30 caddies. They are employees in name only, as they get no wages or social security but depend on tips.
To sum up, The Golf Club of Lebanon earns at least US$1,400,000 annually in membership fees. If we subtract the US$1 annual rent, and US$100,000 for employee salaries, that leaves at least over one million dollars in the club’s coffers every year. That is in addition to the initiation fees and the various charges visitors pay (one day of golf costs around US$100), and all the non-golfing income.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported initiation fee rates as annual membership fees.