Hariri Buys Ramlet al-Bayda Beach
Published Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Al-Akhbar publishes excerpts of a study conducted by the Dictaphone live art group that were prepared in advance of their performance last September, “This Sea is Mine.” The performance took small groups of people in fishing boats along Beirut’s coast to look at the private takeover of the sea, from Ajram Beach in Mina al-Hosn to Ramlet al-Bayda.
The study uses real estate deeds to monitor changes in ownership of coastal property, as well as interviews with persons related to these properties, historical and official documents, and academic studies. Following is the section focusing on Ramlet al-Bayda.
Ramlet al-Bayda is the only sand beach in Beirut still available to the general public. It lies adjacent to the residential towers of Rafik Hariri Boulevard, where the price on one square meter is between $4,000 and $6,000.
This means that ample profit can be gained while tourism and reconstruction remain the primary goals of the Lebanese state’s neoliberal agenda. From the geographical standpoint, the divergence is clear: Ramlet al-Bayda is an exclusive luxury neighborhood and the majority of those who come to the beach are from other parts of Beirut.
Prior to the 1920s, the area used to attract swimmers and families who came from almost every corner of Beirut. While this sandy region does not eliminate the naturally rocky shelf around the city, it is considered one of its extensions.
Up until the 1950s, Beirutis would visit Ramlet al-Bayda during “Urbaat Ayoub,” or Job’s Wednesday, in commemoration of the prophet Job. Legend says that he came to Beirut from Palestine seeking remedies, and spent his time on the beach from Ramlet al-Bayda to Hantous, where Imam Ouzai’s shrine is located.
The commemoration would include sharing food (especially the Beiruti dessert moufattaqa, made with rice paste, tahini, turmeric, and sugar) and children playing with their kites.
This part of Beirut became a public space because people have used it as a public space throughout history. Simply, the notion of a Beirut beach being a public space was the result of the city dwellers using it as such.
This was reflected in the urban planning map produced by the French at the end of the 1940s. It showed that the touristic region between the coastal road and the sea is vital to the public. Therefore, it is intended for public use and any construction breaking the natural extension of the coastal ledge was forbidden.
In the early 1950s, a government city planner named Farid Trad purchased the land between the sea and the road and developed it into a parcelled project. Under the new plan, land between the new road and the sea became private property and classified Non-Aedificandi, or off-limits to construction.
The law governing this area forbids construction, with the exception of temporary kiosks for public use, and permits a very low rate of exploitation. These conditions make it impossible to establish a profitable investment project.
Real estate records for the region show that it was originally owned by several Lebanese families. Historically, it seems the public beach had always been on private land.
When the parcelling and road construction project began, the area was split into two parts: one for residential use, east of the road, and a sandy beach area to the west, where construction was illegal.
This indirectly allowed the area to be used by various social segments under the supervision of the Beirut municipality.
The public space in question is in fact private property, but its use is public. It is today supervised by some governmental parties and unofficially by NGOs.
The shore became public public through a 1983 municipal decree issued under Shafik Wazzan’s tenure as prime minister. This was to allow those usage by those who couldn’t afford entry to private beaches.
Every year, designated civil society organizations announce a plan on the management and use of the beach to ensure municipal services at this public space.
The conditions governing the beach shifted in the 1990s. News media and citizens alike started sharing stories about the “privatization” of the beach. But what would this mean if the beach is actually privately owned?
In reality, the study shows that – like in the al-Daliye area in Ras Beirut – the question was not about “privatization,” but the purchase of real estate companies of parcels along the coast – companies owned by former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Purchasing the deeds was done by Hariri within a legal framework biased towards real estate developers. It was the first step to abolish the social function of the space and transform it for private use.
This would only be possible if the land was owned by a single big investor who has the financial and political power to change the law, as seen with the special exemption granted the luxury Mövenpick hotel adjacent to Ramlet al-Bayda.
According to the environmental organization Green Line, the financial company wanted to develop the beach by building a 5-star hotel and a yacht marina. But decree no. 4810 stipulates that the marina owner must own all the property where it will be built. What actually stopped the project was a single parcel owned by the Beirut municipality since 1975.
An academic study indicated that Hariri was later able to purchase this property from the municipality illegally, but this could not be verified since real estate departments refused to provide access to its deed.
In summary, the concepts of private and public space were manipulated, much like what happened on Beirut’s remaining coast. The manipulation was a result of decree no. 4810 which allowed the exploitation of the waterfront for private benefit.
Recent amendments to laws and regulations governing the use of waterfront property were conducive to private ownership of the beach despite being in regions where construction is strictly forbidden and therefore automatically open to the public.
Second, the strong link between the political class and the coastline investors is reflected in the link between the former prime minister with members of the municipality to purchase properties owned by the Beirut Municipality and reach an agreement far from the public interest.
Research and original Arabic text by Abir Saksouk-Sasso. Script and performance director by Tanya Khouri. Executive producer: Petra Sarhal. Maps and design: Nadine Bekdache.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.