Living Sectarianism: Lebanon’s Demographic Cold War

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Home buyers and renters consider a number of factors when making their housing decisions. These include pricing, the building residents, area residents, and the area’s proximity to areas of other sects. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mouhamad Wehbe

Published Monday, September 5, 2011

Lebanese families are increasingly opting to live in ‘non-hostile’ residential areas. Mixed-sect neighborhoods are undesirable, while ‘pure’ neighborhoods are ideal.

Stoked by constant fears of civil war and incessant political rhetoric, an increasing number of Lebanese families are leaving ‘mixed’ neighborhoods for ‘pure’ ones, where people from only one sect are found.

In the last few years, real estate sector analysts note increasing demand for land and apartments based on sectarian and religious lines. According to them, 'mixed' areas are becoming few, with the exception of several neighborhoods in administrative areas. Home buyers and renters consider a number of factors when making their housing decisions. These include pricing, the building residents, area residents, and the area’s proximity to areas of other sects. Electoral classification in each region is also based on these demographic divisions, as each political party or movement claims specific regions as their own.

Breaching the Lines

All regions have witnessed population migration in both directions. Purchase and sale transactions of land and apartments between arriving and departing residents have been governed by sectarian logic. For example, Ain al-Rummaneh was considered a Christian area until neighboring Shia-majority areas became overpopulated. This led real estate developers and agents to purchase and build in Ain al-Rummaneh. In some Lebanese circles, this was perceived as a Shia expansion and appropriation of Christian lands. Today, the western and southern outskirts of Ain al-Rummaneh are almost entirely Shia. However, the same pattern was not repeated in Hadath area. According to observers and activists of the Free Patriotic Movement led by Lebanese MP Michael Aoun, the agreement signed between Hezbollah and the movement stopped Shia expansion towards Hadath, allowing the area to remain Christian.

Sectarian logic governs both supply and demand for real estate, which is partially responsible for the enormous price increases in the sector. Analysts report that the price of an apartment in Ain al-Rummaneh increased sixfold between 2000 and 2010. In the wake of the July 2006 War, another substantial price surge occurred in Dahieh, the southern suburbs of Beirut, accompanied by an exodus of non-Shia from this area. The nearby area of Tariq al-Jadidah also witnessed a surge immediately following the events of 7 May 2008, when Hezbollah and opposition groups clashed with pro-government forces in the streets of Beirut. Similarly, demand increased in regions such as Hazmieh, Mar Taqla, and regions of the Upper Metn, like Rabieh and Mutaileb. In the past three years, property prices have nearly doubled in Jal al-Dib, Dekwaneh, and New Jdeideh.

Class at Home

Beyond the strong influence of sectarianism on demand, class plays a crucial role in hastening the transformation of neighborhoods. Rich Sunni Muslims, for example, relocated to Beiruti areas like Tariq al-Jadidah and Aicha Bakkar, while middle- and lower-class Sunnis can only move to the new suburbs of Aramoun and Bshamoun. Migration to these places in turn led to yet another price surge in the real estate markets of those areas.

Class-based relocation also occurs in the predominantly Shia and Christian residential areas of Beirut. Well-off Shia purchase real estate in the regions of Zoqaq al-Blat, Barbour, Verdun, Ain al-Tineh, and Basta, while Ashrafiyeh has become an area for wealthy Christians. In the last two years, prices have nearly tripled in Sursock and Gemmayzeh where similar sectarian transformations are still underway.

According to real estate and apartment brokers, the southern city of Saida and its suburbs have dwindling numbers of Shia and Christians, particularly in the suburbs of Majdelyoun, Abra, and Salhiya. Shia and Christian residents are opting for regions like Joun and Rmeileh instead.


15 Percent

The projected average decrease in real estate prices following the market’s recent recession — according to real estate expert Toufic Sanan.


US$300

The maximum price for one cubic meter of housing space outside of Beirut, which is approximately 50 percent less than current Beirut prices — according to the President of RAMCO (a real estate advisory company), Raja Makarem.


Gulf Nationals Escaping the Mount Lebanon Region

Raja Makarem indicated that the Mount Lebanon region is witnessing a large-scale exodus of Gulf nationals now selling their properties in touristic regions, especially in Bhamdoun. This is due to the near expiration of five-year ownership permits allowed by special decrees. They fear that these permits will not be renewed.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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