A Real Land Steal in Coastal Damour
By: Firas Choufi
Published Sunday, November 25, 2012
Damour is the latest Lebanese town to be sold off to real estate developers with a little help from the country’s politicians. The story of the town’s Mtill Project shows just what political connections can buy in this coastal town.
Some people in the city of Damour think the story of their town should be made into a movie.
It would entail a mix of political corruption, waste of public funds, and abuse of power. The starring roles would be given to mayor Charles Ghafri and Lebanese MP for the Chouf district Elie Aoun.
The plot would center around how the Real Estate Investment and Development Co. managed to acquire land in Damour and begin constructing the Mtill Project, a massive, 77 building residential development on plots 1571 and 3392.
As the plot unfolds, we’d learn about the figures behind the company: Aoun himself, who owns 49 percent of the company’s shares; his son Jean, who owns 2 percent; and Saudi national Tareq bin-Abdul Aziz al-Rasan with the other 49 percent.
A possible sequel would feature a second residential development called the Imadeddin al-Dimasi Project on plot 2339.
The great mystery surrounding the projects would be one that Damour residents are eager to solve: How, locals want to know, was Rasan and Aoun’s company able to build on land that had been zoned as a no-construction area?
Easily. They just devised a new zoning plan for Damour. This was implemented through resolution 71/2006 issued by Ghafri’s municipality, and then decision 1165 issued by the council of ministers on 18 March 2008, bearing the signature of the then-acting director of urban districting, Berj Hatijian. This reclassified several plots in Damour as residential – including the two for the Mtill development – and accorded them the highest investment ratio, meaning the portion of the land that can be built on, in the governorate of Mount Lebanon.
The History of Plots 1571 and 3392
Land registry records show that plots 1571 and 3392 were bought in 2006 by a Hassan Khalil Hashem for $1.5 million. They were then sold to a Rami Hares Halawi in early 2010 for a modest LL250,000 ($166).
Property prices in Lebanon were much lower when Hashem bought the land prior to the 2006 war than when he sold it. Given that its zoning classification had been changed in the interim, property experts say that in 2010 the land should have been worth at least ten times its 2006 price, and the pretense that it was sold for LL250,000 was obviously a tax dodge.
This evidently escaped the attention of the land registry secretary, who agreed to record a sale contract of that value. Maybe he did not notice that in the process he was losing the state treasury hundreds of millions of pounds.
Rami Halawi, for his part, was no chance buyer.
Under Lebanese law, foreign individuals or entities can only buy land in the country with a license that is contingent on a recommendation from the ministry of finance. Therefore Rasan, as a Saudi national, or the Aoun-Rasan company, could not buy the properties in question. So Halawi bought them, and then proceeded to give Rasan full legal control over them by means of a “Comprehensive and Absolute Power-of-Attorney” registered with Beirut notary Salim Yousef Khalil on 31 May 2011. Halawi is thus a frontman for Rasan.
MP Aoun, it should be remembered, is a member of parliament’s administration and justice committee, which has a subcommittee that is discussing a proposed law to restrict land ownership by foreigners. Aoun famously said after one session that the opponents of the law on property ownership by foreigners were a handful of MPs concerned about the inheritance of their children, and that the administration and justice committee could not prevent it from being put to cabinet.
After Aoun helped get some of his hometown’s land sold to his partner Rasan, we move to the next scene: the construction and sale of the buildings.
The Mtill Project
If you want to buy a villa in the Mtill Project, it will set you back $2 million. However, after local people objected to the scheme, they were told by Aoun that “original” Damouris would be offered a 30 percent discount.
This discount is no comparison to the bargains offered to Saudi nationals like Abdullah Bin-Said al-Shahrani, Abdul-Rahman Bin-Saleh al-Faqih, and Raafat Abdul-Aziz al-Rasan (Rasan’s brother) who were offered two villas for the price of one at the exceptional price of only $130,000. Ahmad Bin-Zaned Asiri, another Saudi national, got an even better deal of $120,000. A price tag of $60,000 for a single villa is quite a bargain given the insane skyrocketing of property prices in Mount Lebanon.
These villas were sold on 18 September 2012, using powers-of-attorney granted by the aforementioned purchasers to a Khaled Mohammad al-Ghosh, and registered at the Lebanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
These sales also failed to catch the attention of the land registry secretary, the same one who was taken in by the LL250,000 resale of the land that had cost $1.5 million four years prior, despite its upgraded investment ratio.
The Mtill story wouldn’t be complete without reference to another mayoral ploy. On 8 December 2012, Ghafri declared – by means of two affidavits issued by the municipality – that the two plots concerned were vacant and contained no buildings. The affidavits were issued at the request of the Mechref Company.
But what does the Mechref Company have to do with Mtill Project? Nothing at all, other than Ghafri being the company’s agent. He paid the fee to be registered as such at the Lawyers Union, as recorded in receipt 23334.
This does not mean that the Mechref Company – whose board of directors is chaired by Saudi national Hassan Bin-Salem al-Maamari – has nothing to do with Damour. Ghafri has brought it into town in a big way. After getting the Mtill Project’s plots reclassified, he did the same for several other parcels, and proceeded to buy most of them on behalf of the company for which he is the agent.
The mayor thus acts as an agent for contractors on whose behalf he alters zoning regulations. Perhaps he has not heard of the term “conflict of interest.”
Meanwhile, Damour is furious. This is apparent from the Facebook walls of two local activist groups, one of which has at least 1,500 members. The Emergency Committee to Save Damour was set up in early October to try to halt the project. One of its members, lawyer Jihad Fadhel, managed to obtain hundreds of legal documents and connect them to make a case to put to the fiscal prosecutor in Beirut, representing a group of townspeople.
Earlier this month, the Lebanese Forces website ran a story about the Mtill Project in which it furiously denounced the sale of land to “aliens.” A few hours later the item was pulled, and replaced with a statement titled “An Apology to Charles Ghafri.” This wasn’t the decision of the website’s editors, but just some strings being pulled on Ghafri’s behalf by a fellow Chouf native, MP Georges Adwan.
Residents of this town – only 7 percent of whose displaced pre-civil war population remain – want someone to stand up for them, and prevent a new Solidere or a new Mtill being inflicted on it.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.