This article is part of an ongoing investigation on Beirut’s coast, from Raouche to Ramlet al-Baida. You can find the other articles here.
It was 5 a.m. on Saturday May 2 when around 150 police officers descended on Dalieh.
“I was there when they came,” Mohammad Itani tells Executive, speaking from outside the pile of rubble that previously housed him and his relatives. “They came at 5 a.m. with Caterpillars [bulldozers] and got us all out of our houses … they handcuffed some of us, including my nephew’s wife.”
He pauses to beat back the mosquitoes that had gathered in anticipation of dusk in the hot early evening air.
“Everyone’s houses were bulldozed, all of [them]. But we are still living here for the moment, in cars, boats and caves,” he says defiantly. “The officer in charge said they had been told by a high ranking guy in the Hariri family to demolish everything with everyone in there.”
In this context, the ‘Hariri family’ refers to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s widow and five of his children who collectively own a holding company called Irad Investment, which in turn owns or part owns companies that have bought half the land in Dalieh. They, along with GroupMed Holding, own shares in all of the 14 private plots of land that make up Dalieh, and there have long been suspicions that plans are afoot to build a luxury tourism complex on the shrub covered promontory that abuts the city’s national symbol, Pigeon Rocks, on Beirut’s western coast. To this end, several attempts have been made since early 2012 to clear the land of its occupants, previously around 200 fishers and their families.
It’s not clear who exactly asked for the demolition to take place
It’s not clear who exactly asked for the demolition to take place, although a spokesperson for the ISF, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the subject, says it was “normal” and that the police were just “doing their job.”
Regardless, question marks remain over the legality of the operation. The ISF spokesperson was not able to provide any proof of a court approved permit for the operation and Executive was not able to obtain one from the Justice Ministry, although this does not necessarily mean it does not exist. Further, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib — the person who typically must sign off on city demolitions — tells Executive, “No one asked me. They didn’t ask for permission.” Despite being a lawyer and judge, he says he is unsure whether permission would be necessary if the homes were illegal in the first place.
The events of May 2 have served to reinforce a simplistic narrative of an unwinnable battle between the helpless fishers of Dalieh and ‘evil developers’ bent on robbing Beirut of one of its last communal, free spaces. In fact, the fight for Dalieh is far more complicated, and the case of the fishers’ bulldozed houses — while highly irregular and disturbing — is a red herring; the real front lines are elsewhere.
Legally, the Hariri claim to develop Dalieh is pretty strong. Public records show that they own more than 95 percent of five of Dalieh’s 14 private plots and hold significant stakes in three others. However, they have connections to companies that own much more of the peninsula — firms like Sakhrat al Bahr, the vast majority of whose ownership is not a matter of public record. In total, Hariri-linked companies own more than 90,000 square meters of the 110,000 square meters that make up Dalieh, which is estimated to be worth around $1 billion.
The other shareholders are largely individuals, most of whom possess a small percentage of the 2,400 shares Lebanese law apportions to each plot of land, with a handful of exceptions. This collage of ownership means that any development would require significant negotiations and settlement sums being paid to several shareholders, or a court order in the case of irreconcilable differences.
Dalieh is in Zone 10 of Beirut’s Master Plan, with all but the largest plot falling under Section IV, which can be used for “sporting, maritime, swimming, entertainment, and restaurant activities.” No construction “of any kind” is allowed in plot 1113, the exceptional plot, but a government-granted exception could overturn this.
Although a representative for the owners told Executive there was “no movement on any development plans yet,” something is clearly afoot.
Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad detailed to Executive a master plan under discussion for Dalieh that would involve a boutique hotel with an extended public sidewalk forming the roof of the property, a public access route around the property’s coastal periphery and public parking. He described the plan, which he said is still in the early stages and does not yet have a permit or contractor attached, as “a green project … a project which gives access to the people, free access.” The owners’ representative said it was just one concept under consideration.
Although this is far from the total ban on development many are campaigning for, Hamad believes this is the best case scenario: “Instead of going and speaking poetry and philosophy, let’s speak facts of life: this is a private property, so we are convincing the private owners to do an environmentally friendly project.”
Governor Chebib echos this sentiment: “We need to preserve these kind of areas … [but] when someone has his private property, he can apply for a construction permit, and no one can tell him no if it’s not based on a legal basis.”
But first, as the events of the last few years have made obvious, they have to clear the land of inhabitants.
Looking out from his seventh floor office in Kantari, lawyer Ali Khalil finds himself pondering pearls — and betrayal.
“When they told me … it was an awkward situation for me. I felt like I was stabbed in the back”
“When they told me, at first it was an awkward situation for me. I felt like I was stabbed in the back,” he tells Executive as he recounted the abrupt ending to his legal representation of nine Dalieh families in spring of last year. “Then I put myself in their shoes. Maybe if I were one of them, I would [have accepted the deal]. They live on [LBP] 20,000 [$13.33] a day; it was the deal of their life.”
He leans back in his chair with a sigh. “All fishermen, their stories between each other, [are all about] are you going to find the pearl today? In the end they found a pearl, but it was not in the form they were hoping for.”
Khalil (full disclosure: he occasionally represents Executive in legal matters) believes he was on the cusp of winning a case to allow the families to stay in Dalieh when, the night before the final appearance before the Court of Urgent Matters, his clients received calls offering them money to drop the suit and move elsewhere. All of them accepted.
Khalil says that his clients were offered around $3 million, while a fisher still living in Dalieh estimated that around 11 families — possibly including others not represented by Khalil — were given on average $500,000 each. This tallies with the figure provided by the landowners’ representative, who said more than $5 million was paid out in total.
One of the families that accepted the deal was the Itani family, whose houses were bulldozed, several members of which are now angling for more compensation by refusing to leave Dalieh. Because of this, Khalil says, they are not pressing charges over the demolition of their homes.
A LEGAL HISTORY OF DALIEH
Order 144, 1925: Defines what is coastal public property in Lebanon and is still in effect today. Categorizes the sea as public maritime domain that, according to Article 2, reaches up to the furthest high-water point on the coast. States that the public has a right to access all natural resources, including the sea.
Decree 6285, 1954: The Beirut Master Plan introduces the zoning still in place today. Dalieh falls in Zone 10. All construction is forbidden along the coast.
Decree 4711, 1966: Amends the regulations for Zone 10, creating four sections with varying degrees of building allowed. The northernmost part of Dalieh is put in Section III, where no construction “of any kind” is allowed and “it is also prohibited to change or alter the natural landscape.” The rest of Dalieh is put in Section IV, which can be used for “sporting, maritime, swimming, entertainment and restaurant activities,” with a 15 percent surface exploitation ratio (relationship between total land and ground property size) and a 20 percent general exploitation ratio (relationship between land and total property size, including all floors).
Decree 4810, 1966: Allows owners of property by the sea to legally exploit the public maritime for the first time if the project is approved by the government and contributes to the tourism and industrial sectors of the economy. Includes a stipulation that 25 percent of the private property should be given to the municipality for public use. Excludes Zone 10 of the Beirut Master Plan.
Decree 169, 1989: Annuls the ban on exploitation of Zone 10’s public maritime domain, as well as the requirement that 25 percent of the development should be given to the municipality. Paves the way for the Mövenpick Hotel to be built (2000–2002) just south of Dalieh. Never published in the Official Gazette, say activists, a requirement for all legislation.
Law 402, 1995: Enables owners of more than 20,000 square meters of land who want to build a hotel to double their general exploitation ratio and quadruple their surface exploitation ratio. In Section III of Zone 10, which covers Dalieh, this means the exploitation ratios for large property owners become 40 percent and 60 percent respectively. Although it expired in 2000, it was renewed for 19 years in 2014.
Decree 7464, 1995: Reconfirms the right of owners of property by the sea to privately exploit the public maritime domain in Zone 10.
Law 444, 2002: Reasserts right of every Lebanese citizen to free and open access to the seashore.
Khalil’s case rested on one central tenet: that the fishers’ homes lay in public maritime domain, defined by Article 2 of Order 144 (1925) as reaching up to the furthest high-water point on the coast. That order, still in effect today, dictates that this public domain cannot be bought or sold and also rules that the public has a right to access all natural resources, such as the sea.
“To cement this argument, we delivered to the court some old judgments issued by criminal courts in Beirut fining the fishers for building on public property,” Khalil says with a smile. “This was in the ‘70s and ‘80s … we still have the receipt proving that [the fishers] paid them.”
The counterargument of the lawyer representing the landowners, who served eviction notices to the nine families in October 2013, relied on a map showing that ownership of all the land in dispute fell to his clients.
So far only one man has successfully managed to challenge this narrative: a lawyer named Dany Moussa who owns a warren-like large wooden shack built onto the sides of Dalieh’s southern cliffs, right by the Mövenpick hotel. According to Khalil, he argued that he was on public property and managed to stop the structure being destroyed, as well as safeguard the road leading to it. Moussa did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Since the issuance of the 1954 Beirut Master Plan, which prohibited any construction along the coast, a series of laws have been passed to claw back landowners’ rights to develop that sea-drenched part of Dalieh, historically a gathering point for swimmers, fishers and families alike.
Passed in 1966, Decree 4810 allowed those who own property adjacent to the sea to privately exploit the public maritime domain for the first time, on the condition they give 25 percent of their property to the municipality for public use and obtain governmental permission. It excluded all of Beirut’s Zone 10, but this was in turn nixed by Decree 169, which was passed in 1989 when there were two rival governments vying for legitimacy against the backdrop of civil war.
It is here, among this jumble of legislation, that one of the activists’ major fronts of attack is underway.
“While the campaign [the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh] was doing legal research … we found out that Decree 169 was issued without the approval of several institutions or being published in the Official Gazette,” explains Abir Saksouk-Sasso, an architect and one of the campaign’s organizers, conspiratorially tapping a map of Dalieh in front of her. “This gave us the opportunity to challenge it legally.”
So with the help of lawyer Nizar Saghieh, who runs law watchdog Legal Agenda, they filed a suit through NGOs Nahnoo and Green Line to abolish the decree. Further legislation from 1995 means that this would not wrest back control of Zone 10’s public maritime domain, but it would reintroduce the 1966 requirement that any project give 25 percent to the municipality.
“If they decide to do a resort,” reasons Mohammad Ayoub, executive manager at Nahnoo, “then at least 25 percent of this place will be public. They already can’t build on the part that faces the Pigeon Rocks; they can’t build where the waves can reach … so this is the aim: to reduce how much they can build on.”
Much of this relies on the Beirut city council rejecting the expected request by developers to be granted an exception to build a bigger property than currently allowed.
Council member Rachid Achkar said they had already turned down an unofficial request to this end by the landowners. He was one of those who opposed it.
“This doesn’t mean they won’t be coming back to the council with an official request,” Achkar tells Executive, “but I’m not ready to give any exceptions. We are keen to have the sea open.”
Dreams and promises … and implications
Down in Dalieh, in a hidden crevice of the land where fishing boats knock solemnly against one another as they count the passing minutes, lives the core of what remains of Dalieh’s decades old community of fishers.
Shattered first by a half baked ministerial promise to build a new port for the families who lived off the sea here, and then again by the fistfuls of money thrown at them by the land owners, a haggard community of around a dozen people remains of the immediate port area’s 90 or so previous inhabitants.
Perhaps the darkest and most opaque chapter in the landowners’ crusade to clear out Dalieh — and one that Executive has previously reported on — centers on the last minute cancellation of a public works and transport ministry project to build a proper port for the fishers back in 2012.
It is not clear why the plug was pulled. The ministry got as far as demolishing the old buildings and homes, but stopped after half rebuilding just one structure. The marble plaque announcing the start of the project is still there, half obscured by overgrown grass.
Many suspect it was the result of pressure from the landowners, and in comments to Executive last year, their representative revealingly commented: “What would have happened, there would have been a port … and then you would lose your private land forever.”
The tradeoff was supposed to be the construction of another port somewhere between Manara and Riviera. Wafiq Jezzieh, president of the Cooperative Association for Fishermen in Ras Beirut, showed Executive a document from the ministry, dated December 19, 2013, promising that this would be done. So far, nothing.
These are not the fishers the public normally hears about. Their life depends on the sea, but they say they would leave Dalieh if a new port were built elsewhere. Their hopes of a proper port, a dream passed down from their parents and grandparents, means they have chosen to stay out of the Dalieh debate. “Of course I’m worried about the loss of this public space,” sighed Jezzieh, “but I’m also worried that if the people in power come against us, then the future is dark.”
The new green line
For many following the Dalieh case, the future seems dark already. The fence put up last year along the Corniche, although since breached, felt like the first nail in the coffin for the picnics, festivals, romantic liaisons and diving competitions Beirutis have enjoyed for years.
Much has been made of the long running public use of the land and its legal implications, but both Saksouk-Sasso and Saghieh admit there is zero basis within Lebanese law for either what is known as prescriptive rights or the right to public ownership based on long term usage.
“I think that if there wasn’t so much spotlight on the case they could [fence the area off]”
However, the activists did score a victory recently when the Shura Council on May 7 approved a draft decree to classify Dalieh as a national site under the protection of the environment ministry. Dalieh’s biodiversity credentials include monk seals and fruit bats that use the area’s natural caves for shelter. The flat reefs also provide a nursery of sorts for various fish and some of Lebanon’s last remaining coastal plants, according to a number of local studies of the area.
The decree will now to go the Council of Ministers for a final vote. If passed, it would make any development in the area subject to approval by the environment ministry.
The landowners are clearly not happy. “To have the whole area as environmentally protected and prohibit any development would mean denying the property and ownership rights of the current owners,” their representative told Executive by email. “Hence, compensation would be warranted should that be passed.”
Activists are also ready to challenge any future attempt to re-fence the land, on the basis that this would violate the Lebanese public’s inalienable right to access the sea.
“I think that if there wasn’t so much spotlight on the case they could [fence the area off],” said Saksouk-Sasso, “but at the moment they know if they do do that, we would file a case based on several laws: Order 144 and law number 444. It’s illegal to ban access to the sea.”
Further, Beirut’s highest officials — Governor Chebib and Mayor Hamad — are increasingly vocal about supporting the idea of maintaining public access and space in Dalieh, which may prove key to limiting the scope of whatever project is eventually proposed.
Lebanon’s varied and scenic Mediterranean coastline has long provided easy pickings for developers, much to the ire of activists and civil society organizations seeking to preserve heritage, public space and the environment. Nowhere is this struggle clearer than in Dalieh. Historically, real estate companies have usually gotten their way, but with the kind of focused, law based action already underway, Dalieh may well prove to be an exception. The battle for the pearl of Beirut is not over — yet.