Knowing that Dubai’s Palm islands have dominated real estate headlines for the last couple of years, developer Noor International Holding has directed its attention to Lebanon with its newly announced 3.3 million square meter “Cedar Island” development off the Lebanese coast. The estimated $7.4 billion development will host residential villas and apartments, commercial space, as well as recreational and touristic elements like gardens, a golf course, a sailing club and a water park. Moreover, the Cedar will be divided into commercial, public and private zones, each having specific components.
Why an island?
Noor International aims to create a comprehensive development, encompassing all elements essential to a community. Dr. Mohammed Saleh, chairman and owner of Noor International Holdings explains, “the problem is that we have not been able to find any piece of land on shore that would enable us to develop such a project.” He says if a piece of land with only 60 percent of the proposed island’s area had been found, they would have created the cedar shaped development on a mountainside or seashore, which would have been much easier. “Our project includes villas, chalets, gardens, a school… and that cannot be done on a 10,000 to 20,000 square meter piece of land on the shore,” he elaborates.
Additionally, the developer’s idea is to attract Lebanese expatriates and immigrants who have long been waiting for such a project in order to come back to Lebanon. “Lebanese expatriates and immigrants cannot be attracted to Lebanon by a small scale project including a couple of villas. A mega-project is needed to induce them to come back to their country and invest in it,” says Saleh. Noor International claims it is already receiving emails from potential buyers the world over interested in the project.
Furthermore, the island aims to create 50,000 jobs during the construction phase and even more jobs upon completion, since thousands of people will be working in the project’s restaurants and facilities.
The approval process
The Cedar Island is in its preliminary stages, since it has not been approved yet by the Lebanese authorities, nor have the location of the island or the construction method been determined. Noor International must submit three studies to the government for approval: an environmental impact assessment, a feasibility study and a site location study. Of four potential locations along the Lebanese coast — Damour, Amchit, Sour and Dbayye — Noor International considers Damour the most viable and will conduct the location study on this area. If not approved, the company will consider other locations.
Official responses should come from the Ministry of Works, the Civil Regulatory Administration, the prime minister, the parliament and the president of the Lebanese Republic. “We expect the process to take around six months or one year at the most,” says Saleh. After receiving the approval, the company estimates the construction work to take around four years. Noor International has already won the blessings of Elie Marouni, the Minister of Tourism and Wael Abou Faour, the Minister of State. Moreover, the developer is currently using the services of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) in order to facilitate the process and benefit from the package deal that IDAL is providing in terms of tax incentives and fee reductions.
When the idea was proposed to the public, some people were terrified by its potential environmental and socio- economic impacts, while others embraced the project and held up its potential contribution to the Lebanese tourism sector and the economy in general. Environmentalists claim that the Cedar Island will cause serious water and air pollution, as well as affect the well-being of the Damour community.
Environmental consultant Lama Abdul Samad explains that, “we have a rocky ecosystem, rich with wildlife and marine habitat and dredging will kill everything there. It is too bad because Damour is one of the places on the shoreline” that has not yet been severely damaged by human development, she adds. Additionally, the immediate vicinity of the island’s area is not the only place that will be affected. Sourcing the fill for the island, whether by sea dredging or quarrying the mountains, will further harm Lebanon’s natural heritage.
Skeptics also argue that the construction, which would last for about four years, will cause serious air and noise pollution, since a lot of machinery and equipment will be used. “The air and noise pollution will be catastrophic, heavy machinery will cause traffic jams and the fumes and dust will contaminate the area’s environment,” comments Abdul Samad.
Lebanese environmentalists have started to act as 13 environmental organizations, including Greenpeace Mediterranean, Byblos Ecologia, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon and others, have formed a joint coalition hoping to keep the project from being constructed. As a first step, the coalition issued a press release stating that it categorically opposes the Cedar Island and warns the Lebanese government of the harmful impacts that the project may have on Lebanon’s environment, as well as the economic and social ramifications on the surrounding communities. Yasmin El Helwe, the oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Mediterranean, explains, “our next step is to have pre-assessment. However, we cannot do that right now because we are not aware of the project’s location or the method of construction.” Greenpeace is also working with their scientific unit at Exeter University in the United Kingdom in order to discover possible environmental impacts.
Although the method by which the island would be constructed remains undetermined, Saleh explains that most probably the cedar trunk will be constructed by land reclamation, while the branches will be floating. “The island might be a mix of a floating structure and land reclamation. However it is too early to tell since as soon as we choose the location, we will conduct a topographic study of the surface and determine the best suited method of construction,” notes Saleh. He also emphasizes that the methods will be chosen to minimize the impact of the island on the maritime environment. “If, God forbid, we damage the environment, we will fix it,” says Saleh.
For the construction of the Cedar’s trunk, Saleh says the company has found a way to enable its creation without using sea dredging or quarrying mountains. “I heard that there is a license being issued for constructing a tunnel in the mountain leading to Shtoura [in the Bekaa valley], which would reduce the travelling time from more than an hour to 25 minutes. The idea is to use the rocks that will be taken out of the mountain to construct the island.” Saleh did not specify to whom the license is being issued, but he added that if the tunnel project is not already online, Noor International will propose and execute the idea itself. “One tunnel might not be enough, it is a plus or minus, but here we are trying to find ways to develop our project without hurting the environment. Instead of damaging the sea or the mountains, a point in which environmentalists are 100 percent right, we are developing new infrastructure,” he notes.
Experts claim that a floating island is a bad idea, not because of the construction process, but due to the costly maintenance the island will require. Adel Monsef, project manager at Archirodon, a leading international construction group, explains that, “a floating structure, whatever it is, needs maintenance every year or maximum every two years. In this case, a dry dock has to be built next to the island, which would be very costly. We are on the Mediterranean and we have rough seas, so there will have to be [lots of] maintenance, they are already facing some difficulties in the Palm,” which experiences mild seas compared to what the Cedar would face, Monsef adds.
Conservationists agree that whatever the method of construction, there is no escape from the serious environmental impact it will cause. Even if the branches are floating, the upper layer of the maritime ecosystem is very dependent on sunlight and would die. “The fish might swim out, but there are other elements in the ecosystem that will not survive,” says Abdul Samad. “If it is not going to sustain life, they might as well cover it all than have it slowly die and rot,” she highlights.
The fight continues
As Noor International works on the approval by conducting the required studies, opposing parties are on guard and trying to make their case. Saleh would like the environmentalists to open a line of communication with the company. “We are an environmentally friendly project, we are coming to build and not to destroy,” says Saleh.
Saleh also thinks that the attack on Noor International was premature, since no studies had been made on the possible impacts. He says that only when these come out will environmentalists have the right to oppose the project. Yet the environmentalists believe no study is needed to prove their case. “It is impossible to build such a thing without causing damage to the environment,” concludes El Helwe.