Q&A: Roger Edde

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The city of Byblos is one of five UNESCO world heritage sites in Lebanon. Its tourism potential is tremendous but much of it has lain dormant. Roger Edde, business tycoon and developer with international experience in Europe and the United States, is a member of an old influential family here. After establishing a beach resort near Byblos in 2003, he has the ambition to turn city and area into a magnificent tourism destination with plenty of new features. To EXECUTIVE, Edde revealed details of his plans.

You are stepping forward with a new and highly ambitious plan for a real estate development in the Byblos area. Why are you proposing such a large project today?

I feel the tourism industry and tourism related real estate in Lebanon are two years ahead of a moving curve, which will move up substantially in the 15 years that follow. I also applied the principle of supply side economics in real estate. Dubai has proven that supply side economics in the construction of real estate in the worst of conditions can be successful. In Lebanon, we are not in the worst of conditions. We may be in one of the most interesting conditions.

What do you intend to develop in the Byblos area?

I was responding to a demand showing on the map of the growth of tourism. By aiming at creating a destination in Byblos I want to emphasize the cultural aspect because I believe in cultural tourism. I want to enrich that concept with what is already trendy worldwide: green villages, where people can feel that they have the quality of life that they dream to have during the years living in hard times in the big cities. I wanted to address also another growing business by developing an area with a large port that will be a port for leisure boats, plus a terminal for cruise liners.

How much land did you own prior to starting things and how much did you acquire additionally?

I had the vision already before, which meant I acquired a lot of land. We are talking about more than three million square meters and I have acquired a third of that recently.

Are the three million square meters continuous or distributed over the entire area?

We are talking about a stretch from the Byblos seaside to the Byblos snow side, the area of Laqlouq, the cedars of Tannourine, the cedars of Jaj and above. I already own 1.6 million square meters in Laqlouq, including a river. That will be the cornerstone for the Laqlouq, Tannourine, Aaqoura, and cedars of Jaj development where we could even promote religious tourism and pilgrimages. I won’t go and invest right now, before the road is done, because I know what not to do.

What do you want to establish on the seaside?

My tendency is to rely on private enterprise and I am not scared of dreaming of the impossible because I don‘t think there is anything impossible. Before starting anything, we had a top urban planner conceive a development for seven kilometers around Edde Sands. We centered the space on the port of Byblos and the volumes that go from the port.

Are you talking about expanding the old port?

No, the old port is small and medieval and cannot be touched. The city of Byblos and the Lebanese government and the UNESCO have already approved the idea of a port in a place called Ras Edde. I have already large amounts of land there. If we wait for the government, we can forget about it.

Building a port would cost how much?

It would be $270 to $350 million, minimum, for the pure port facilities not counting real estate. The cruise line terminal needs more than that because I would also like Byblos to become a place of support facilities and maintenance for the cruise liners.

How much will the entire development cost?

My calculation is now that we will rapidly reach a $2 billion investment, not only land buying but real investment, because we are talking a city development around a very large port facility. At a certain point I will start to accept investors. I have already demand from international pension funds, Arab and Lebanese investors to join in.

So your final vision is an investment volume of $2 billion in developing three million square meters of land?

No, I am talking about Byblos taking the $2 billion, in a triangle between Edde Sands, Amcheet and [the village of] Edde. That would be all connected with tennis camps, sports theme park centers, and a wellness area with clinics offering exams of the quality you can get in the Mayo Clinic.

Then you are focusing on health tourism?

Health tourism and sports tourism, but all in a leisure environment. In some places, you want to be quiet, discreet, in a wooded area out of sight, receive your spiritual treatment. We are already starting an experience of that in Edde Sands with spiritual treatment, for which we have been waiting a lot. At this stage, what we are doing is creating the brand and reputation and testing the ground. We will move when we have enough evaluation of demand.

So going to a next stage would depend on profitability?

It is not profitability. Next stages are planned and would go immediately. I don’t think we would have a problem to fill a large port. In fact, when I would do the port I would probably already have sold most of the space of the port.

How much did you invest in Edde Sands if we take this resort as the seed of the vision?

I am over the $10 million mark, not talking about the real estate but what has been invested into the real estate.

And you have calculated $100 million for a hotel in the next expansion phase?

This is correct for the first stage of the hotel. I think we may go up to $150 million, especially if we are doing a project consisting to a part of a hotel and to a part of a serviced hotel.

How much did land value of your properties increase since you started investing into this dream?

From a real estate point of view, not from a return point of view, every penny I have spent on that land has increased three to five times in value. Plus, I can price anything built on the land today at the same pricing in Solidere or any prime location in Beirut. That is also very important. You are 33km from Beirut but you did something of a real quality in a very unique spot, you can price absolutely at the same level as any prime location in Beirut.

Is it true that you have recently also undertaken other investments?

We have moved into the old city of Byblos. We are buying boutiques in the old souk and in fact collected more than 20 boutiques in the old souk. Prices have already multiplied three to five times; but when I have an offer, I take it. We are defining the market. Only two weeks ago, we hired two high-quality persons and asked them to establish their high quality fresh cuisine into the souks of Byblos. It is a sudden success.

How long until you fill the triangle with $2 billion worth of investment?

I think it will take at least seven years.

How do you respond to people who say that Mr. Edde only developed this project because he owns a lot of land and wanted to increase its value?

That is my right but it is not my reason. In fact, wherever I am starting a project I am buying land at a higher price. I am not a seller of land. Others say Roger Edde is doing politics the other way. That’s true. I cannot afford under the present political conditions to do politics. I don’t like to do politics under the Lebanese conditions as they are today. It is my way to do politics and have people understand that doing things for yourself and for others can be profitable for yourself and for others.

You are engaged in development of the Byblos area to a scale that seems to amount to private town planning. Isn’t there a contradiction?

No, it is not a contradiction. I am doing it privately and at the same time, this is putting a lot of pressure on the public authorities to respect what I am doing and emulate it.

Lebanon has a tradition of feudalism. Is this past of the ZAIM being carried over into the role of private public developer?

I have been born into a family, which has been the ZUAMA of the area historically. I made a real effort not to deal with the area as a fiefdom. I want my area and Lebanon to move out of this mentality. It is an ideological thing for me. I have written about this and I went from village to village to sell my ideas of democratic liberty, political liberty and economic liberty.

What if the public sector might someday say we don’t like this private man to be that powerful?

Then I will go back and run for president.

The less state there is the more responsibility rests on the shoulders of the developer. But could you as developer not take the view that your role is just to build and sell and afterwards pursue other projects?

I can’t do that, for the very simple reason that I chose to live here to give a chance to a place outside of Beirut, which is close to my heart where our name has been associated with historically. The choice of Byblos as a destination for me is a responsibility and also a sentimental choice. There is nothing wrong with that. To worry about the quality of architecture, worry about the quality of the green space, of the sand and the water, investing heavily into a place which honestly was a dump and turn it into a place that many people call heaven, this is a challenge that is part of a responsibility. The project is not a commercial one to me; I would never sell it.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.