The Battle Over Turning Beirut Into the Next Dubai

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The balcony of an old house in Beirut. Joseph Eid / AFP-Getty Images

On a recent Saturday night in the Gemmayze district of Beirut, hundreds filled the streets, holding candles and waving signs to protest the destruction of the historic French colonial and Ottoman-era buildings that give this city its character. OUR HISTORY IS NOT FOR SALE read one. Another said BEIRUT IS NOT DUBAI.

It certainly looks like it’s trying to be. Once known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” the city is now becoming an eyesore as it attempts to mimic the development of other regional business hubs. Cranes and jackhammers have become as integral to Beirut’s urban landscape as the Ottoman and French architecture that once dotted the streets. A recent United Nations Development Program report said that Beirut will add 300,000 new buildings in the next decade, leaving the already-crowded city with virtually no public spaces. The country’s 15-year civil war, from 1975 to 1990, turned the capital into rubble, and now developers are rebuilding it with an eye toward dollars instead of toward repairing the religious rifts that caused the war in the first place.

The building boom is destroying not only the historic beauty of this Middle Eastern capital but also its social traditions. The old downtown area, now known as Solidere after the development company founded in 1994 by then–prime minister Rafik Hariri to rebuild the center, used to be the heart of Beirut, where all religious groups and social classes lived side by side—a rare haven of tolerance in a country divided by religious differences. During the war, many Christians who lived in the area fled downtown out of fear, leaving their homes and belongings behind to be seized by Shiite Muslims from the harder-hit south, who squatted there.

With the downtown area turned to rubble, Solidere, a public-private partnership, moved in to begin the hard work of reconstruction. Critics, and there are many, say Solidere demolished the city center to erase all memory of the conflict and to build the Beirut of Hariri’s dreams, a modern cultural and economic hub that mimics the style of buildings found in the old city, but lacks the soul. Solidere’s projects include Beirut Souks, a luxury retail center that opened in 2009 where well-to-do shoppers can browse for Cartier and Dolce & Gabbana, and Saifi Village, a residential and arts district in the city center. Supporters of Solidere’s efforts insist the capital was so devastated that the public sector could not have rebuilt it alone. Solidere says it worked hard to reposition Beirut on the world stage and restore the downtown area as a place of peace and mutual respect. It succeeded on one front, says Angus Gavin, the company’s head of urban development: businesses have once again been arriving to set up shop, from American Express Bank to bustling restaurants.

Yet the Solidere project priced out most of the Lebanese who used to live and work there. As mixed-income housing gave way to luxury buildings targeting rich Gulf Arab investors and expatriates, the 150,000 people who once lived downtown were forced to move farther out. “Beirut is no longer for the Lebanese,” became a common refrain. “Solidere has become a victim of its own success,” admits Gavin. “But you have to remember that in the beginning it was by no means clear that anyone would want to come back.”

Someone did—just not the poor craftsmen, butchers, and workers who used to inhabit the old city. “We have lost the melting pot,” says Assem Salam, a prominent local architect, who helped found the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon in 1960. “Now the city is divided.”

He should know. Salam’s 1840s Ottoman house sits in Beirut’s Zuqaq al-Blatt district, a short walk from Solidere. During the war, shells hit his roof three times, leaving a hole through which he can see the sky. All around him historic buildings are demolished regularly to make way for towers, while he sits in his garden and watches the world go by. “Oh, yes, I have preserved my house,” he says sadly. “But what is the use of preserving my house if the community around it is not preserved?”

Salam believes Hariri’s job as prime minister was to reunite the various religious groups by encouraging those who left during the war to return. Instead, he says, Hariri cemented the divisions by putting money above reunification. “The only way to bring Christians and Muslims together is to repair the physical environment,” he says. “The physical memory has disappeared, and the population that once lived here has left.”

Now some of them are seeking to reclaim what’s theirs. Naji Raji, 22, founded the Facebook group Save Beirut Heritage five years ago after his family was kicked out of its apartment when the building was sold to developers. Raji and fellow Save Beirut Heritage member Giorgio Guy Tarraf, also 22, call the postwar building boom in Beirut a “culture war.” Tarraf’s family was also pushed out of their Gemmayze home. “I always wanted to grow old in that house,” Tarraf says. But like many others he received a letter saying the building was slated for demolition. “My family was there for 140 years. The buildings that survived the war will not survive this crisis. Beirut’s soul is dying. When you uproot people, they die.”

The problem is that Lebanon’s preservation laws are routinely neglected in the name of money. The Ministry of Culture, the one government entity that could actually protect historic buildings, is poorly financed. Officials estimate that only 400 out of the 1,200 old mansions, which the ministry inventoried in the mid-1990s, remain. Because buildings are worth so much, even those on the preserved building list are being torn down by their owners. Some say only 10 percent of the historic buildings are left in Beirut. Destruction is just as rampant in mountain villages and in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, where a battle is being waged over an old opera theater.

Slowly, however, things are beginning to look up. Lebanon’s culture minister, Salim Warde, must now sign any order to demolish historic buildings. When a building in Mar Mikhael was recently ruined by its owner, in what some say was a deliberate attempt to have the structure taken off the “protected buildings” list, a group of activists, including Warde, arrived on the scene to stop the destruction. And Warde recently set up a hotline for citizens to report buildings that are being destroyed illegally.

Social media have also helped. Members of the Save Beirut Heritage movement can find each other and share information, as well as mobilize demonstrations. Netizens have sent photos of buildings being torn down to the group’s Facebook page, turning the site into a virtual city center for young preservationists’ dreams. “Maybe Facebook will save this city in the end,” Tarraf says. He’s only half joking.

Ackerman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. She reported from Lebanon on a grant from the International Reporting Project.

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