Beirut’s property boom
My experience hunting for someone to live in Beirut left me very curious about property prices in the city, which seemed to be fairly high in comparision with the average income. After meeting several new Lebanese friends thanks to couchsurfing, a site which seems to attract friendly and interesting people, I found the conversation kept coming back to the expense of living in Beirut and in particular to Downtown, the district in central Beirut which was almost completely destroyed during the civil war, and subsequently rebuilt under the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Everybody I talked to had something different to add and a slightly different viewpoint on life in Beirut and the politics of property ownsership. When it comes to the topic of modern Beirut, and particularly the controversial Downtown district, there are a thousand different opinions, facts and rumours in circulation and everybody has his or her own personal viewpoint.
While I cannot pretend to know anything like enough to make my own judgements on the situation I did find these conversations fascinating, and began to see that, like everything in Lebanon, the rebuilding of the city was a lot more complex that I previous thought. The information provided here is an amalgamation of what I have learned over the past couple of weeks from various friends and I’m sure were I to ask more people I’d hear many more ideas and opinions, some of which would contradict those written here.
Talking to my friend Meera (names have been changed) about living in Beirut I learned what we had already surmised: property prices in central Beirut reflect neither the rest of Lebanon, nor the salaries of the average resident of the city. While some students attending the AUB may be able to afford some of the more outrageously priced flats available for rent in Hamra, the average Lebanese worker, much like myself and Everitte, cannot. Five years ago an enormous property boom occurred in Beirut, and while property prices tripled, the average salary in the city remained at its original level. Meera, who is lucky enough to work in her ‘dream-job’ as a signal engineer for Alfa, Lebanon’s largest network provider, told me that the minimum salary in Beirut these days is around $350 a month, though oonline estimates put it at more like $450. With one bed apartments for rent in central districts such as Hamra, Gemmazeh and Ashrafie for average prices of between $700 and $1200, it is hard to see how people are able to make ends meet. Of course, cheap accommodation does exist – most long-term residents of the city live outside these expensive central areas, and despite having a very good job and an engineering degree my friend herself pays $150 a month for a tiny room in a flat shared between ten or twelve young Lebanese girls – she herself is not even sure how many people she lives with.
Downtown Beirut and the Solidere project
While the rents in trendy central districts such as Hamra and Gemmazeh are expensive, they are nothing compared to the prices for property in Downtown, completely restored after the civil war thanks to the Solidere project, overseen by the former prime minister and multimillionaire business mogul Rafiq Hariri, assassinated in 2005. Many tourists and newcomers to Beirut are impressed by the splendour of Downtown, with its endless designer shops, exclusive restaurants and glass skyscrapers surrounded by expensive water features, and applaud the extensive rebuilding work carried out thanks to the Solidere project since its establishment in 1994. Solidere, a joint-stock company whose shares traded on the Beirut stock exchange, was financed largely by Hariri and other wealthy Lebanese businessmen and land-owners, and has successfully rebuilt the entire central district of Beirut, one of the areas worst affected by the war, transforming it into a beautiful seaside neighbourhood and bringing huge amounts of money into the country from abroad, aiding Lebanon’s fragile post-war economy. Solidere’s own website with details of the work carried out so far as well as their ‘Master Plan’ can be visited at http://www.solidere.com/solidere.html.
However, the Solidere project was not hailed as a success by all, and is in fact highly controversial, with many young people living in Beirut today choosing to boycott the Downtown area. There are many reasons for this, and everybody has their own view on Downtown, Solidere and indeed the former Prime Minister Hariri. One major reason that many of Beirut’s residents avoid the Downtown area is that they simply cannot afford it. Most flats in Downtown cost upwards of $5 million dollars. The building in which the current prime minister lives, a huge water front skyscraper with spectacular views, consist of flats with a retail price of $50 million. Even for this staggering sum the flats cannot be very large since he apparently deemed it necessary to expend $100 million on two, in order to knock them together. According to one friend, Mizan, a journalist, poet and art critic who grew up in Beirut, property in Downtown is owned almost exclusively by people from outside Lebanon, in particular from the Gulf, who buy flats in Beirut but do not live there full-time. The extortionate property prices are reflected in the price of everything else in the Downtown area which mainly consists of designer shops, private galleries and exclusive cafes and bars. The Solidere project repaired the catastrophic destruction wrought on Downtown by the civil war – it also turned the area from a cosmopolitan neighbourhood like Hamra, where people from all walks of life gathered to live and do business, to an exclusive resort for the ultra-rich.
Other factors also influence public opinion on Downtown. Mizan explained that many people boycott the area for moral reasons, as they feel that Solidere executed a land grab, taking advantage of the post-war confusion to pay small business owners a fraction of what their land and property were worth and forcing them to relocate, often without the funds to start again elsewhere. Though land owners were given a legal claim in shares, many maintain that land values were vastly underestimated. Another friend, Mina, said she was angry that the whole area was rebuilt without provisions for any cultural sites – no museum, opera house or theatre, just commercial galleries, shops and restaurants. Where the old opera house used to be, on the edge of Downtown, near Martyr’s Square, there now stands an enormous Virgin Megastore.
St George and the dragon – Solidere’s opposition
The St George’s Hotel, built on the waterfront on the West side of Downtown, stands as a testament to divided public opinion on Solidere. The hotel bears an enormous banner reading ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ and provides an example of the extensive damage done to the whole area during the war, now mostly banished from view by Solidere’s extensive building work. Untouched by Solidere’s rebuilding project, the St George’s Hotel remains derelict and pitted with bullet holes, a strange, incongruous sight among the beautiful new building surrounding it . The owner, Mr Fadi al-Khoury, has taken legal action against Solidere, as the St George’s private marina, which was one of the main attractions of the St George, was seized by Solidere who destroyed it and replaced it with a modern marina for the private yauchts of Downtown’s rich and famous. Al-Khoury claims Solidere has prevented him from restoring his hotel and has no right to monopolize Beirut’s waterfront. For more information on St George’s battle with Solidere and comments from al-Khoury see http://www.beirutreport.com/2009/09/hariri-vs-st-georges-eternal-standoff.html.
While there remains much more to learn about Beirut and the Downtown district I wanted to try to give a little bit of an insight into some of the complexity surrounding the issue. Downtown, though controversial, is undoubtedly beautiful, and brings a lot of money into the country from abroad; however it was also built by a certain class of people for a certain class of people, and effectively excludes a large part of Beirut’s population. In spite of this, what the Solidere project has achieved since the end of the war is still impressive. As one friend, Sami, put it: ‘It’s as if Hariri made a mobile phone for $150, when the same phone could have been made for $50. But he still made the phone’.