Thomas Kukovec: Bye Bye Beirut

Posted on September 12, 2012 by

Only in 2009, Lebanon had an economic growth of 9.5%. According to estimates by the World Bank, economic growth rose by a further 10% in 2010. Yet, many Lebanese still say, “Our country is dying!”

In 2010 the airport of Beirut processed 22.6% more passengers, compared to statistics from the previous year. Above all, tourists and business persons from the Gulf countries continue to dump enormous financial capital into the country. Among other things, private apartments and houses are being bought like Lego or Baklava pieces. There is a direct correlation between the visitor increase from the rich Gulf countries and sky-rocketing in the real estate market. The number of building permits increased by 8.9% in 2009 and cement consumption by 17.8%.

Beirut Becomes Dubai

Despite such an outstanding growth, the voices of those Lebanese who say “our country is dying” are getting louder. Hardly anyone in Lebanon is looking optimistically into the future.

Within just a few years, the Lebanese government gave demolition permits for thousands of old buildings. Instead of national heritage protection in the former “Paris of the Orient”, now the more recently built luxury apartment buildings and business skyscrapers of international holding companies dot the skyline of the capital. This development saddens especially the old residents of Beirut: “One has the feeling that the city is dying and becoming a second Dubai.”

Speculative Construction

Visiting Hamra quarter and its many pubs is often the only way to forget about the cultural crime taking place in other parts of the city. The scene at an old jazz bar with live music makes you forget that beyond the door is actually a city full of construction sites and social tensions. Hamra is one of the historical districts that used to have many old houses with Mediterranean stone facades. It is located between the old Corniche coastal road and the new luxury boutiques of Solidere city. Till today Hamra is the jewel of Beirut, a gathering place for local and foreign journalists, employees of international organizations, globetrotters, intellectuals of all nationalities, business persons, and people of all economic, social, and professional backgrounds. Many old places in the city survived the war but not the years of “reconstruction” after 1993.

Remainings of Old Beirut
between newly built skyscrapers,
near Hamra district

Speculative Construction by Arab Capital

“The cultural massacre in our country also lead to a huge rise in property rates and rental prices,” says 22-year-old activist Naji Esther, during a demonstration held by the citizen initiative “Save Beirut Heritage”.

Live-Music in Hamra

The monthly rent of a student’s room used to be around $250; today prices are a little under $800. Impoverished owners often sell their old houses at dirt cheap prices, relatively speaking. The new owners circumvent the existing conservation laws often in incomprehensible ways, in a country drunk with corruption. Almost daily, perfectly intact old buildings from the 18th and 19th century are demolished in order to make way for the much more lucrative luxury apartment buildings.

Vacant plots are either sold to one of the many holding companies which specialize in 24 story office buildings, or used as parking facilities until the next company picks it up.

As a luxury holiday destination for tourists from the Arabian Gulf, Beirut, with its diverse nightlife, has become a playground for the rich and super rich. Their apartments are occupied for only a few weeks per year. Salaried locals can’t compete with them. Affordable real estate is one of the contributing factors to mid- and long-term emigration of middle class Lebanese to countries in Europe, Africa, USA, Australia, or the Gulf. When the emigration or work visa is hard to get, the next available option becomes a quick move to one of the many cheaper residential ghettos on the outskirts of the city.

Social tensions often lead to conveniently manufactured sectarian disputes, as Lebanese politicians quickly frame any threats to the status quo. Police and other security forces have somehow turned into “private militias” of the rich upper class. The growing underclass often has no other choice than turning back to the old warlords and their religious leaders.

“That’s their Beirut, not ours.” Where there used to be an affordable shoemaker, a talented carpenter or a friendly hairdresser, today there are only ultra-expensive luxury boutiques of international fashion houses and franchises. Where once stood oriental cafés, falafel stands and hundreds of vendors and small shop owners providing various services, today only army soldiers patrol the streets and make damn sure that rich tourists from the Gulf and European countries are not harassed by shoeshine boys.

The abandoned train station
of OLD Beirut… the next victim?

“Those who have destroyed this country, rule over the sale of what remains now,” says Naji Esther, as the demonstration stops in front of a new construction site in order to light candles in commemoration of the old theatre of Gemmayze — once another great cultural spot in Beirut.

Thomas Kukovec (Leibnitz – Beirut), 12.09.2012