Luxury Marota City project shows blueprint for Syria’s rebuilding plans

The Marota City project was approved in 2012 with a legislative law known as Decree No. 66, which authorized the government to redevelop slum dwellings and illegal housing areas in the Syrian capital. (AP)
Updated 05 November 2018

Luxury Marota City project shows blueprint for Syria’s rebuilding plans

  • Marota City is seen as setting the blueprint for how the government will undertake the ambitious rebuilding of areas
  • The project was approved in 2012 with a legislative law known as Decree No. 66

DAMASCUS, Syria: At a building site in Damascus, trucks and bulldozers zigzag back and forth ferrying sand and stones for a luxury development of residential high-rises and shopping centers.
The area was up until recently a working-class neighborhood of informal settlements and irregular housing running through orchards and farmland — one that early on in Syria’s conflict was a hub for protests against the government. Over the past year, thousands of residents have been evicted and their property razed to make way for the multimillion-dollar project that promises to be the new commercial center for the capital.
Marota City, as Syria’s largest investment project is known, is seen as setting the blueprint for how the government will undertake the ambitious rebuilding of areas devastated in the nearly eight-year civil war.
The government is using controversial new property laws to create zones where partnerships of the government and businessmen take ownership of neighborhoods and redevelop them. Officials say the projects aim at re-planning slums and destroyed areas and attracting private investors to join the massively expensive task of reconstruction.
Critics say President Bashar Assad is using such projects to consolidate post-war power, expropriate property and reshape Syria’s demographics by pushing out impoverished communities seen as centers of opposition support and replacing them with wealthier ones more likely to be loyalists.
The 53-year old president has survived the war, using help from allies Russia and Iran to crush an armed rebellion that aimed to oust him.
The Marota project lies at the heart of Syria’s tangled web of politics and rebuilding. Having recaptured the country’s key cities from the opposition, the government says it is now time to focus on rebuilding. But Western countries, including the United States, say they will not commit any funds to reconstruction without real progress on a political settlement.
The plan for upscale apartments and glossy malls in Damascus can seem particularly jarring with the enormous destruction in former rebel-held areas just a few miles away and in the rest of the country, where entire city blocks lie crumped, in scenes reminiscent of World War II.
Marota is being built over a southwestern neighborhood called Basateen Al-Razi that grew up on farmlands over the past decades as poorer Syrians moved in from the countryside and built unlicensed housing. The district saw anti-government protests in 2012, but they were swiftly suppressed in a crackdown, and the area was relatively untouched by the war’s destruction.
The project was approved in 2012 with a legislative law known as Decree No. 66, which authorized the government to redevelop slum dwellings and illegal housing areas in the capital.
This allowed the Damascus governorate to evict the population, which has largely dispersed to other, inexpensive parts of the capital, and level the district.
The project is managed chiefly by the Syrian government, under a joint-stock company called Cham Holding established in 2016 and owned by the Damascus governorate. It has attracted investments from businessmen known to have close ties to the Syrian leadership, including Samer Foz, a wealthy entrepreneur whose name became well known during the war and who recently bought majority shares in the landmark Four Seasons hotel in the capital. The company is also said to be linked to Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and one of Syria’s most powerful businessmen.
“I expect the commercial center to shift here,” says Nasouh Nabolsi, chief executive officer for Damascus Cham holding, the company undertaking the management, construction and investment works.
Speaking to The Associated Press at the company’s stylish headquarters adjacent to the building site, he said the company has so far spent the equivalent of $70 million on infrastructural works for the 2.14 million square meter development. Construction is expected to begin before the end of the year. The project will provide 12,000 housing units for an estimated 60,000 residents.
Marota will be followed by a similar project further south on an area four times bigger, called Basilia City, Nabolsi said, adding that plans to develop these areas existed before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.
In April, the government passed controversial property Law No. 10, which expanded the geographic scope of decree 66 beyond Damascus to the rest of the country and extended it from informal settlements to regularly registered property.
Under Law 10, residents initially had just 30 days to prove that they own property in redevelopment zones in order to receive shares in the projects or alternative plots of land; otherwise, ownership will be transferred to the local government.
The law created panic among refugees abroad, many of whom had lost property deeds or could not return to prove ownership. After an international outcry, Syria’s foreign minister announced in June that the 30-day filing period would be extended to a year. Last month, a UN official said Syria’s government has withdrawn the law, citing Russia for the information.
However, there is no sign that the law has been formally amended or confirmation that it has been withdrawn.
At least four former-rebel held areas in and around the capital are now being considered for redevelopment under Law 10. They include Barzeh, Jobar, Daraya and Qaboun, where major demolitions are already underway, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation.
Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at HRW, said the fact that the designated areas are all former rebel-held bastions and the lack of transparency around the property laws only exacerbates suspicions.
“The government’s urban planning laws are often used to confiscate the property of residents, leave them without any alternative housing and never provide them with compensation, so violating their property rights on more than one level,” she told the AP.
A resident of Damascus’ Mazzeh neighborhood whose family owns property in nearby Basateen Al-Razi and closely follows the subject said the new property laws were not necessarily a bad thing, but the implementation gives the impression that the government is driving out poor residents and attracting the rich.
She said demolitions started without the provision of alternative housing, and rental money offered was often insufficient to rent within Damascus. She spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns.
Nabolsi rejects the claims and argues that everyone has been more than fairly compensated.
He said there is nothing wrong with developing society, adding that the Syrian crisis was fueled by poor people who were exploited.
“The mistake of the government is that it did not develop these areas and let them transform into illegal housing areas, and we paid a high price for this.”
Kayyali said there is concern that the laws will be used as a form of “collective punishment” against government opponents and dispossess the poor.
“It’s going to exacerbate the socio-economic imbalance that was actually one of the causes of the uprising,” she said.

Divided Arab economic summit: We must help suffering refugees

Updated 19 min 51 sec ago

Divided Arab economic summit: We must help suffering refugees

  • Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil called for 'effective solutions' for the return of Syrian refugees to their country
  • Summit also called for dialogue over growing tensions between Israel and Palestine

BEIRUT: The fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit was held in Beirut on Sunday, in an effort to, among other things, find ways to alleviate the suffering of refugees in the Middle East.

The summit, though attended by representatives from 20 Arab nations, was soured by the absence of most Arab heads of state, and was divided over several issues, including the absence of Syrian delegates, and a boycott by Libya.

The summit did, though, call for dialogue with the international community over growing tensions between Israel and Palestine.

Delegates expressed their support for the Palestinian people, and cited the “collective responsibility” of all parties towards maintaining the city of Jerusalem’s “Islamic and Christian identity.”

In a statement, the summit declared: “We reiterate Palestinian refugees’ rights of return and compensation, according to the UN General Assembly’s resolution 194 of 1948.”

Delegates also discussed at great length the need for international cooperation to support the growing digital economy across the region. They emphasized “the importance of building the necessary capacity” to benefit from the digital economy, and praised the initiative launched by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to create a sovereign investment fund to support the development of technology in the Gulf and the Middle East.

They urged all Arab nations to “support this initiative to strengthen the joint Arab economy,” and called on other Arab banks and funds to invest in it.

The summit also praised the role of small and medium businesses across the Arab world for their contribution to flourishing Arab economies, as well as the implementation of the Pan-Arab Renewable Energy Strategy 2030, to ensure power across the region becomes cleaner and more sustainable.

The summit was far from harmonious, though, with the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, addressing the hall to ask the international community “to assume its responsibilities by finding effective solutions for the return of Syrian refugees to their country.”

Bassil called on Arab nations and others to “shoulder the burden, honor their commitments and meet the refugees’ needs.”

There were also disputes over the attendance of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, as well as the boycott by Libyan delegates.

“I am saddened because of the absence of the Libyan delegation, and by the circumstances that led to this point,” Arab League president, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, echoed the words of his foreign minister, calling on the international community “to exert all efforts to provide the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country, and to present incentives so they can contribute to their country’s reconstruction.”

He proposed the establishment of an international Arab bank to help affected countries overcome the crisis, and invited established Arab funds to Beirut to discuss his proposals.

“I deplore the absence of other Arab presidents and kings, but each of them has his reason. Our union remains of great importance given that we will not be able to address the challenges facing our region and peoples, unless we agree on key issues,” Aoun said.

The next Arab Economic and Social Development Summit will be held in Mauritania in 2023.