I HAD noticed it but hadn’t given it much thought. There had been talk some time back that Beirut’s only public beach was going to be spruced up for the summer season. The removal of the stone stairs leading down to the sandy coast probably meant that better steps were going to be built, I thought. I was pleased.
Then I received a call from the president of Greenline, a Lebanese environmental organization.
‘You won’t believe this,’ he said, angrily. ‘They are going to develop Ramlet al Baida.’
Ramlet al Baida - which translates as ‘white sand’ - is the only beach along Beirut’s coastline that is free. The rest of the coast is either too rocky or already developed into beach resorts. Entrance fees are set at ridiculously large sums of $15 to $20 per person - way beyond the scope of ordinary people. In an overbuilt city like Beirut, Ramlet al Baida is a refuge for many families.
I never thought anyone, not even our business-riddled Government, would think of confiscating it from the people. But, once again, I prove to be naïve.
Greenline’s president, Salman Abbas, quickly managed to obtain some ‘secret’ plans clearly showing that most of the 50,000 square metres of sandy beach are destined to become yet another posh sea resort - complete with a marina. ‘Just where are the poor supposed to go now?’ he thundered.
For Salman, for journalists, for Beirutis, it was yet another struggle. Salman sighed heavily. He knew as well as I did that we are up against not just a business tycoon but a powerful politician. A politician who owns the real-estate company bent on developing Ramlet al Baida.
By now, much has already been done - in keeping with the traditions of our businesspeople/politicians - discreetly. The land has already been bought and laws, which usually forbid the development of the coastline, have been changed. It wouldn’t be the first time that decrees and laws have been changed to accommodate a politician’s business project.
The list of examples of political profiteering is long. Unregulated quarries eating up Lebanese mountainsides were kept open for years as many of them were either owned by politicians or were giving them a cut. Beirutis’ lobbying efforts to turn the city’s racetrack into a park (there isn’t a single park in the city) fell through because a politician baulked at it. One needn’t wonder who is getting a cut from the track’s takings.
A few kilometres north of Beirut, hectare upon hectare of coastline were reclaimed to accommodate a sea resort and a highly priced residential area (which still remains largely unbuilt). And in the south tons of sand were taken off the coastline and sold. A zoning law was changed for three days and then changed back again, in an area a short distance from Beirut. The three days were ample time to get a building permit to build three monstrous high rises. Behind each project was a politician.
I understood very well Salman’s dejection. Environmentalists were still recovering from their failure to turn the racetrack into the city park. ‘This politician,’ he said, ‘is even more powerful.’
Greenline members sent out letters to the Beirut municipality. All the ministries and members of parliament were contacted. Noone replied. In September, Greenline held a rally on the beach with activities for children.
People began to realize that their precious beach was in danger. Beachgoers have taken to either jumping down the wall to the beach or bringing their own ladders.
‘Where else are we supposed to go?’ said Ali Hassan, accompanied by his wife and five children. ‘I don’t own a car so I can’t take my family elsewhere. And I certainly can’t afford to go to private resorts. It’s like they (politicians) don’t want us poor people to exist. I’m sorry but we do.’
According to the ‘secret’ development plans, a tiny part of the beach will remain for public use - but it’s way too small to absorb the estimated 500,000 people that frequent the beach every summer.
The fight continues. The politician is keeping silent. But by now, we are familiar with their plots: they deny all accusations and wait until the hue and cry has died down. And then, when people least expect it - perhaps during the night or on a cold winter day when no-one is around - the digging begins. By then it will be too late.