If one man gets his way, Lebanon might witness the birth of a new island off its Mediterranean coast. Made up of more than three million square meters of reclaimed land in the shape of a cedar tree, the $8.2 billion Cedar Island project would include residential, commercial, recreational, and tourism facilities. A press release describes “great luxuriousness that is in harmony with the modern lifestyle, in addition to the availability of the best accommodations.” For its champions and critics, it is impossible to separate this project from similar ones in Dubai and the rest of the Arabian Gulf.
Dr. Muhammad Saleh, a civil engineer and chairman of Noor International Holdings, the real estate development company pushing this venture, leads the campaign in making the case for the proposed project to the Lebanese people and government.
In order to carry out construction works, the company has partnered with large experienced companies like Panasonic Corporation, Turkey’s Ihlas Holding, the telecom giant Chinese Hawawi, British Homes Express Corporation specialized in the real estate marketing, and Navy International Group specialized in controlling the environmental pollution.
The idea for this man-made island is having a difficult jump-start as a result of several key absences: financial backing from the government, a legislative basis, tax policies to attract foreign investment, and, most obviously, public sympathy.
Any governmental reactions seem tenuously supportive at best while the blogosphere is laden with opposition. Supporters for the project rely on arguments of job creation and other economical benefits. Opposition rings with calls to preserve the livelihood of local fishermen, the environment and even Lebanese culture. At a recent conference, professors at the American University in Beirut summarily described it as an imminent environmental and urban disaster.
One critic wondered: “[The content of this project] remains vague, provides no information on the environmental impact, the financial and economical feasibility, the investment and investors as well as the actual details of the project.”
Some opponents disdain the “artificial island concept” as an import from the Gulf, whose reputation has relied on a reputation for the highest, longest, and biggest architectural ventures. Lebanon is known for archeological sites and old towns, they argue, and it does not need a flashy new island as a landmark to attract tourists.
Thomas Schellen, publishing editor of Lebanon’s Zawya Industry Research, suggested that it’s not just the Lebanese cultural environment that differs from the Gulf: “[T]he Arabian Gulf with its shallow waters is much easier to deal with…. The Mediterranean coast is battered by storms most winters, and projects like the sea wall for the new Corniche show that construction on the coastline is not a simple proposition.”
Furthermore, he pointed out, mega-projects do not have a good track record in Lebanon: “Some years ago Gulf investors launched what was to become Sannine Zenith resort on one percent of Lebanon’s surface. They had models, a theme song, a marketing office, and they already bought properties. To date, the Sannine Zenith has not moved an inch.”
Whether one is for or against the Cedar Island project, one cannot but ponder on the famous quote of G.K Chesterton:”There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the sky,” but do rules apply for new land in water?
Legal and urban planning experts say that the law in Lebanon is clear regarding this subject: only the Lebanese government has the right to acquire new coastal land. This translates into Noor International Holding’s need for a creative legal team to line up permits for the project.
As a final note, Noor International Holding is not staying away from other controversial projects. The company recently won the contract for “Noor El-Hussein,” destined to be the first tourism and entertainment project in the Holy City of Karbala, Iraq. Smaller than Cedar island at around 250,000 square meters and $1 billion, the project will nonetheless certainly keep Dr. Saleh busy with pitching the need for new rules.
A rendering for Noor’s project in Karbala.
K. Khairallah, Hazmieh, Lebanon
Images from Noor International Holding’s website.