Beirut's last public beach faces creeping privatisation
Ramlet el-Bayda, Beirut’s last public beach, is surrounded by residential towers and resorts [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]
Beirut, Lebanon – In mid-June, along the coast of Beirut’s last public beach, municipality workers destroyed all informal structures deemed illegal by the Lebanese authorities. This comes exactly one year after the inauguration of five-star resort Lancaster Eden Bay on that same public domain despite widespread opposition to its construction on Ramlet el-Bayda (White Sand) beach.
Urban activists now fear the destruction of service-providing shacks is but the first of upcoming assaults on this maritime land that will culminate in private capital’s complete seizure of Ramlet el-Bayda. If materialised, this would effectively turn Beirut into the only “Mediterranean city without a seafront”, Mona Fawaz, a professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, said.
Among the shacks destroyed are the de facto offices of Operation Big Blue (OBB), a non-profit environmental organisation and key player in maintaining and protecting this part of the seafront. Despite holding a permit from the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, OBB’s structures were torn down alongside unlicensed semi-permanent constructions under the orders of Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib.
What was once a bustling network of shacks serving beachgoers food, coffee, nargileh and lounge chairs disappeared overnight, and turned into a pile of collapsed structures, garbage and debris. Not even the public bathrooms, the first-aid centre or the shaded reading area were spared.
Witnessing and live-streaming the demolition was OBB’s president, Iffat Edriss Chatila, who attempted to rescue shrubs native to Ramlet el-Bayda that her organisation has been preserving for years. Moments before a bulldozer indiscriminately ravaged everything on site, Chatila lamented the plants that “resisted the natural elements, the salt, the sea … could not resist this crawler”.
“We were told they were going to remove some dilapidated structures. They didn’t tell us they were going to destroy everything,” Ahmad, using a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.
He used to sell snacks from a small wooden shack, but “they came in the morning and told us we’re in violation of some regulation and took everything down. We were never given a warning,” he explained.
Days later, several civil society organisations, including independent political movement Beirut Madinati, joined Chatila in a news conference, alleging that the demolition of structures serving primarily the working class is intended to pave the way for further private development in Ramlet el-Bayda.
The mayor of Beirut, Jamal Itani, referred to the campaign as a clean-up and beautification effort meant to remove obstructions to beach use. According to Chatila, however, “This was a systematic campaign aimed at ruining the reputation of the beach and the organisations maintaining it.” She claimed that allegations of illegality and improper conduct by some beachgoers were blatantly untrue and aimed to sway public opinion in support of the demolition, to ultimately facilitate the establishment of another exclusive touristic resort.
Dozens of municipal police now guard the beach and patrol the white sand throughout the day to prevent vendors from operating as they once did. The ramifications so far have been felt acutely by regulars who are complaining of the lack of access to chair and umbrella rentals and cold water on scorching summer days.
Nahida Khalil from Beirut Madinati echoed Chatila’s sentiments at the press conference, adding that lower-income communities in Beirut continue to endure the consequences of extremely limited access to open spaces across the city.
“The Beirut Municipality creates exemptions to the rule of law and uses it as a tool against the poor and those with limited incomes,” she said, alleging that the municipality continues to illegally allow establishments along the coast to expand on the public domain while cracking down on service providers that maintain Ramlet el-Bayda as a viable public beach.
For years, activists in Lebanon have waged successive campaigns to protect Ramlet el-Bayda, seen as the last frontier in a capital whose coast is nearly 95 percent privately owned by corporate interests.
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Urban planner Abir Saksouk-Sasso found it incomprehensible that a non-profit that facilitated access to the beach, by providing wooden staircases and pallets, for example, would be viewed as hindering access and be shut down. “The Municipality of Beirut refuses to implement a holistic vision to make the seafront sustainable, self-sufficient and economically viable for the city while guaranteeing the right to access the sea,” Saksouk-Sasso told Al Jazeera. It is because this vision, she corroborated, “contradicts the interests of politicians who [unjustly] own land on the coast”.
In a conversation with a group of guards about the heavy police presence on the beach, they said they were needed to enforce the law and “to prevent violations from reoccurring”. One guard asserted to Al Jazeera their role was to “guarantee that Ramlet el-Bayda becomes once again a beach for all the people”.
Ownership of the city’s seafront, however, is highly contested and politically affiliated real estate developers have regularly had the final say at the expense of urban commons.
“The beach [belongs] to everyone … not just some” is one of several campaign slogans used to demand a halt to the construction of Lancaster Eden Bay, which stands a couple of hundred metres from the shacks despite its numerous violations of zoning and building regulations. Documented in a 2017 report by the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects, the resort’s eight notable violations include encroaching on a public maritime domain and disregarding environmental regulations.
For years prior to and during its construction, neither a sustained civil campaign nor legal challenges were able to prevent Eden Bay’s establishment. Once inaugurated, urban activists feared it would be the first of imminent assaults on Ramlet el-Bayda’s integrity that would culminate in its complete or partial takeover by private capital.
After professor Fawaz warned in 2016 that this would turn Beirut into the only Mediterranean city without a seafront, the Lebanese Coast Coalition was formed to defend the coast from illegalities. A member of the coalition and director of environmental group Green Line, Ali Darwish, told Al Jazeera that “there is a clear and permanent danger of privatisation of the remainder of the publicly accessible seaside”.
To date, Eden Bay has faced no repercussions for its violations of local regulations while a multifaceted state-led attack has been launched against outspoken critics of the resort.
“I don’t think the government ever made it a priority to protect the remainder of public spaces,” 27-year-old architect and activist Whard Sleiman told Al Jazeera. In the summer of 2015, Sleiman became more committed to social and political causes in Beirut and “Ramlet el-Bayda was the last straw”, he said.
During the early days of the hotel’s construction, he and a few other activists tried to obstruct workers from draining water without a permit to lay the hotel’s foundation. “We were about seven activists or so, and we thought we’d try to stop them on that basis,” he said. During a heated conversation with construction workers, Sleiman was punched in the face and a photo of his injury and blood-stained shirt was widely circulated online. He tried to take legal action but said that his efforts were futile.
Others activists who attempted to stop the construction of Eden Bay were met by riot police and some with large social media followings woke up the day after a large protest to court summonses for trespassing and property damage.
As one of the few remaining avenues for the poor residents of the city, Ramlet el-Bayda provides brief moments of respite at no cost in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
“I take breaks on this side of the coast when I’m not driving my taxi,” a middle-aged man sitting under a straw shack roof, nargileh pipe in hand, told Al Jazeera before taking a puff. “I hear there were some violations on the other side of the coast, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong. I think it’s just a matter of money over the public good,” he concluded.