​​​​​​​Capitalism and Lebanon’s Coast: Drawing Lines of Division in the Sand

2017-06-12    |   

​​​​​​​Capitalism and Lebanon’s Coast: Drawing Lines of Division in the Sand

Comment 1:  Honestly, as a Lebanese person, I could care less about Ramlet beach because the only people who go there are Syrians and Palestinians and filth and trash…at least the new project will create work opportunities that the Lebanese will benefit from, which will be better than now, when everyone except the Lebanese benefit from the place.

Comment 2:  What a joke! As if our politicians and their lies were not enough, we have to contend with you. The thing is, the last time a Lebanese person went to Ramlet beach in Beirut was in 1982. Finally someone has decided to develop the beachfront into something to be proud of. Enough of your lies and Bollywood moves.

Comment 3:  Some people are a cause for laughter. They claim that “this project is a transgression against citizens and a form of national theft”. The theft involved in this case pales in comparison to what the country and the leaders have taken from you in the past! There are more important things to protest, more essential to your lives. Your lives don’t depend on a beach!

The above are some of the comments posted on social media following an action that took place on November 26, 2016. It was organized by a group of activists in Lebanon in opposition to the planned Eden Rock Resort project. The project is being built on Ramlet al-Baida, the last remaining public beach in Beirut. The project appropriates coastal public property, which is designated by law as a shared and inalienable right. The viewpoints above sum up the reasons that some have defended their non-participation in the peaceful action, and why they look down on it and dismiss its significance.

It is well known that some people desire a modern waterfront for Beirut, and that development projects create work opportunities for Lebanese youth. Others have argued for prioritizing the needs of Lebanese people who lack basic necessities; this also goes without saying. But it also need not detract from justified demands to protect coastal public property from privatization, or legitimized transgressions against it. Nor does it explain the divisive rhetoric used when discussing the subject.

As I see it, these haughty or dismissive attitudes towards the Lebanese coast are, to a great extent, the product of the global capitalist system of production, as well as hegemonic neoliberal policies that have dominated Lebanon’s economic, social, and cultural fields since the end of the civil war. In Lebanon, the neoliberal model has deep ties to the “stature system” (nizam al-maqamat). Previous articles published by The Legal Agenda have argued that this system has privileged the interests of political leaders and influential factions over human dignity or national unity.[1] The stature system builds up citizens’ vulnerability in order to subjugate them. The combination of neoliberalism and the stature system in government has brought about numerous forms of social injustice and oppression: exploitation, degradation, marginalization, impoverishment, impairment, and the convincing of many that they are powerless.

In particular, this combination has succeeded in entrenching a geographical partitioning of Lebanon into spheres of influence connected to sects and particular political leaders. Within this arrangement are coastal regions whose features have been transformed in the name of touristic and regional development. During the war (1975-1990), unauthorized construction and changes to coastal public property were widespread. The situation did not change after the war ended: major investors in the tourism sector leveraged their influence and relationships to appropriate coastal areas, violated the laws that protect them, and reclassified their legal status for the sake of their for-profit ventures. Such projects are usually marketed as aiming to improve a particular area’s image and to create jobs for its youth.

Investments (both large and small) in the coastal tourism and recreation sector did create work opportunities for many. Yet in the absence of strategic local development and comprehensive socioeconomic policies on the national level, they also led to a decline in standards of living for many people, particularly families that depended on the sea and coastal agriculture for their livelihoods. It also led to increased environmental damage, which was the result of the removal of sand and the dumping of solid waste, pollutants, and wastewater into the sea.

At the same time, as in other capitalist economies, Lebanon’s tourism and recreation industry has successfully diversified the production and marketing of specific places and exclusive consumer goods that target groups within society based on their income, desires, needs, and affiliations. This in turn contributes, both directly and indirectly, to exacerbating existing discrepancies between social groups, and to strengthening the divisive rhetoric of discrimination and prejudice against the “other”. In this context, the “other” is usually a person who is different, marginalized, and powerless (as in the case, for example, of Palestinian and Syrian refugees and foreign workers). Some people invoke this rhetoric on various occasions in order to reaffirm their distinction from the other – and their superiority. For them, the “other” represents their opposite, someone who frequents places that they do not, or at least not since the “other” began to appear there. From this perspective, some Lebanese welcome the idea of privatizing the beach, building fashionable resorts tailored for them, and excluding anyone who is not fashionable or suitable in their eyes.

This is not to say that everyone who goes to a private swimming club perceives themselves as superior to those who do not resemble them. Some have argued that private swim clubs have become a necessity in a country whose public beaches suffer from a lack of security, cleanliness, and a safe and healthy environment. If that is the case, their contention is undeniable evidence of neoliberalism’s achievement of its goal, i.e., that there be no alternatives to it. Rather than demanding that the relevant parties fulfill their duties and work for the preservation of nature and the environment, some have accepted the notion of privatizing coastal public property and embraced it as the only possible solution in a country whose responsible authorities have failed to take up their social and national roles.

Of course, dividing the coast into sections that are associated with social groups and specific social practices is nothing new. The tourism and recreation industry in Lebanon has been cognizant of social discrepancies in Lebanese society from its early days. Starting in the 1930s, it began developing private swim clubs designed for the bourgeois class, first in Beirut and later in other coastal areas. But swim clubs and private resorts are no longer only for the wealthy and most affluent classes. The tourism industry is constantly seeking to create new differentiated products. It has intensified its targeting of individuals with middle class income, particularly those in social categories that had been neglected or not previously targeted. Private swim clubs for women are one example. As social and religious restrictions have limited many women’s freedom to enjoy the beach and the sea on an equal basis with men, the tourism and recreation industry has sought to fill the gap. They have focused in particular on providing a private beach for religiously observant women; the goal being to create a space for them to go out and enjoy some measure of freedom and peace of mind in a place where they enjoy the sun and the air, far from prying eyes.  

And there is no doubt that tourist resorts and new forms of recreation have managed to win over people from all segments of society. One example is the Syrian construction worker who talks admiringly about Saint George Bay (“Zaitunay Bay”), his favorite place for a promenade. In Beirut, as he had previously in Aleppo, he seeks “high-end places”, while sparing no expense for himself and his family. There is also the example of the Lebanese domestic worker who speaks joyfully of the annual dinner that she is invited to in one of the lavish resorts that was built on the beach of her town. These two individuals, in one way or another, both typify the “society of the spectacle” in which we live. The society of the spectacle dominates our relationships with one another and with our surroundings, our lifestyle, our recreation, and our enjoyment of nature. Through visual stimulation, advertising, contemporary architecture, and places designed to be appealing, it has enjoyed astonishing success in addressing itself to our imaginations, temptations, and urges, spurring us to enter the world of consumption – even if only visually.[2]

How are we to address this situation? And how do we reclaim and reimagine the beach as shared public property if we cling to the stereotypical images that we have drawn of one another, and to the material, social, and mental distances that divide us? How do we achieve social and environmental justice if we have surrendered to capitalist dominance, immersed ourselves in a society of the spectacle, and accepted that anything is up for negotiation?

There is no doubt that the battle to reclaim and protect coastal public property goes beyond the legal front. In a fragmented Lebanese society, the great challenge rests on our ability to move past false dichotomies between the rich and poor, Lebanese and refugee or foreign worker, civilized and uncivilized, and overcoming the negative polarizations that divide us. To be certain, our concerns are not all the same; our dreams and interests differ. But we do not need to be homogenous, or to set aside our differences; there are many issues that bring us together. These include the human need for leisure, to breathe clean air, and to enjoy the sea and nature. We can all be proud to live in a city with a waterfront that is beautiful, safe, clean, vibrant, and sustainable.

Urban renewal is not only about building architectural landmarks and flagship tourism projects. Nor does it mean clearing beaches of their current visitors, or eliminating the economic uses and positive social practices that happen there. Can we unify our efforts to challenge policies of injustice and hegemonic oppression that have fragmented our natural, cultural, and social heritage – and work together to forge a creative vision for conserving, improving, and maintaining that heritage as a common right for all of us, and for generations to come?

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Beyond Sectarianism: Whom Does the Lebanese State Serve?”, The Legal Agenda, Lebanon, Issue No. 32, October 2015.
[2] “Society of the Spectacle” is a term coined by the French thinker Guy Debord (1967), in his cultural criticism of contemporary consumer culture.

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