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Plan to build fake island makes waves in Lebanon - Metro US

Plan to build fake island makes waves in Lebanon

BEIRUT – Mohammed Saleh is convinced: If he builds it, Lebanese expatriates will come.

The Beirut-based developer envisions a 3.3-square-kilometre, artificial
island shaped like a cedar tree as a major attraction off Lebanon’s
coast.

The massive chunk of dredged seabed or transported earth –
converted into an US$8 billion paradise with luxury villas, apartments,
shops, restaurants, white-sand beaches, parks, schools and hospitals –
would nurture national pride, says Saleh, chairman of Noor
International Holding.

It’s the kind of splashy megaproject that gave Arab boomtown
Dubai its outsized profile but left it drowning in debt. And in
Lebanon, a tiny country known more for war than tourism, critics see
the project as folly.

But Saleh says Cedar Island is the kind of self-financed gamble
the nation needs to lure back wealthy Lebanese who moved abroad as they
grew weary of conflict.

“I am not worried about the global crisis, because my main
target is Lebanese expatriates who have nostalgia for their country and
would like to invest in it,” said Saleh. “Unlike foreign investors,
these people are used to Lebanon’s system, its ups and downs.”

Saleh – many of whose projects boast outsized stature, like the
Rose Tower in Dubai, which calls itself the world’s tallest hotel –
points in particular to a $2 billion memorandum of understanding he’s
signed regarding Cedar Island with Turkey’s Ihlas Holding. The rest of
the money will come from other developers and investors, Saleh said.

He also points to stacks of correspondence he has received from
expatriate Lebanese interested in buying into the venture. “I never
expected such an outpouring of interest,” he says.

Dubai boasts several artificial islands, so the project, which
is still far from securing Lebanese government approvals, is not unique
to Lebanon. But it’s drawing sharp criticism.

Skeptics run the gamut from a coalition of 25 groups worried
about the environmental impact of dredging enough seabed or quarrying
enough land to build an island to some prominent Lebanese economists
such as Louis Hobeika, who doubts funding will be stable.

“I cannot see who will do it and how the funding will be
secured, particularly when states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which
have billions in reserves, are halting projects,” Hobeika said.

Others worry that pursuing Cedar Island will threaten the
nation’s tradition of conservative investment, which many economists
and Lebanese officials credit for the country’s ability to weather the
global economic downturn so far.

A group of American University of Beirut professors teamed up
to protest Cedar Island, describing it in a statement released last
month as an “urban, economic and environmental disaster.”

Jad Chaaban, professor of economics, said it would bring Lebanon no significant public revenue or permanent benefit.

“The suggested artificial island would generate mostly unskilled
construction jobs which are typically taken by non-Lebanese residents,”
he said.

Hala Ashour, an engineer and one of the founding members of
Green Line, an independent environmental awareness organization
opposing the project, doubts every aspect of the project.

“Tourists like Lebanon for its nature, its booming ecotourism,”
said Ashour. “Why have an artificial island that would destroy marine
life (and) cause more traffic and air pollution?”

Saleh says the project’s planned artificial coral reefs, a
sewage treatment facility, sand dune creation and new clam beds, eel
grass plantings and beds for spawning fish will offset the
environmental impact of building the island.

Because Cedar Island would involve public property on the
coast, Lebanese law requires that the government have a minimum 20 per
cent stake, the Cabinet approve the project and the president endorse
it. The process of seeking those sign-offs has begun, with Saleh
meeting and lobbying officials.

Tourism Minister Elie Marouny said the government welcomed any
projects that confirm Lebanon can still attract big investment. He told
The Associated Press that officials are still studying Cedar Island,
but he is not worried that it will lead Lebanon into Dubai’s footsteps.

“Every society has rich people and poor people,” he said. “It is good to have something for everyone.”

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