Plan to build fake island makes waves in Lebanon

Cedar Island is the kind of self-financed gamble the nation needs to lure back wealthy Lebanese, according to its developer.

Cedar Island 88 248 (photo credit: )
Cedar Island 88 248
(photo credit: )
Muhammad Saleh is convinced: If he builds it, Lebanese expatriates will come. The Beirut-based developer envisions a 3.3-square-kilometer, 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 $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 $2b. 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, he said. Saleh 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 said. 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, including a coalition of 25 groups, who are worried about the environmental impact of dredging enough seabed or quarrying enough land to build an island, and 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," Ashour said. "Why have an artificial island that would destroy marine life [and] cause more traffic and air pollution?" Saleh said 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 would 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 percent 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. Officials are still studying Cedar Island, but he is not worried that it will lead Lebanon into Dubai's footsteps, he told The Associated Press . "Every society has rich people and poor people," he said. "It is good to have something for everyone."