For decades, the impoverished residents of southwestern Damascus’ Basateen el-Razi district have lived in poorly built shacks and ramshackle housing facing the upscale Mezzeh district, one of the wealthiest areas of Syria.
Over the past few months, however, construction has started in Basateen el-Razi as part of a major urban redevelopment plan developed, in part, by the Syrian government, to replace the existing housing with towering skyscrapers and sleek new shopping centers. The urban planning scheme, called Marouta City, risks leading to large-scale property destruction and demographic displacement, according to experts.
What’s more, analysts say the project, which has already drawn in major financial investment, including from investors with ties to the Syrian government, will likely be a template for reconstruction efforts elsewhere in Syria. On January 25, the Syrian parliament passed a bill authorizing the government to redevelop slums and informal settlements, like Basateen el-Rezi, across the country.
A Shanty Town
The Basateen el-Razi district comprises mostly informal settlements, locally referred to as “ashwai” [random] zones, that were set up with no official licensing or planning from the state.
The district, which has suffered from years of neglect from the Assad regime, is populated mostly by Syrians from lower income areas – particularly rural areas of the Damascus countryside.
Many of these residents were low-ranking Syrian armed forces and intelligence personnel who didn’t receive kickbacks from the government like their wealthier neighbors living in the Western Villas district of Mezzeh. But they could get away with constructing ramshackle residences without repercussions because of their positions.
Residents say the Syrian government has been looking to evict the inhabitants of the Basateen al-Razi district since at least 2009. “I had friends in the area who told me back in 2009 that the regime wanted to demolish their homes and pay each family 300,000 SYP [$600],” said Suhail, a former resident and native of Damascus who fled during the war. “And I’ve heard rumors about these plans for a long time.”
When early protests began in 2011, Ashwai zones, like Basateen al-Razi, became hubs for political activism against the Assad government. “The early uprising burned most fiercely in neglected rural towns and working class urban areas – including the ashwai zones,” said Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.” “Many of the capital’s wealthier revolutionaries would travel to these areas on Fridays to protest.”
As the war dragged on, the Syrian government eventually zeroed in on the area for reconstruction plans. In 2012, Assad signed Decree 66, which allows the government to “redevelop areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements [slums].” Under the legislative order, the Syrian government can transfer public assets to private companies free of taxes for the purpose of redevelopment.
This decree provided the legal framework for extensive plans for the redevelopment and reconstruction of informal housing in the Basateen el-Razi. The development scheme is featured prominently on the Damascus governorate official website, along with conceptual drawings and architectural documents highlighting the project’s intended goal.
According to the governorate of Damascus, the project will tear down old, poorly constructed dwellings to develop an upscale area dubbed “Marouta City.” The 2.15 million square meter (531 acre) development will include 12,000 housing units for “an estimated 60,000 residents.” The development will include schools, restaurants, mosques, a car park, a shopping mall and at least three 50-floor skyscrapers.
Redevelopment Takes Hold
Despite criticism, the Syrian government has moved forward with plans to redevelop the neighborhood, while providing little compensation to residents. In November, Al-Jumhuriya obtained a written order from the governor of Damascus ordering a family residing in the Basateen El-Razi area to evacuate their home pending demolition. It is not immediately clear whether the family had in fact departed, and if so, where to.
In February, the governorate of Damascus posted an announcement offering residents of the area nine days – between February 11 and 20 – to apply for “alternative housing” to replace their homes that are to be demolished for the project. The first building permits for the Marouta City project were issued in March 2017.
The exact date of demolition was not immediately clear but construction is moving quickly. As of January 13, 2018, satellite photos of the area from Google Maps shows that foundations have already been built in the Marouta City area. Additionally, a number of roundabouts under construction serve to connect the development to major intersections near Fayez Mansour street and the Beirut Highway.
The project has also attracted some sizable investments. The Marouta City project is managed chiefly by the Syrian regime, under an organization established and owned by the governorate of Damascus specifically this project, Cham Holdings. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and one of the wealthiest businessmen in Syria, is a majority shareholder in Cham Holdings, and reportedly recently became involved in the Marouta project, according to the Syria Report.
Over the past four months, private investors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Marouta City through Damascus Cham Holdings. In December of 2017, according to reports by the consultancy firm SLJ Advisory FZE, the regime secured a 108 billion SYP (roughly $200 million) investment into Damascus Cham Holdings through a deal with an unidentified “expatriate Syrian businessman based in Kuwait,” for the construction of a shopping mall and six additional buildings.
Damascus Cham Holdings also received a number of private Syria-based companies – including Talas Group, producer of the Tolido brand, whose food products are very popular among consumers in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. On January 14, Talas Group signed on as a minority shareholder to a joint investment with Damascus Cham Holdings to establish Mirza Company, which will develop 60,000 square meters (14.83 acres) of land in Marouta City with an investment of 23 billion SYP (roughly $45 million).
On February 8, Damascus Cham Holdings announced it would also partner with Al Baraka Bank and a number of other banks in Syria to establish a real estate financing company which is expected to fund development of Marouta City. Al Baraka Bank is notably headed by Mohammed Halabi, the former co-CEO of Syria International Islamic Bank, which was sanctioned internationally in 2011 and 2012 for its role as a front for the regime-owned Commercial Bank of Syria in funding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other weapons of war.
The finer details of Decree 66 and the Marouta City project have come under heavy criticism from academics and local activists who claim the Syrian government is using the urban planning scheme to reassert its control over the low-class district and reshape its demographics.
Yassin-Kassab said the regime had long intended to redevelop the area as way to restructure the demographics. “The destruction of these [ashwai] zones during the war served a larger military aim – to permanently dispense with the most troublesome section of society,” he said.
Swiss-Syrian academic and author Joseph Daher recently wrote for the Atlantic Council that Decree 66 could “operate as a mechanism for punishment against populations known for their opposition to the regime.”
“They will most probably be replaced with higher social classes and new elites of war, who are generally less inclined to rise up against the regime,” he wrote.