Lebanon: Clientelism and the Destruction of Ancient Water Systems in Saida

Lyne Jabri

An overview of the modern urban history of Saida, Lebanon, reveals that the biggest changes to the city occur during times of crisis. During such critical times, incoming capital and aid facilitates the implementation of major infrastructural projects and urban plans. Such urban projects create significant economic and social transformations in the city, while often compromising water resources and agricultural lands, and thus compromise what had previously made the city sustainable.

During times of crisis, local populations are in a state of shock which makes it easier for foreign powers to impose liberalization and privatization projects.[1] In the Lebanese context, liberalization and privatization are often on the agendas of big international organizations. This was the case during the latest CEDRE (“Conférence économique pour le développement, par les réformes et avec les entreprises”) conference in Paris, which gathered “50 States and international organizations together” to “support” Lebanon in April 2018. The CEDRE conference stated that an “influx of refugees” has “affected the Lebanese economy, its infrastructure and social services”, and made any aid conditional on reform, especially through liberalization and privatization policies.

Actually, in Lebanon, laissez-faire and neo-liberal policies are often entangled with clientelism, and both play a role in urban development, and infrastructural works and management.[2] This paper suggests that we take a closer look at the relationship between crisis and neo-liberal projects in the specific case of a country where clientelism rules. What makes crisis periods in Lebanon such a fertile ground for destructive forms of urban development?

In Lebanon, state institutions are victims of clientelist networks and apportionment. In fact, clientelism has been prevalent in the Lebanese society for centuries, even in the pre-modern state era, and is thus a structural element of society.[3] This paper argues that there are opportunistic relationships that rule over the patron-client networks.[4] It understands crisis and neoliberal laissez-faire policy as an opportunity feeding patrons and clients, and shaping their relationships. This paper will unravel this opportunism by reflecting on some of the author’s experiences as part of an urban activist’s initiative in Saida by the name of Lil-Madina Initiative.

Urban Infrastructures in Times of Crisis

Saida is a coastal city, sitting between the Mediterranean Sea and the Lebanon mountain chain, which receives an important amount of water, and is the source of two main rivers and four smaller streams. Therefore, the local population has a long tradition of agriculture and water management. Since Phoenician and Roman times, a canal system has irrigated most of Saida’s coastal plain and provided the old city with water from the Awali River. The main canal of this system is called the Khaskieh canal (Sidon Aqueduct).

The ancient canal system in the northern part of Saida.[5]

However, with the turn of the twentieth century and the advent of modernity, several projects have compromised the water resources. Both the ancient infrastructures, and the plans and projects being developed in the past ten years, seem to be dealing more drastic blows to the city’s water logic.

In May 2013, at the height of the Syrian war and the peak of the refugee crisis in Lebanon, and while Saida was immersed in sectarian tensions and outbreaks of violence,[6] the municipality and Member of Parliament Bahia Hariri announced the re-allotment project, a process through which the agricultural orchards of Wastani to the north of the city will be land-pooled and re-subdivided to open up the area for real-estate development. With the re-allotment project came the plan to widen the historic Sultaniyeh road that runs above the Khaskieh water canal.[7] These two projects are useful to elaborate on the relationship between clientelism and destructive urban projects during times of crisis.

Overlooking the Sultaniyeh road and the orchards of Wastani that fall under the recent re-allotment project (taken by the author on 3 March 2012.)

The Destruction of Water Systems and High-End Clientelism

In the years preceding the re-allotment project, Mohamad Zaydan, the prominent business partner of ex-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, started buying orchards in Wastani.[8] Because of a plan from the 1960s to create a sixty-meter wide highway, which the government never executed, the price of some of these lands was low. Since Zaydan was close to circles of power and decision making, he thus was able to benefit greatly from new plans which the municipality announced in 2013: of re-allotment in the orchards after the announcement of moving of the planned highway to another location, as well as plans to widen the Sultaniyeh road.

Map of ownership of different patrons (political or financial) or group of patrons within the area that was announced as the zone for the re-allotment project in 2013.[9]

Zaydan would also have a great impact on the planning and design process for this urban development scheme, through his influence over the mayor and the DGU (Directrice Générale d’Urbanisme). Thus, at different phases of the re-allotment project, he advocated removing planned public spaces on the riverbanks and replacing them with roads or his private lands in order to take a private advantage of waterfronts. The story of the re-allotment project in east Wastani is a clear example of how patrons of Saida develop and manipulate projects for the sake of high-end clients[10] like Zaydan.

Clientelism and Fear among the Public

Looking at the process that guided the project, it becomes clear that the re-allotment not only served high-end clients, but other small landowners, who considered it an opportunity to raise the value of their lands. In October and November 2016, the municipality made a first draft of the re-allotment plan public during participatory meetings.[11] In this first plan, as per the recommendations of the Lil-Madina Initiative activists, the appointed planner of the project had imposed a setback on the Sultaniyeh road, as a measure to protect all of the ancient archaeological elements found on it, including the Khaskieh water canal.

Those meetings clearly revealed that the owners were mainly concerned with the values of their respective lands, and how to increase them. Many voices argued for increasing the floor area ratio within the zoning law, while others argued that they would not be able to build shops along the Sultaniyeh road because of the proposed setback. On the other hand, very rare were the voices that requested to keep their agricultural lands.

Generally speaking, the only people who publicly contested the new plans were the residents of the Qaya’a neighbourhood: the widening of the Sultaniyeh road and its servicing tributaries would cut through their houses. In late 2017, the activists of Lil-Madina Initiative, along with residents of this neighbourhood, organised a campaign and a petition against the plan, which gathered around three hundred signatures.

Graphic produced by Lil-Madina Initiative, showing in red the buildings affected by the projects of widening of the Sultaniyeh Road and Re-allotment within the Qaya’a Neighbourhood.

However, when MP Bahia Hariri visited Qaya’a as part of her electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections of 2018, she met the neighbourhood residents in one of the threatened buildings where she was welcomed with flowers. No one in the crowd brought up the concerns, not even the ones who were actively working on the campaign. In later encounters with the residents, it became clear that many of them rely on the MP for different favours, and were afraid of publicly criticising her during the event.

International Funds Entangled in Clientelism

Today, the Sultaniyeh road, with all its heritage value, and the Khaskieh canal that runs with it, are under threat of destruction more than ever: the public budget of 2019 has allocated around 12 million US dollars for widening the road, or half the budget needed to execute the works. The Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) is supposed to provide the other half.

In fact, the SFD promised Lebanon one billion dollars in loans at the CEDRE conference. The budget allocated to the Sultaniyeh road is an example of how loans and aid that foreign patrons give to Lebanon to cope with its crisis end up obliterating ancient existing infrastructure in the name of modernization.

Furthermore, these international funds are often entangled in dynamics of clientelism and corruption. In a country where the ruling class governs through apportionments[12] it is common that they award contracts for infrastructure projects (such as the Sultaniyeh road) to contractors close to the patrons.[13] Furthermore, the contractors need these big infrastructural projects to keep their businesses running; these international funds become precious opportunities.


This paper illustrates how crisis attracts international funding and aid that ends up directly feeding and even reinforcing clientelist networks. This happens through the development of urban infrastructural projects, which often compromise natural resources and obliterate ancient traditions of managing nature. Most importantly, they make the local population less self-sufficient in their use of local water resources and in their production of local foods. Land-owning farmers become mere owners of real estate, who rely on the urban projects of the patrons to increase its value.

In order for urban activists to battle against different clientelist projects that municipalities impose in times of crisis, it is not enough to raise awareness of the environmental impact of the projects. On the one hand, the patrons are only looking for what is financially and politically profitable in the short term. The clientele, on the other, is not only dependent on the patrons for jobs, welfare, and various favour. It is also implicated in the scavenging game, and thus directly tries to benefit from the different urban projects regardless of their long-term environmental impact or sustainability. Therefore, in a country ruled by patron-client dynamics, urban activists need to decide strategically on one of two paths. First, they can accept clientelism as a structural reality in Lebanon, and deal with it as an inherent part of democracy.[xiv]Their best option in this case is to search for new and better patrons. Or they can consider clientelism to be a form of corruption, and thus focus on developing strategies that can liberate locals from dependency on patrons, by helping them become more economically autonomous and create new political imaginations for their cities.

[1] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (New York: Picador, 2008), 6-8.

[2] Marieke Krijnen and Mona Fawaz, “Exception as the Rule: High-End Developments in Neoliberal Beirut,” Built Environment 36, no. 2 (2010): 246, http://www.academia.edu/1505063/Exception_as_the_Rule_High-End_Developments_in_Neoliberal_Beirut.

Reinoud Leenders, “Nobody Having Too Much to Answer For: Laissez-Faire,” in Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, ed. Steven Heydemann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 189.

Éric Verdeil, “Infrastructure Crises in Beirut and the Struggle to (Not) Reform the Lebanese State,” Arab Studies Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 2018), 85.

[3] Emmanuel Bonne, Vie publique, patronage et clientèle: Rafic Hariri à Saïda (Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman, 1995), 16.

[4] New Institutional Economics perceives an “opportunistic behaviour of agents”, and thus an “individualistic” approach of “individual purposes or preferences” within a certain framework of networks. Using the theoretical framework of “new Institutional Economics”, one can start understanding the opportunistic relationships that rule over the patron-client networks at different stages of the planning history of Lebanon. See: Frank Moulaert and Katy Cabaret, “Planning, Networks and Power Relations: Is Democratic Planning Under Capitalism Possible?,” Planning Theory 5, no. 1 (March 2006): 56, https://doi.org/10.1177/1473095206061021.

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, “The Approach of Institutional Economics,” Journal of Economic Literature 36, no. 1 (1998): 177.

[5] Lil-Madina Initiative, “Protecting the Khaskieh Canal (The Sidon Aqueduct); Finding New Roles for an Ancient Aqueduct,” 2018.

[6] At that time in Saida, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir was at the pinnacle of his political activity in the city blocking roads with sit-ins and calling on his followers to join the battles in Syria. In June 2013, a violent two-day armed conflict erupted between him and his followers, and the Lebanese Army with backing from Hezbollah.

[7] The municipality has been planning to widen the Sultaniyeh Road since 1967; it was always on the agenda of different politicians of the city who thought it would solve a traffic problem. In reality, it would exacerbate the traffic problem by creating a bottleneck at the end of the road when it reaches a certain roundabout.

[8] Actually two of the plots that were bought in 2013 are clearly registered under both partners: Siniora and Zaydan. For most of the other lands, they are registered under the names of real estate companies that are headed in the official registries by Zaydan and his family members, but are mostly owned by other companies that are registered abroad.

[9] This map is based on the land registration certificates as well as well retrieved by Lil-Madina Initiative in 2013, and on information the author collected during site visits.

[10] See: Ward Vloeberghs, Architecture, Power and Religion in Lebanon: Rafiq Hariri and the Politics of Sacred Space in Beirut (BRILL, 2015).

[11] The official planner of the project requested those meetings, and the municipality of Saida and the DGU organized them (Directrice Générale d’Urbanisme).

[12] Reinoud Leenders, “Nobody Having Too Much to Answer For: Laissez-Faire,” in Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, ed. Steven Heydemann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
[13] Workers from GENECO, a contracting company that belongs to MP Bahia Hariri’s brother, have been seen surveying the site by residents of Qaya’a in October 2019.

[14] Herbert Kitschelt, “Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities,” Comparative Political Studies 33, no. 6–7 (September 2000): 851–52, https://doi.org/10.1177/001041400003300607.

[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium held at University College London on 12-13 June 2019, as part of the panel on “Networks and Circulations: Waste, Water, and Power.” Click herehere, and here for other articles drawn from the same panel.]

Posted on Al Jadaliyya Jan 02, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.