In some cases, several Syrian laws have allowed people to convert the right of usufruct and disposal of Amiri lands into the right to own such properties. In other cases, laws have permitted the state to recover Amiri lands, a privilege that can be used to advance certain political agendas. These instances raise questions over the origins of state ownership over Amiri lands, as well as the legitimacy of this kind of ownership.
There is still some disagreement over the origins of ownership for Amiri lands. Some people consider them to be endowment properties possessed by those who have the right to dispose of them in return for a tax that they pay to the state. Others consider Amiri lands the property of their owners, who have the right to sell them, pass them down to heirs or invest in them–provided that the state may impose a tax on such owners. Still, others see these lands as properties of the state, with owners granted the right to dispose of them in exchange for paying a tax.
Where did Amiri lands originate?
Under the Law on Transfer of Immovable Amiri Properties issued in 1928, the guardians of such lands are given the right to dispose of them and distribute them to others so long as the state retains ownership. Syrian Civil Code No. 84 of 1949 enshrined this idea; Article 86 of the law defined Amiri lands as real estate properties that belong to the state, and over which the right of disposal may be practised.
Meanwhile, State Private Property Law No. 252 of 1959 classified state properties into 12 categories, the most important of which was Amiri lands. Under Law No. 252, Amiri lands may become “dissolved properties” when they go unused for a period of five years.
How do Amiri lands become owned properties?
People may come to own Amiri lands in one of the following ways:
The first method is through Article 919 of Civil Code No. 84 of 1949. Under this measure, 10 years after the date that they became the possessor of an Amiri land, an individual may register their right to dispose of that land, provided that they use the property for agriculture. In these cases, the official purpose of the land remains agricultural. Buildings may only be constructed on such properties within a limited scope and for farming purposes, according to Decree No. 785, issued by the Ministry of Local Administration in 2011. This decree includes a condition that agricultural houses on these lands may only be built according to the land classification plans guide.
The second method is through Article 15 of the Land Registry Law, which was issued via Decree No. 188 of 1926. Through this method, when Amiri lands are entered into zoning plans, they lose their Amiri status and become owned real estate properties. Essentially, the law allowed for Amiri lands to become property once they were zoned, thus allowing for the construction and other types of projects.
Finally, the third method is through the implementation of the agrarian reform law on the land. In general, lands undergoing agrarian reform remain subject to the Law on Transfer of Immovable Amiri Properties. However, a recent amendment to the Agrarian Reform Law, issued in Law No. 61 of 2004, prohibited beneficiaries of lands granted through agrarian reform from disposing of the properties that had been distributed to them until five years had passed since the lands were registered to them within the Land Registry–and after approval from the Ministry of Agriculture. The eventual granting of that disposal right means that the right of usufruct that had been given to beneficiaries through the Agrarian Reform Law becomes full ownership of their Amiri lands.
How can the Syrian state recover Amiri lands?
The Civil code grants the holder of an Amiri land the right to exploit, use and cultivate the property however they choose. However, Article 775 states: “The right to dispose of Amiri properties is forfeited upon failure to plough the land, or by not using it for a period of five years,” after which it reverts to state property.
The legitimacy of state land ownership
Historically, the lack of land ownership for farmers in the Middle East is related to the need for central authorities to regulate irrigation work, which the farmers could not do by themselves. This principle solidified with the Islamic states that ruled the region until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. These states imposed taxes on land beneficiaries without guaranteeing the right for farmers to actually own those lands. As a consequence, Amiri lands remained a major point of imbalance in the relationship between the state and the individual, as well as between public and private ownership.
For its part, the Syrian state that emerged after independence in 1946 found in Amiri lands a great source of enrichment that it refused to relinquish–unlike in some other states in the region that recognised the same concept yet chose to override it and transfer ownership of the land to the beneficiaries, such as in Egypt. Instead, Syria adheres to state ownership of these lands.
In other words, when people acquire the right of usufruct or of disposal for Amiri lands, leading to their ownership of the properties, this does not impact the legitimacy of the state’s original ownership over Amiri lands. Such lands are considered the state’s private property, according to explicit legal texts–meaning that the state is the only party able to determine the mechanism for disposal. In other words, according to Syrian law, the state owns Amiri lands and may distribute them to whomever it chooses, as well as take them back in some special cases. The state’s relinquishment of Amiri lands in certain cases does not cancel its ownership of the lands.