On November 5, the semi-official newspaper Al-Watan published a post on its Facebook page stating that a legal solution to halt the demolition of the BigFive Mall, which was built on public property without a licence, in Damascus was reached. As a result, the mall will become the Damascus Governorate’s property. The newspaper indicated that the state will carry out demolition and removal work on the mall when the area’s zoning plan is implemented in five years.
On October 23, the Executive Office of the Damascus governorate unanimously passed Decision No. 990, which included revoking the legal settlement decisions related to unlicensed construction on Property No. 722 in the Midan district. The decision entailed instructing the Directorate of Services Departments in the Damascus governorate to issue immediate demolition orders for unlicensed construction on the property.
The Directorate of Services Departments deemed the previous settlement decisions made in 2018 to be void. These legal settlements were based on evidence from the mall’s investor, claiming the building’s construction violations occurred before 2012. They thus were not covered by the Building Violations Decree No. 40 of 2012. It was later revealed that the evidence provided by the mall’s investor was false and that the violations occurred after 2012, as confirmed by aerial photos of the site.
The investor was warned to leave the premises and remove its contents, facades and equipment within 15 days, after which the Central Demolition Workshop of the Service Department in the governorate would demolish the building.
Initially, the property covered an area of 60 square metres and had a two-story traditional “Arab-style” house. The Damascus governorate expropriated the land in 1964 to build a park, but the plan was never implemented. In 1998, the Ministry of Education took over the property, intending to turn it into a school. Then, in 2005, the Damascus governorate reclaimed the property and decided to convert it into a residential building. It is unclear how the governorate changed the property’s classification to residential while owning it or whether it was leased out to tenants. Throughout these various stages, the building changed and had new floors added and expanded, eventually reaching four stories.
It is unclear when the property’s classification was changed to commercial and when a fifth floor was added. However, this process seems to have taken place before 2012. In 2018, the Damascus governorate issued five demolition orders (No. 6-10) for unlicensed construction on property, but these were not implemented. Later that same year, the governorate issued nine decisions (No. 891-899) to settle building violations on the property.
According to Decree No. 40, to legally settle an instance of unlicensed construction, the construction must have occurred before 2012. It must not pose a structural risk to the building. The violating building or section of the building can be legalised, added to the relevant construction permit and recorded in the Land Registry after the responsible parties pay fines.
The municipal services directorate is responsible for addressing the violation. The directorate’s duties include calculating fees and fines resulting from unlicensed construction that can be settled and preparing the necessary financial decisions. It sent a committee to inspect the illegal construction site and verify its illegality using aerial photographs of the area taken in 2012 before Decree No. 40 of 2012 was issued. In cooperation with the Ministry of Defence, these photographs were captured by the Ministry of Local Administration through an aerial survey of Damascus. Unlicensed construction within the building, not observable in aerial photos, is compared with the building’s plan attached to the building’s real estate records.
The BigFive Mall is located in the heart of Damascus’s densely populated and commercially active Midan district. The mall overlooks the Southern Ring Road and currently consists of a five-storey building, each floor housing a single restaurant, with juice and ice cream shops in its forecourt. The mall sees busy commercial activity daily and employs about 150 workers.
One of the mall’s notable investors is the Damascene businessman Bilal Al-Naal, a Syrian People’s Assembly member whose role in trade and investment has become prominent in recent years. Mr Naal was previously the general manager of the now-dissolved Desert Falcons security company, which is accused of involvement in war crimes and manipulating humanitarian aid delivered on behalf of various United Nations agencies. He has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2020. Mr Naal was also a former investor in the Qasioun Mall before it was taken over by his business rival, Wassim Qattan, who currently resides outside of Syria following accusations related to building violations that caused the collapse of a building facade in Damascus’s Al-Malki district.
AbdulGhani Osman, a member of the Executive Office in Damascus Governorate in charge of municipal services and utilities, told the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper that aerial images of the property showed that the unlicensed construction there occurred after 2012, necessitating the implementation of Building Violation Decree No. 40 of 2012. In other words, the unlicensed construction on the site cannot be settled. Mr Osman concluded that the settlements granted to Property No. 722 in 2018 were void, as there is no new building licence on the site, which is still considered a four-storey residential building with a single electricity meter (there is a complaint in this regard from the Damascus Electricity Company, No. 845, issued on October 16, 2023). Consequently, the building was expanded, and an additional storey was added without a permit, along with excessive restoration work.
Mr Osman added that the property could not be expropriated because it is privately owned, contradicting previous statements that it was expropriated for the benefit of the Damascus governorate. This adds to the conflicting official statements about the property. However, it aligns with a declaration by Reema Jourieh, the director of municipal services, stating that Property No. 722 is divided into three parts, according to the zoning plan: one part will be a park, one part will extend a public street, and the last part shares a roof with neighbouring properties. This indicates that the property is partially expropriated but still partly privately owned. However, there is no information about the owners of this section.
Mr Naal or the investors of the restaurants in the mall did not issue statements.
The Damascus governorate’s decision sets a precedent by revoking a building violation settlement file. Obtaining a settlement for a violation, paying its fines, and registering it in the property ledger is a highly complex process, requiring significant influence and years of follow-up with the governorate, the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, the Directorate of Finance, the police departments and security branches. This usually occurs only after paying substantial bribes, which depend on the value of the property, its location and the extent of the unlicensed construction.