After a 13-year hiatus, a private company resumed construction work in October 2023 on a hotel project in the Kafr Sousseh district near the Council of Ministers building in Damascus. The work continued despite existing court rulings in favour of the local residents against the construction company for infringing on their easement rights.
Kafr Sousseh is a residential area built on part of the Kafr Sousseh orchards south of Damascus city in the 1980s. The area is well-planned, its buildings are licensed, and it is inhabited by the upper echelons of the middle class, particularly businesspeople.
In 2007, Orient Engineering & Contracting, a part of the Toumeh International Group, obtained a licence from the Damascus Governorate to establish a hotel and commercial mall in Kafr Sousseh under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) system in collaboration with the Mövenpick International Group for restaurants and hotels. The BOT system is a method for implementing large projects, particularly those related to infrastructure, through a concession granted by the public sector to a private entity to finance, design, build and operate a facility for a specified period.
Toumeh Group acquired the right to operate the tourist facility for 25 years, agreeing to pay 11 percent of its annual revenues to the Damascus governorate. The implementation period was set at 1,000 days from the date of signing the contract, with a total value of SYP 500 million at that time (approximately USD 10 million).
According to the certified zoning plan for Kafr Sousseh in 2007, the project site was designated for residential construction, comprising four plots prepared for construction with a total area of 10,000 square metres. Construction was allowed on 12 percent of this area, with a height limit of seven storeys (meaning the area occupied by the building is only 1,200 square metres). The rest of the space (8,800 square metres) was allocated for gardens and amenities owned by the Damascus governorate.
However, before signing the contract with Orient, the Damascus governorate changed the zoning of its plots at the project site from residential to commercial and tourism, based on Urban Planning Law No. 5 of 1982, citing public interest requirements. As a result, the governorate was able to merge the four plots into one to establish a single construction block with a floor area of 8,500 square metres and vary heights ranging from four to 13 storeys, in addition to basements for services and car parking. This area includes malls, swimming pools and recreational spaces.
Orient started the construction in 2008. According to a correspondent for The Syria Report, the company committed multiple “construction violations,” including building without a licence on a heritage Endowments Ministry site from the Ayyubid period, which includes a dome and a mausoleum registered as historical buildings in Damascus city. Building regulations require a 30-metre clearance around heritage sites. Nevertheless, Orient isolated the heritage site with concrete walls and a roof, restricted access to it, and continued construction around it, despite official objections submitted by the Directorate of Tourism and the Directorate of Religious Endowments in the Damascus governorate.
Additionally, the residents who own housing units in the regulated area surrounding the project site have objected to changing the regulatory status of the site and, consequently, to the implementation of the project. Some justified this to The Syria Report’s correspondent, saying that when they bought their flats, they considered the area residential, overlooking gardens. However, the area has been transformed into a commercial-touristic zone, meaning that it will lose its residential character, becoming a source of noise and congestion, and the taller buildings will block their view.
Those residents believe that these changes will cause a decrease in the value of their properties, which, when announced in 2007, exceeded one million dollars per flat (approximately 45 million Syrian pounds). By the end of 2021, the price of an average-sized flat, between 120-170 square metres, in the Kafr Sousseh zoned area was around 2-3 billion Syrian pounds (USD 500-750,000).
The bigger problem was the encroachments made by Orient on the common obligations with the adjacent residential buildings, infringing upon the residents’ rights to easement, all considered violations of the building code in Damascus. According to civil law, the right of easement is an obligation imposed on a specific property for the benefit of another specific property owned by another person. The rights of easement include the right to pass through someone else’s land, to place pillars and towers in shared spaces, to extend electrical and aerial cables, and also the right to access lighting and ventilation. The building code imposes an obligation that prevents construction within five metres on the side of public properties and 10 metres between residential blocks. Orient did not adhere to these obligations and built on the entire plot.
Some of the residential unit owners behind the Mövenpick building filed lawsuits against Orient. In 2010, they obtained judicial rulings confirming the occurrence of violations and infringement of their easement rights, demanding compensation. The financial compensation for those affected by easement rights violations is calculated as a percentage of the value of the property they own.
However, the objectors have not received compensation, and the Damascus governorate did not remove the unlicensed construction. Instead, Orient completed the implementation and construction works, thereby converting the unlicensed construction into a fait accompli, a practice many private entities exploit, leveraging their relationships with influential individuals in the regime. In similar cases, the implementing entities resort to later reconciliation according to the prevailing building violations law after paying bribes to government officials to reduce fines.
At the beginning of 2010, after completing the main building block, Orient stopped its work, closed the project site, and abandoned it. It appears that this decision came after the emergence of engineering and financial disputes with Mövenpick International Group, which withdrew its brand from the project.
In October 2023, Toumeh International Hotels and Tourism Investment, part of Toumeh International Group, began working on the project site from where Orient left off. It is still unclear whether Toumeh International Group has reached a solution with Mövenpick International Group, what happened to Orient, or whether the hotel will eventually bear the Mövenpick name.
In any case, Toumeh International Group belongs to businessman Nabil Toumeh, a member of the Syrian People’s Assembly, involved in tourism investments, contracting, information technology and television production. It is a financier for several local media outlets such as Azmena, Al-Bahithoun, Al-Muaarad, and Al-Aswaq Al-Duwaliya. Mr Toumeh has been on the US sanctions list since 2020 for his activities supporting the regime.