The Director of Zoning and Urban Planning in Damascus governorate, Hassan Tarablusi, stated during a council meeting on November 7 that the governorate signed a contract with a company to study the master plan, also called the general zoning plan, for Damascus and its surroundings, covering an area of 59,000 hectares. Of this area, 11,000 hectares are within the city limits, and the rest are within the borders of the Rural Damascus Governorate. Mr Tarablusi mentioned that the Damascus and Rural Damascus governorates are working in coordination with each other to complete the plan.
Three zoning plans have been issued for Damascus: the first in 1937, the second in 1968, and the last in 2001. Since 2015, there has been talk of a new zoning plan for the city that considers various urban changes. The 2001 plan, prepared by the General Company for Engineering Studies (GCES) under the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, covers an area of 30,000 hectares, including parts of nearby Rural Damascus.
The zoning plan is a mechanism for implementing laws of zoning and real estate development and for removing informal settlements. Urban Planning Law No. 5 of 1982 outlines the process for issuing zoning plans; first, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing establishes the urban planning foundations for the area to meet the population needs within the broader scope of regional planning. Subsequently, the concerned administrative unit creates a planning program and initial concepts for the general zoning plan. If the Ministry approves the initial concept of the general plan, the administrative unit, in cooperation with the GCES, prepares the general and detailed zoning plan according to Law No. 5.
The GCES, established in 1980, was merged with the General Company for Water Studies under Law No. 12 of 2019, which indicates the company’s primary role in zoning and planning studies and in verifying these studies. The company has 11 engineering directorates covering most engineering specialisations, with more than 2,200 employees, including about 800 engineers. It has executed dozens of projects and issued zoning plans for governorates, including Damascus. The company actively works in urban planning and issuing zoning plans, often in collaboration with Damascus University, the Syndicate of Engineers, the Institute of Regional Planning affiliated with Damascus University, and the Higher Regional Planning Council (HRPC).
However, due to operational difficulties and to overcome bureaucracy and delays in the issuance of plans, it has become customary for administrative units to delegate the task of preparing general and detailed zoning plans to licensed private engineering companies. This process is carried out according to rules and procedures stipulated by the Public contract regulations issued by Law No. 51 of 2004.
Therefore, it is surprising that the Damascus governorate or its officials have made no statement regarding the company’s identity conducting the current study or how the contract was signed without announcing a tender or soliciting bids. There is a rumour in the Damascus governorate that the private company involved belongs to a businessman allied with the regime.
The Prime Minister has the right to compel the Damascus Governorate to work with the GCES, according to Article 7 of Law No. 12 of 2019. But it is unclear why he did not do that, especially when the Syrian government is trying to reduce its investment expenditures and costs to face the country’s economic crisis. Instead of contracting with public entities, the Damascus governorate has resorted to contracting with a private company without disclosing its identity and apparently without going through a tendering process. This is at a time when the Damascus governorate is neglecting some of its service plans under the pretext of a lack of resources.
This is not the governorate’s first attempt to pass along such contracts. Three years ago, it proposed transforming Damascus into a “Smart City” that optimally uses resources and electronically controls various public services. At the time, the governorate tried to quietly approve a contract with an unidentified company to carry out the project. The governorate officials then justified resorting to a private company to circumvent international sanctions and attract investors capable of bringing in modern technology without exposing them to sanctions.
Although the “Smart City” project was not completed, governorate officials said that the first step towards a smart city would begin with relieving the city of traffic congestion. At that time, the Masaffat Company won a contract for paid car parking services on the streets of Damascus. The company is owned by Syrian businessman Khodr Ali Taher, known as Abu Ali Khodr, who is considered close to the Syrian regime and has been on the US sanctions list since 2020.