Lands of the Arab spring

Joseph SCHECHLA, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

Before and since the Arab Spring uprisings, much world attention has fixed on transforming central government institutions: presidency, legislatures and key ministries. However, contention at a far more-fundamental level, the « land question » is raging across the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) and promises to be a transitional justice priority for years to come.

Diverse forms of official corruption remain a central theme of the uprisings, and land fraud has emerged as a constant feature. Common are the privatization of public land and related resources and confiscation of private property to enrich the head of state and his entourage. Other patterns in the denial of land rights in the region have targeted already-disadvantaged groups, deepening their impoverishment, marginalization and taking their source of livelihood.

Yemen: Threat to Social Peace

Domestic land grabs across Yemen, especially in the provinces of Hudaida and Aden, were a major subject of popular disgust with the regime of former Yemeni President Ali Abdalah Sālih.

Already in 2008, Yemen’s parliament investigated confiscations of public and private lands by high-ranking government and military officials. The fact-finding committee revealed in an important 500-page report (2008) how 15 military and political figures used their coercive power to appropriate much of the lands in five governorates: Aden, Dhala, Ta’iz, Abyan, and Lahj. That report recommended that then-President Sālih choose between patronizing his 15 loyal land-grabbing accomplices, or instead seek legitimacy with the 22 million citizens of Yemen. He chose the loyalty of his entourage.

A second parliamentary committee in April 2010 addressed 400 encroachments on land in Hudaida Province, favoring 148 long-standing political, economic, religious and tribal leaders. There 63% of the province’s agricultural lands were taken from local producers, reportedly using armed gangs to consolidate the theft.

In 2012, after Sālih’s fall, parts of the 2008 report’s details were leaked. That confirmed the looting of 1,357 houses and 63 government properties in Aden alone. The problem gained severity in the southern region to spark resurgence of the secession movement.

The south Yemen land confiscations alone reportedly amount to an area equal to all of Bahrain. The Yemeni Parliament’s 2010 report warned that unlawful land acquisition would spawn new unrest in Yemen and threaten social peace for years to come.

Bahrain: Land is Scarce

The land grabbing in Bahrain is marked by its severity, by sheer proportions. Bahrain has the smallest land base of any country in the region (760km²) and is greatly dependent on food imports. Characteristic, too, is the looting carried out by a single family: the monarchic Āl Khalīfa clan. This is in an island nation where nearly half of its landed property remains foreclosed to Bahrainis while occupied by United States military bases serving the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Land is scarce.

Bahrain’s land includes more than 70km of coastline reclaimed over the past thirty years. That increased the landmass by over 10%. Reclaimed land, by law, is public and not subject to privatization. However, by 2008, some 94% of the newly created public resource was turned into private wealth of the ruling family. Because of the commercialization of coastal land, many of Bahrain’s traditionally small family fisheries have lost their livelihood and community.

For several years before the wholesale uprising against the Āl Khalīfa ruling family in 2011, youth and regime opponents openly protested against the lack of housing and livelihood prospects that result largely from the « royals »’ and their supporters’ self-enrichment with the land’s natural resources. The rulers’ confiscation of precious lands and all access to the sea coincided with material discrimination in public goods and services to the favor of minority Sunnis and other loyal expatriates.

The conspicuous royal grabs’ avarice even compelled the lower house of parliament (Council of Deputies) to investigate. Its March 2010-published study uncovered how the scheme ran, whereby 65km² of public land (>US$ 40 billion worth) transferred to private hands since 2003 without proper payment to the public treasury. No fewer than 16 techniques emerged, mostly involving the king transferring state property to private hands at the expense of the general citizenry1.

These include:

1. Creating chaos in the inventory of state property;

2. Encroachment on private lands re-registered to Khalīfa family members at no charge;

3. In the north around al-Manama, most land grants were distributed free of charge, of which just 12 grabs comprised an area of 37km²;

4. Public land granted to the Āl Khaīfa-controlled Stone Co. before their registration as state land;

5. Issuing replacement title deeds on the claim that the original was lost, without requesting the replacement deed, which violates the Land Registration Law;

6. Granting constitutionally nationalized reclaimed lands for private investment;

7. The Land Survey and Registration Authority unilaterally dissolving state ownership;

8. Land reclaimed from the sea with state funds, such as Jufair and the Diplomatic Area, illegally excluded from state property, with some title deeds having disappeared from the Ministry of Finance with changes in the file numbering sequence to hide the missing files;

9. The lack of an accurate inventory of state land;

10. Poor planning and management of the stock of state land, whereas many important public projects have been carried out on lands without proper ownership documents (e.g., the University of Bahrain campus);

11. Forfeiting valuable archaeological sites by failing to register them in the name of the state;

12. Land acquired for public purpose over some 22 years, but not registered as public, as in the case of Dilmun Paradise Water Park;

13. The absence of strategic planning of housing projects, exacerbating the scarcity of land;

14. Ambiguity and withholding of information relating to land-use and planning;

15. Shortcomings in the Ministry of Finance’s maintenance of state lands, validating royal orders to amend land records;

16. The lack of integrity of the Land Survey and Registration Authority in its role to uphold the public interest.

The official investigation found the prime minister’s advisor Shaikh ‘Isa bin ‘Ali al-Khalifa receiving bribes of $ 2 billion dollars (an amount equivalent to the state’s budget for a year). In the international bribery scandal over the royal-controlled Alba company (Aluminium Bahrain BSC), the king issued royal pardons for the defendants, while the cases were still before British and U.S. courts.

The byzantine nature of corruption in the management of Bahraini state property is so complex that the 2010 parliamentary report recommended a follow-up at the legislative, executive and judiciary levels, including a Committee on Financial and Economic Affairs to manage state property with investigatory and subpoena powers. The lack of access to needed information and documentation had hampered seriously parliament’s pursuit of the whole truth.

Egypt: The Discovery of Slowness

In the land of the pharaohs, deprivation of small-producing farmers has been a policy of state since the adoption of infamous Law 96, cancelling protected land tenure arrangements (1992). Over three years before the masses converged on Tahrir Square to topple President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, People’s Assembly deputy Gamal Zahran announced in a 12 November 2007 parliament session that the state had lost some L.E. 800 billion (€98 billion) through illicit privatization benefiting senior officials and businessmen.

Two years after Egypt’s 25 January uprising, court cases proceed at pre-climate change glacial speed, although some high-profile convictions of land fraud have resulted. In March 2011, Egypt’s Central Bank issued a letter, revealing the names of 138 persons alleged of corruption and influence peddling. The Attorney General ordered their monies frozen, and some of those figures still await trial.

In December 2011, the auditors of the Urban Communities Authority issued report No. 755 about former President Husni Mubarak, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif and other ministers taking state property, granting lands and villas to senior officials, select companies and elites of other Arab states. All such operations had the backing of the president himself, his ministers and the premiers

‘Atif ‘Ubaid, Ahmad Nazif (serving in 1999–2004 and 2004–11, respectively).

In late December 2012, current Prime Minister Hisham Qandil issued a decree forming a committee to investigate land fraud by the deposed regime. This new committee is headed by the president of the Cairo Court of Appeals Judge Ahmad Idris, and joined by 15 men with administrative, military and agricultural expertise. Among the emblematic land fraud cases is the 1,950 feddan (819 hectare) transfer to businessman Ahmad Bahgat for a pittance, which is the subject of a separate investigation. The depth and breadth of official corruption is sure to keep Egyptian investigators and revolutionaries busy for years to come.

Tunisia: Monopolistic Matrix

In a final act, Tunisia’s falling President Zineddine Ben Ali formed three committees to manage the crisis, but that did not save his presidency. Among them was a National Commission to Establish the Facts about Corruption and Embezzlement. Its November 2011 report explained how the corruption regime gradually spread and tightened its grip on all state institutions, distorting economy, judiciary, political institutions and social development. The Commission received over 10,000 files, investigated 5,000+ and referred some 300 cases to the judiciary. Certain administrative institutions (e.g., Ministry of Justice) declined to cooperate. The Central Bank refused to provide information for the crucial 2006–10 period.

With available information, including victim accounts, the Commission ascertained that most corruption took place where administrative authorities and economic institutions intersect, and fraudulent land deals were at the forefront. It uncovered the mechanisms of corruption to shed light on just how the executive profited by rezoning agricultural or fallow land for construction, or from one type of built-up land to another. They thus multiplied the economic value of the land for the land-holding members of the former president’s extended family and close associates. The Real Estate Bureau is implicated in forging titles to land suitable for construction, and illegally turning over state land for privatization at cheap prices, and sometimes for a symbolic one dinar, as was the case with farms handed over to ministers and others close to the former president. Such practice also arbitrarily annulled standing state contracts with local peasants who had cultivated the land for many years.

Much essential food production in Tunisia came directly under the control of the ruling clique not only by land grabbing. Distribution and importation also formed part of a monopolistic matrix involving most economic fields within the state, encompassing trade in everything from wheat to second-hand clothing.

Morocco: Under the Radar

Maneuvering barely under the radar of popular scorn is Morocco’s King Mohamed VI. Despite the global economic and financial downturn, this monarch actually doubled his personal wealth in the last five years. Mohammed VI comes in seventh in ranks of richest royals overall, with an estimated 2.5 billion dollars fortune, six times the treasures accumulated by either the Qatari or Kuwaiti monarchs.

The king is described as Morocco’s principle banker, insurer, exporter and cultivator, controlling the production and distribution of energy and food, as well as much of the communication sector. That moniker follows his 1999 enthronement as the touted « king of the poor. »

The state (land, people and institutions) subsidize the king with a monthly salary of $ 40,000, while the public pays « the king and his court » $ 31 million annually (18 times maintenance costs of Queen Elizabeth II and 60 times the French president’s budget). Locally, the palace’s annual budget exceeds the combined budgets of four Moroccan ministries: Transportation & Public Works, Justice & Freedom, Culture, and Agriculture & Fisheries. One calculation equates the king’s official budget with that of 375,000 average Moroccan citizens.

Today’s royal Omnium norde afrique (ONA) holding company contains dozens of subsidiaries in most strategic sectors of the Moroccan economy: food production, processing, distribution and export, related land and real estate, housing, mining and banking. While these companies were officially privatized in favor of the monarch, they continue to tap into the state budget by receiving subsidies that ensure their expansion with huge profits that further enrich the royal family.

In a country where most farmers eke out a living on less than five hectares, the king’s massive land holdings allow him not only to enrich himself with disproportionate advantage, but also to distort the agricultural system and sector.

The land administration in Morocco suffers from some of the same distortions that afflict the entire region. The land information system remains opaque and conceals the facts of who actually owns much of the country’s land.

Official data can be misleading. In fact, some 400–450,000 hectares (4–4,500 km²) disappeared from the land registry at independence in 1956, and even after the « moroccanization » of former colonial lands in 1970. Assumptions have pointed to a royal « land grab, » but the lack of a transparent land-information system obscures the record.

Struggles Yet To Come

The story of land in the Arab Spring countries continues to unfold under our feet. The revelations of usurping the people’s land, the essence of sovereignty, echo across the region. They shed new light on the nexus between corrupt governance and the mismanagement of the people’s land.

In building a new phase of governance aligned with popular will, one can imagine the contours of social struggles yet to come. They are the products of the past. The transitional justice processes that emerge reflect the understandable umbrage of a people who choose now to stand their ground.

1 See :