Qatar's Reconstruction Aid in Lebanon Envy, Conspiracy and a Lebanese Motor City

Qatar, the oil-rich emirate, has donated a quarter of a billion dollars to the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil in order to support reconstruction efforts there. But the generous donation has provoked a conflict with Hezbollah and is spawning envy, discord and conspiracy theories.

The applicants have plenty of time to admire their benefactor's image. Cloaked in a golden robe, the emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, smiles down upon the waiting room of his aid organization in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil. Hour after hour, the town's inhabitants sit on the artificial leather sofas below the portrait, waiting to finally be called into the office.

"What do all those people in the waiting room want?" the director of the aid organization asks rhetorically and opens his desk drawer. "This." He produces a bundle of checks issued by the Kingdom of Qatar. Each of them is worth $10,000. Every citizen of Bint Jbeil who wants to rebuild his destroyed house or apartment can receive up to eight of these checks.

That money is flowing in Bint Jbeil is obvious. Workers are mixing cements or setting up scaffolding on almost every street. The hum of electrical generators and the noise of diggers reverberates through the valleys. The construction work is urgently needed: Hardly any other city in Lebanon was damaged as badly during the war between between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

Heavy street fights

Hezbollah militants and Israeli soldiers engaged in the war's heaviest ground fighting along the town's steep streets and the frontline kept shifting. When the Israelis finally retreated, hardly a house had been left undamaged, and the historic city center -- known for its shady alleys -- had been reduced to rubble. Bint Jbeil became a symbol of resistance. The brand new town signs welcomed visitors to the "liberation capital."

"Set up new town signs -- they can do that," says the professor of urban sociology who directs the Qatar reconstruction aid project. When he says "they," he means Hezbollah. "But helping people -- we're the only ones who do that." The Lebanese man working for Qatar wants to remain anonymous -- not out of fear but because "Qatar speaks with only one voice"-- that of the emir.

And he has certainly proven generous. When his delegates arrived in south Lebanon in October of 2006, they brought glad tidings from their ruler. His Highness promised to pay for reconstruction of destroyed builings in the four cities and villages of Bint Jbeil, Aita al-Shaab, Ainata and Khiam -- whatever the cost. The emirate also promised to finance the reconstruction of all schools and places of worship -- regardless of whether they be Sunni or Shiite, mosques or churches -- south of the Litani river.

Engineers working for the emir were busy assessing the damage and writing cost estimates for months. The preliminary results: 12,000 houses were destroyed or damaged in the four townships and 475 places of worship need to be restored. The reconstruction effort will probably cost the Qatar state budget a quarter of a billion dollars.

Petrodollars for reconstruction

Unfortunately generous gifts tend to sow envy and discord. The petro-dollars from Qatar have led to a smalltown farce in several acts. It began with small-scale cheating and has since developed to the point where it involves serious accusations of wrong-doing and ulterior motives.

To start at the beginning: Only very few property owners had building permits when they built their homes -- a common phenomenon in southern Lebanon. And so they were unable to produce documents stating the exact magnitude of their financial loss. A 300 square meter (1,400 square foot) apartment was given a blanket valuation of $40,000. Every additional square meter gets the owner another $300. The upper limit is $80,000. Many tried to exaggerate their claims. "Hearing what people said, you would have thought Bint Jbeil consisted only of palaces," says the Qatar aid director.

The municipal administration -- which, in the Shiite stronghold Bint Jbeil, is firmly in the hands of Hezbollah -- was eventually made the arbiter for disagreements. The administration gave certificates to former homeowners for the loss of apartments not likely to ever have been the size stated, the aid coordinator explains. "They thought, the more money the city gets, the better. And those close to Hezbollah probably got more than a few extra square meters." Many neighbors have started arguing since.

A master plan from the United States

But what has done most to divide the town's inhabitants into two hostile camps is a plan that was developed in Detroit, in the United States. About 70 percent of the people of Bint Jbeil currently live there. They have found a way to make a living as employees of the US auto industry and set up a small community there. They only know the city of their fathers from their summer vacations, but they continue to cherish it as their home. Now, they want to use the money from Qatar to clear the rubble from Bint Jbeil's historic city center and set up a replica American suburb there.

"We came up with such a nice plan," says construction engineer Eimad Basi, who was charged with developing a master plan by the "Americans." "We wanted something really modern, even streets with plenty of room for traffic, a shopping mall, a pedestrian area with cafés and restaurants," the 40-year-old says. Basi tried to get close to the people from Qatar in order to promote his plan -- literally. The "Americans" set up their headquarters one floor above the aid organization from the emirate.

But the modernizers face a mighty opponent. Hezbollah wants the historic city center to be rebuilt as a traditional Muslim neighborhood. "And since the mayor is from Hezbollah, they will probably get their way," says Basi. For him, the situation embodies Lebanon's basic dilemma: "Open-minded people leave and go to the United States while the traditionalists stay here and control everything."

It's hardly surprising that Hezbollah is doing what it can to at least retain political control, given the financial supremacy of the Gulf Arabs. While the Shiite militia has given families that suffered from the war several thousand dollars each to buy new furniture and rent temporary accommodation, the tens of thousands of petro-dollars from Qatar make that kind of financial support look puny in comparison -- and damage Hezbollah's reputation.

"Religion is for God, and the land is for everyone."

And since the United States placed Hezbollah's reconstruction organization Jihad al-Bina on their black list of terrorist organizations last week, the militia's distrust of the generous emirate has grown to the point where the mayor simply refused to show up to a scheduled interview on the topic.

Now conspiracy theories abound about what ulterior motives Qatar could have. Some construction workers claim to have learned that the emir is using his money to soothe his own conscience. Qatar has the largest US military headquarters outside the United States, and much of the high-tech weaponry used to bomb Bint Jbeil and the surrounding villages is said to have passed through there. The local pharmacist has heard that the military company Qatar contributes to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has a 99-year lease for some land near Bint Jbeil. Sunni-dominated Qatar probably doesn't just want to purchase Shiite-dominated southern Lebanon, but also weaken it by settling Sunnis there, he speculates.

Chalil Bussi is one person who is becoming not just well-off but genuinely rich thanks to Qatar. He's a small, chubby man who can hardly suppress his blissful smile as he sits behind the counter of his construction materials store on the edge of Bint Jbeil. Yesterday was payday in the neighboring village of Aitana, and people are standing in line to spend the money Qatar has donated. "Careful controls ensure every dollar actually goes into reconstruction," says Bussi.

He thinks the allegations made by some of his neighbors -- that Qatar is using its wealth to buy the sympathy of people in southern Lebanon -- are hypocritical. "First they complain about the Sunnis, and then they come to my store with Sunni money and buy new bathroom tiles." His son Nabil also takes a pragmatic view: "Qatar is generous and the only Gulf state that has helped its brothers in Lebanon," the 27-year-old says. "That people should have a problem with them just because they're Sunnis really says it all. What is destroying our country is the hate between the religions." His father nods. "There is one thing the people have not understood: Religion is for God, but the land is for everyone."