With video: It was intended to be one of the most luxurious hotels in Homs – but snipers have taken over the site where Rotana hoped to run the 285-room Gardenia hotel.
From hotel dream to Syria Death Tower reality for Abu Dhabi-based investors
It was intended to be one of the most luxurious hotels in Homs - now it is known as the Death Tower by residents of the besieged old Syrian city that it overlooks.
Perched high on a hill 500 metres above sea level, the commanding views made it a natural location for its Abu Dhabi-based Syrian developer. But today those same views are used to deadly effect by snipers affiliated to Bashar Al Assad's government who rain terror on to the streets below.
"The area around the building is quite classy. People in our neighbourhood walk around it, they don't care," says Maher, a university student studying engineering in Homs.
"But they are aiming and shooting at the old city of Homs, an area that has poor to middle-class families that has become a stronghold for the Free Syrian Army."
The 285-room Homs Gardenia hotel was to have been operated by Abu Dhabi's Rotana Group. Dubai's Drake & Scull International (DSI) was appointed as one of its contractors with a Dh85 million contract.
Today only the concrete skeleton of the building is finished, while some of the windowless suites are occupied by snipers rather than holidaymakers. Videos on YouTube show gunmen firing from the building.
"We call it the Death Tower," says a Homs resident, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There are streets we can't cross because of the sniper. Shooting from the tower could erupt any time but at night it's likely to be more vicious."
Rotana hopes to revive the project one day, but with a civil war raging all around it, there can be no assurance of when that could happen.
"Everything is suspended in Syria," says Amal Harb, the corporate vice president at Rotana Group in Abu Dhabi. "It's a delicate situation."
The group has two operating hotels in the country but at least four more are under development throughout Syria.
"Concrete is concrete. But I hope that peace will come back," says Mohammed Murtada Al Dandashi, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Al Ramz Securities, one of three investors in the Homs project. "It's hard to say anything related to business when people are losing their lives and their houses."
Mr Al Dandashi has had to restructure a US$100 million loan from Syria International Islamic Bank and Sham Bank, used to develop the tower. The tenure has been extended from two years to eight years.
Rotana's Gardenia is one of several projects planned by Gulf companies that were trying to capitalise on Syria's thriving economy as Mr Al Assad, the country's president, warmed to foreign investment, previously banned under his father and predecessor in office.
Syria's property sector was booming on the back of an influx of Iraqis that had fled sectarian violence in their home country and had taken up residence and started businesses in Damascus. The flood of investment helped to drive up property prices.
A 2010 report by Cushman & Wakefield ranked Damascus in 32nd place for the most expensive commercial space in the world, just below Dubai and Doha, but above other locations in the region including Cairo and Istanbul.
The Gardenia project, launched in 2010, was awarded to the Saudi Binladin Group as the main contractor.
"We are extremely proud of our project win in Syria, a country boasting a promising market - one that offers many potentially lucrative opportunities, particularly in the construction industry," DSI's chief executive Khaldoun Tabari said at the time.
In the capital, Emaar Properties' US$500 million financial hub to house the Damascus Securities Exchange has also been hit by the war.
The bourse's building "was 50 per cent completed before the crisis", said Mamoun Hamdan, the exchange's chief executive.
"We spoke with the developer and said that this building should be completed. We then signed an agreement with a Syrian company called Al Banoun Al Mutahidoun and they completed the remaining portion," he added.
With the two-year conflict becoming even more fragmented amid infighting between anti-government militias, it seems hard to imagine the Gardenia delivering the image of luxury and leisure promoted at its 2010 launch.
"You can't say you lost money and lost projects when people are losing their lives," Mr Al Dandashi says. "We want everything to get better."