Although it is summer and the high season, there is an eeriness about Beirut’s city centre shopping arcades. The fashionable boutiques feature top international brands, yet but for the odd smattering of well-heeled shoppers, the stores appear largely devoid of customers. Nearby gleaming office blocks likewise seem bereft of activity. And some of the area’s glittering new apartment complexes also look distinctly vacant.
It’s in stark contrast to the city’s palm-lined popular corniche, a waterfront promenade, along which most evenings Beiruti families stroll, enjoying the sea air. There was a time when they would have also frequented the city centre’s former labyrinthine Ottoman-era markets and cafés. But they have long since given way to glitzy malls – part of the controversial urban facelift that has transformed the capital.
Prior to the civil war that raged for 15 years, laying waste to much of the historic downtown, Beirut was widely regarded as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with its fashionable cafes, hotels and clubs serving as a playground for high society from the region and beyond. Amid the mortar-blasted remnants of this bygone age, the then-prime minister Rafik Hariri set about a rebuilding programme that sought to restore the city’s former reputation.
In 1994, four years after the war ended, Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate, set up a company, Solidere, to drive the urban renewal project, buying up land and battered properties. After his assassination in 2005, it continued to fulfil his ambitious plans, becoming the country’s largest real estate firm. Over the years, some the city’s architectural pearls were restored to their onetime French colonial and Levantine grandeur, others converted into ersatz variants.
The flagship development project, Beirut Souks, a large commercial district boasting over 200 shops, was built on the site of an old network of markets, a no man’s land during the civil war. Today, the area betrays little of its pre-conflict architecture. Now, it seemingly has more in common with London’s Knightsbridge or Dubai than a Levantine city.
The original planners may have had good grounds to imagine that the city’s refashioned commercial centre would become a hive of activity. They were counting on wealthy Gulf Arabs continuing to regard Beirut as their second home and hoped, that with the civil war a distant memory, more international tourists would visit the capital. But tensions with Israel and then the Syrian war and a related souring of relations with the Gulf put paid to that.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Lebanon to escape the fighting just across the border, stretching already over-strained financial resources. A further source of instability was the active support of the Iranian-backed militia-cum-political party Hezbollah for the Assad regime. The very real prospect of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon fuelled fears of a return to inter-communal violence that had scarred the country a generation before. The chaos and turmoil took its toll on tourist numbers, but worse was to come.
Hezbollah’s regional allegiances and its increasing assertiveness in Lebanese politics concerned the Saudi authorities who banned their nationals from visiting Lebanon in November 2017. They cited security reasons, but a clear political message was being sent. Other Gulf states followed suit with travel warnings. As a result, the region’s affluent classes and royal households turned their backs on a much-favoured holiday destination, leaving many of its boutiques idle and newly built condominiums unoccupied.
The project’s detractors would point out that while restoring the centre was a priority, the focus on high-end was a mistake. They say the makeover put off and priced out ordinary Lebanese, and diverted attention away from arguably more important needs, such as improvements to basic infrastructure and utilities in the capital and beyond which have suffered from decades of underinvestment.
Supporters of the city’s redevelopment, however, might argue that its time will come – and that, once regional tensions ebb, foreign investors will return. Indeed, earlier this year the Saudis lifted their travel restrictions, raising hopes among Lebanese businessmen of a revival in fortunes. There is little sign of that right now.