07.01.2016 | Beirut’s spirit of enterprise

The last time I visited Beirut four years ago, the city’s downtown area was bustling. Rich Gulf Arab visitors thronged this high-class shopping district. But these days, the glitzy fashion stores are struggling. Since the oil price plunged, their clientele have stayed at home. This once vibrant area now seems dead.

It’s the most visible sign of the financial crisis facing Lebanon.  Wealthy Arab visitors have been replaced by legions of refugees from neighbouring Syria.  Over a million have flooded into the country putting a huge strain on the economy, although you don’t see many of them in the centre of town.  Those now living in the capital were amongst the first wave of refugees, mostly affluent and well-connected, who had the means to settle in the posher suburbs.

Occasional car bombings linked to Syria remind residents of the bloody war raging across the border.  But over the years, Beiruties have become inured to violence and instability, and are seemingly unfazed by the huge security presence in the city centre.  Heavily-armed men stand guard outside all the major buildings.  They have a bewildering range of uniforms and insignia.  You’re never quite sure who they work for – militia, private security firms or the state.  It’s probably best not to ask.

Despite the large contingent of refugees, people in Beirut seem more preoccupied with the lack of effective government at home than the effects of the war next door.  The current administration struggles to make decisions.  Last year, it took weeks’ of protests over piles of rubbish collecting on the streets to force officials to resume waste disposal services.  Electricity is a perennial problem, with daily outages lasting up to three hours.  Private generators are at the ready, but it can be exasperating.

Although the economic outlook is gloomy, there seems to be a lot of money sloshing around.  Property prices are high and top-of-the-range cars are everywhere.  If you visited any other developing country and spotted a Mercedes you’d assume that it belonged to a member of the elite.  Not so in Lebanon.  It is hard to fathom how the local economy sustains such wealth, as you don’t see much sign of commercial activity.

The anomaly can be explained, it seems, by two factors:  many of the city’s communities are supported by foreign connections and there is a huge shadow economy.  For example, the private generators that most homes are hooked up to are run by politically-connected businessmen.  The electricity crisis remains unresolved because of infrastructure problems, but also because the government has shown reluctance to confront the local power operators.  It’s the same regardless of whether you’re in a Shia, Sunni or Christian area of the city.

Aside from private business interests stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the dysfunctional authorities, communities are also hard at work organising social services.  The best at this are the Shia, with Hezbollah running the most effective local administration.  The group-run hospitals, in particular, are highly regarded.

With their energies focused on just getting by, you might excuse Beruities for neglecting relics of the city’s past.  Wandering around the centre of town, you can’t help but notice the numerous 19th century villas falling into disrepair.  Many of them are hollowed-out shells with just the remnants of their once elegant facades. 

Unfortunately, there is little incentive for developers to renovate them.  With rents fixed at well below market rates, they’d struggle to make a profit from renting out apartments.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if the ever-resourceful Beiruties find a way of getting around that obstacle as well.