After hard holiday partying, tough times for Beirut

Social life was ruthless in Beirut last week, when hotel rooms, closely followed by tables at the top restaurants, were the new currency in a town where the tourist industry rallied for one last hurrah.

Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, a movie about the excesses of Wall Street. AP Photo
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In American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis's 1991 satirical novel of American yuppiedom and Wall Street excess, the anti-hero Patrick Bateman is an impossibly handsome, homicidal financier to whom everything and everyone comes easily. Except, that is, a reservation at Dorsia, the fictional New York restaurant so beloved of his cronies.

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It is the chink in Bateman's social armour, and in one passage we read of his humiliation when Dorsia's maître d'hôtel laughs hysterically down the phone at Bateman's attempt to book a table.

He would have found life equally ruthless in Beirut last week, when hotel rooms, closely followed by tables at the top restaurants, were the new currency in a town where the tourist industry, desperate to forget its appalling performance last year, rallied for one last hurrah.

Occupancy rates hit 100 per cent, while Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's national carrier, had reportedly closed its waiting list until Tuesday of this week.

Beirut, for a few days at least, was restored as the region's favourite party town. Hotel receptions and maître d's may not have fallen about laughing, but the underlying smugness was back. "Sorry we are fully booked."

Beirut also gave Dubai a run for its money in the shopping stakes. By last Saturday evening, the Four Seasons Hotel (I am sure it was the same picture across town) was a clearinghouse, with bellboys busily stapling room numbers to the shopping bags of goodies that poured into the lobby before shuttling them up to the coveted suites.

Monday was a holiday, so it was only on Tuesday that the Lebanese finally faced up to the fact that there was a hard and potentially traumatic year ahead. The country had done pretty well out of the arctic economic climate that gripped much of the world from late 2008.

Its conservative banking sector had avoided the subprime massacre, and a robust GCC economy, surging on the back of rising oil prices, pumped its black harvest into Lebanon, especially in property, tourism and retail. And all the while the remittances kept flowing in. But these do not an economy make, and it looks very much as if this year Lebanon will finally pay for its short-term behaviour.

The government appears to be concerned only with increasing revenue and is reportedly considering increasing value added tax, as well as tax on interest and property sales. Meanwhile, capital outflows are a reflection on the country's proximity to troubled Syria.

If there is a bright side, the Lebanese pound, as usual, is secure, but that's about it. And we thought 2 per cent GDP growth was bad. We'd take that tomorrow if it were offered. The pundits are predicting zero growth or worse.

There may be more sinister problems for Lebanon. On Saturday morning I was getting my haircut. The barber took great delight in telling me he had been all over Lebanon apart from the south.

"Ah well, that can be difficult," I said, trying not to get drawn into a political debate.

"It's because it's not ours," he countered, cheerily tucking in my bib. "Mind you, they [Hizbollah] can have it."

He went on to tell me about the spate of night-time purse snatchings on the street that passes his shop. "They are all [Amal leader] Nabih Berri's thugs, not [Hizbollah] but they do it too, in other places." It remains to be seen how many of the party people will be back in 359 days. Then again, maybe Lebanon will always get by.

Maybe its willingness to pull one big party popper no matter what the circumstances will always endear it to Arabs, even - or especially? - those Lebanese who have left for countries they perceive as offering greater opportunities. But a handful of glamorous shops and the energy to lay on a half-decent party is not enough.

The economy is deteriorating, and a segment of an inherently suspicious population is worried, not only about its wallet, but also about its survival and identity.

Michael Karam is associate editor in chief of the Lebanese magazine Executive

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