In the grand hotel lobby, you can see into the Arab soul

There is something about the affected grandeur of the big five-star, in-your-face hotel that sits well with the Arab psyche.

Maybe it has something to do with the historic role of the diwan in our culture, but when it comes to hotels, we Arabs don't really do boutique.

There is something about the affected grandeur of the big five-star, in-your-face hotel that sits well with the Arab psyche. These places tend to have vast lobbies, and we Arabs like our lobbies. Lobbies are where we hold court.

Arabs look at hotels differently from, say, Americans or Europeans, who view them as places to sleep after perhaps a day of vigorous sightseeing. The Arab age of discovery ended in the 14th century with Ibn Battuta, arguably the greatest ever traveller, so there is no point in trying to emulate the rigours of his achievements. So when we do travel, we tend to sit around. Hence you really can't beat a really good lobby with waiters endlessly bringing you refreshments and where, in a state of blissful torpor, you can watch the world go by.

The hotel has played a huge role in the development of the modern Middle East, most notably the Gulf during the past 40 years. There, if one wanted to meet, one did so at a hotel. If one wanted to dine, it would be at a hotel. Hotels were more often than not the first places to open as part of the advance guard of services that caught an early whiff of an economic boom.

In Beirut, I divide hotels into two broad categories: lobby and non-lobby. My favourite hotel is the Albergo, situated on the magnificently named Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi, but it is definitely non-lobby. The ground floor, while achingly cool, simply doesn't have one. That the Albergo has only 30 rooms might also (unfairly) mark it as pokey, while the decor, by the London-based Lebanese designer Tarfa Salam is, I suspect, too kitschy. As a rule of thumb, I would say, the lobby crowd prefers functionality to aesthetics.

Le Gray, one of the newest hotels in town, is also non-lobby (although its London sister, One Aldwych, has one that we Arabs could really settle into even if it sits outside our usual stamping grounds). It could have something to do with Le Gray's hollowed-out middle that does not appeal to the lobby crowd's sense of grandeur. I'm not saying that Le Gray isn't imposing; it's just non-lobby.

So where does the lobby crowd go? The emperor of the lobby hotels has to be the InterContinental Phoenicia. Before the war, it was the loud upstart to the more low-key glamour of the Hotel St-Georges, and the Phoenicia's lobby was what made it more Las Vegas than Levant.

I spent my childhood summers around the pool at the Phoenicia (I guess that makes my parents lobby people, which would make sense). There was a bar downstairs in which patrons could view swimmers gaily treading water or cavorting under the surface. The flashier customers would order drinks by swimming down and tapping on the glass and signalling to the barman that they needed a refill. Very lobby!

The St-Georges on the other hand was more elegant. It had a diving platform 50 metres out into the bay on which couples could discreetly sunbathe in blissful seclusion. The St-Georges was the place to get a tidbit of info or broker a deal, but I would venture that it wasn't a true lobby hotel.

Sadly, the party came to an end. In the first year of the civil war, both establishments, along with the nearby Holiday Inn, became killing fields as militia fighters slaughtered each other.

In the late 1990s, the Phoenicia was rebuilt almost as it was. Today, the pool is a different shape but is basically in the same place. Even the fez-wearing doormen look the same. The lobby is still magnificent and fulfils the Arab need to sit and talk in a setting that equates to our sense of self-worth.

Around the corner is Le Vendome, another InterContinental and the chain's boutique Beirut hotel. I suppose that by "boutique", those nice people at InterContinental mean it is small - it has fewer than 100 rooms - but its lobby still exudes the opulence beloved of the Middle Eastern nabob.

The UAE Al Habtoor, no doubt with GCC travellers in mind, built the Metropolitan Palace Hotel in the drab suburb of Sin el Fil. No one expects to do much sightseeing in Sin el Fil, so when guests are not strolling through the Souks shopping mall in the Beirut Central District, they can enjoy a most opulent lobby, one that compares favourably with and may even eclipse the Phoenicia's.

The lobby hotel really came into its own in the early 1970s during the heady days of the Opec oil crisis and raffish PLO warrior savants. The region is once again turbulent, and oil is once more on our minds. So get out your worry beads, order a coffee, chain smoke and contemplate an uncertain future.

Michael Karam is a publishing and communication consultant based in Beirut

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