Baalbek is famous for its food and ancient cultural heritage – and infamous for its criminal underworld. Al Sharawneh, the neighbourhood where some of Lebanon's most notorious cartel families live and operate, is a major reason for the city's mixed reputation.
The outlaw district is known for harbouring fugitives, flouting state authority, and running much of Lebanon's illicit drugs and weapons trades.
The town's streets are lined with Hezbollah’s yellow flags, displaying the city’s loyalty to the Iran-backed political party and its powerful paramilitary wing.
The party reigns supreme in the city, leading to the perception among many Lebanese that it could curb Al Sharawneh’s lawlessness – if it wanted to.
“The assumption that Hezbollah is in control of these smuggling and production networks is wrong,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a political analyst and research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
Hussein, 27, a Baalbek resident who often visits Al Sharawneh and declined to give his real name, agreed.
“Maybe Hezbollah is Baalbek’s party in terms of election results. They’re in parliament and in the municipalities,” he said. “But when it comes to Baalbek’s interests or the clans, Hezbollah can’t interfere. The families will say ‘it’s not your business’.”
At most, Hezbollah could act as a mediator between the cartel clans and the state, he said, “but the party has no control over them”.
According to an Al Sharawneh resident and member of the powerful Jaafar crime family – members of whom were this week involved in the kidnapping of the Saudi airline worker – their relative independence from the control of political parties is a distinct point of pride.
“God is our only authority. We rule ourselves. Otherwise God rules us,” said the black market money exchanger who declined to be named out of fear of retribution from the state.
“No one breaks us.”
When the Lebanese armed forces conduct raids on Al Sharawneh, it is at the military's own peril. It is common for operations to culminate in dramatic gun battles and injuries as outlaws attempt escape.
But the failure of the state to capture cartel leaders and gain control of the neighbourhood is not always a blunder.
According to Hussein, gangs often compensate authorities or politicians for turning a blind eye to the area's illicit activities.
Political allies of cartel members will sometimes give them notice just before military raids are conducted, giving them time to escape.
“It's all a theatre,” Hussein said.
Other times, the raids are sudden. Those usually happen when the usefulness of a clan member has “expired” in the eyes of political backers, according to Hussein.
The money exchanger from the Jaafar clan explained in a thick Baalbeki drawl that, “when the hand that feeds them stops feeding them, they [political backers] will stop protecting him -that’s when they’ll allow the state into Al Sharawneh”.
Al Sharawneh is, after all, a microcosm of Lebanon's political and socio-economic deterioration. The fragmented country suffers from an oligarchic feudal system run mostly by ex-warlords and their heirs.
A number of parliamentarians, members of the judiciary and its central bank governor walk free even as they face criminal or financial charges.
One of the worst economic crises in modern history has further weakened the state’s authority.
And the country's informal economy has almost overtaken the formal one as it slides further into financial collapse, entrenching the criminal underworld's influence.
Al Sharawneh neighbourhood is mostly controlled by two large families – the Zeaiter and Jaafar clans – who alternately work in tandem and competition.
“The Zeaiter family, who is basically infamous” – for being one of the most powerful and notorious drug trafficking families in Lebanon – “always complains about the Jaafar family,” said Mr Hage Ali.
The Jaafar family has formed a reputation for drug smuggling, organ trafficking, black market weapons trade, car theft, clashing with the Lebanese army and kidnapping foreigners – often to the more low-key Zeaiter clan’s chagrin, several residents of Baalbek told The National.
It was members of the Jaafar clan who were blamed for kidnapping Mr Al Mutairi, taking him to Al Sharawneh and demanding a $400,000 ransom. He was rescued in an army raid two days later.
The money exchanger from the Jafaar clan dismissed the kidnapping as an isolated incident.
“Probably someone owed someone money so they hired some thugs from Al Sharawneh to ransom him. In the end, it’s our area and our clan that gets the bad rap,” he said.
A security official told The National on Tuesday that gang leader Moussa Ali Wajih Jaafar was behind Mr Al Mutairi's kidnap.
But the official also suggested it was drug kingpin Ali Munther Zeaiter who protected Mr Jaafar following the incident.
A local honour code
The incident was emblematic of both the rampant banditry and the tribal honour code by which Al Sharawneh – and, more broadly, Baalbek – operates.
“They all feel a sense of duty to their society,” Hussein said of the Baalbek residents. “Beyond the drug dealing and trafficking, we are people who are known for our dignity, hospitality, ethics and our loyalty to each other.”
Despite the elements of lawlessness in Al Sharawneh, Hussein is eager to dispel the negative characterisation of the area as a poor, lawless slum.
The money trader, too, wished to clear the area’s infamous reputation.
“I won’t say Al Sharawneh has no thugs operating in it. But every area has people who are gentle and people who are thugs.”
The Baalbek-Hermel governorate is one of Lebanon’s poorest regions, which the Jaafari money trader gives as a reason the province has become synonymous with hashish production, drug trafficking and illicit smuggling.
“Baalbek-Hermel has been wronged,” he said. “The state hasn’t helped us. So we help ourselves. Why shouldn’t we generate money for the area when we’re forgotten?”
Both men told The National that the district is inhabited by people of all classes and ruled by unwritten laws that are not beholden to the Lebanese state.
“We’re a traditional people and we play by the rules of ‘osool’,” Hussein explained, using an Arabic word that roughly translates to “our origins”.
The closest English approximation to the word is the term “original gangster”.
By way of example, he told a story – an Al Sharawneh tale widely accepted as truth in Baalbek.
“A few years ago, the army conducted a raid on the Jafaar family and there were clashes,” he said.
“A Baalbeki soldier died in the clashes. On the day of the wake, the sheikh of the Jaafar clan came to the soldier’s family home.
“He brought his own son with him. He walked up to the father of the soldier and handed him his pistol, apologised for the death of the soldier, and said, ‘here is my son in his stead. Kill him if you want. We did not mean for this to happen'.
“The father didn’t take the pistol. Sheikh Jaafar stayed and served by his side until the end of the day.”