Nips, tucks shift to the Gulf to allay kidnapping fears

Many of Lebanon's plastic surgeons have moved their base of operations after foreign clients steer clear of perceived kidnapping threat. Hadeel Al Sayegh reports

Elias Shammas, a cosmetic surgeon, sounds wistful when he talks about the steady stream of Gulf Arab women that would visit his practice in Beirut.

Women from the UAE and the wider Arabian Gulf had long converged on Beirut for nips and tucks. They would enjoy the weather and scenery while maintaining their privacy while recovering from their surgeries.

"They would come here for procedures and go up to the mountains in Brummana and recover there," said Dr Shammas, the medical director of the Hazmieh International Medical Centre in Beirut.

"Upon return, when people say something looks different about them. They would reply: 'We ate apples in Lebanon. We feel good.' They don't say we did surgery."

But now, Lebanese plastic surgeons such as Dr Shammas are shifting the focus of their practices to the Gulf after the number of patients have dropped by a third in the past four months. A major reason for the loss in patients is Syria's civil war, which started to spill into Beirut last year. The civil war sparked tensions between supporters of Bashar Al Assad's government and those who supported the opposition that led to clashes and bombings.

In August, Gulf countries issued travel warnings to Lebanon after a wave of kidnappings related to the civil war targeted Gulf Arabs.

"It's a pity. We are not more dangerous like Africa, Iraq or Afghanistan that don't have travel bans," said Dr Shammas, who is also affiliated with Image Concept, a Lebanese tourism firm that has a focus on plastic surgery with offices in Dubai.

"If the situation remains like this in Lebanon we will have to look at other options," he said. "I am thinking either Kuwait or Qatar."

Dr Nader Saab, another Lebanese plastic surgeon, has started flying in his medical team to the Dubai Healthcare City once a week for surgeries.

He is no stranger to Dubai, having offered consultations in the city every three weeks since 2006. While advice was offered in Dubai, surgeries were always conducted in Beruit - until this month.

"If they won't come here, you have to go there," Dr Saab said. "I haven't been affected like the others in Beirut, but some of my patients are hesitating to come to Lebanon because of the political situation. They don't want to take the risk even though there's nothing."

A 29-year-old Emirati woman who had rhinoplasty - a procedure more commonly known as a nose job - in Beirut last year, said she has made an appointment for further cosmetic enhancing in Dubai when her Lebanese surgeon started operating there.

"It's the experience of it all," she said. "The pampering. And the trust factor, that they do this all the time and nothing could potentially go wrong."

Doctors that remain in Beirut are relying on Lebanese citizens and diaspora, known for their preference for plastic surgery, to make up for the declining number of patients from the Gulf. Lebanon's First National Bank offers personal loans for up to US$5,000 (Dh18,350) for plastic surgery, according to its website.

"We still have volumes from the Lebanese locals and those from other countries," said Dr Tarek Husami, who runs his own practice in Beirut. "We are still alive, we are still working. Lebanon always picks up."