With travel warning lifted, Lebanon awaits return of Saudis

40
283
With travel warning lifted, Lebanon awaits return of Saudis

Beirut, Lebanon – Tucked in a market square in downtown Beirut, the Paname Cafe caters to those with a taste for luxury.

A large modern art sculpture sits in the centre of the square, with benches around the sides where customers can relax in the sunshine.

But the cafe, and much of the upscale neighbourhood, which was resurrected under a multibillion-dollar project for high-end tourism and residences after the civil war in Lebanon ended, often feels deserted.

A sharp decline in tourist traffic triggered by the war in neighbouring Syria and the travel warnings by Gulf countries that came with it has weighed on businesses in downtown Beirut and across the country for years.

But a new era may be dawning. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced it is lifting its eight year travel warning for Lebanon. The decision has brought a renewed sense of optimism to downtown Beirut.

“I worked at Phoenicia hotel earlier and I know Saudis like to stay there because they like gold-plated decor,” Wissam Merhi, operations manager for the Paname Cafe, told Al Jazeera.

“Downtown is perfect for those who seek luxury. I am sure they will come here too and enable many shops to start and others to reopen,” he added.

In another block of the capital’s downtown area, around the famed Al-Abed clock tower and among several shuttered shops, Shireen Aabdi and her friend Nancy Abou Terek puff on an argeelah; a flavoured water pipe. 

Nancy, left, and Shireen enjoying an argeelah in downtown Beirut [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]

Aabdi said that whatever the Saudis might be trying to achieve by lifting the travel warning, there was no harm in them coming to Lebanon for a bit of fun.

“They can neither drink alcohol, nor visit night clubs in their country,” Aabdi told Al Jazeera. “And no girls,” she giggled. “They come here to have a good time.”

Tarek approves of it because of the prospect of Saudi money supporting Lebanese businessmen.

“It will help tourism, that is good news for all of Lebanon,” she said.

Spending big bucks

Lebanon suffered a precipitous drop in the number of Saudi tourists over the last eight years, with with visitor numbers falling from 190,000 in 2010 to a quarter of that by 2018, according to Lebanon’s tourism ministry.

Jean Beyrouthi, secretary general of the federation of touristic unions in Lebanon, said the trend was a blow to tourist-dependent businesses because Saudis take relatively longer vacations, opt for expensive hotels and restaurants, and spend “big bucks”.

“The Saudis come for the summers and lavishly spend which is great for the tourism industry,” Beyrouthi told Al Jazeera. “They own massive properties at the seaside and in the mountains, and that helps real estate. When they stopped coming, many people lost livelihoods.”

Al-Abed clock tower in downtown Beirut is surrounded by shuttered shops [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]

Beyrouthi added that the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Gulf states may follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and lift travel warnings on Lebanon, in place since 2012.

Travel and tourism is a mainstay of Lebanon’s economy, accounting for 18.4 percent of economic growth in 2017, and supporting 365,500 jobs. The country recorded 1.8 million tourist arrivals in 2017, still shy of the record 2 million in 2010, before the war in Syria and travel advisories started taking a toll on the sector.

While some are hopeful the Saudi decision could bring more deep-pocketed tourists and investment to reinvigorate Lebanon’s slumping real estate sector, others are more circumspect.

Naseeb Ghobril, head of the economic research and analysis department at Byblos Bank, warned that Saudi tourists have found other holiday destinations over the past eight years, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Morocco, and may not flock back to Lebanon en masse.

The return of foreign investment to the tourism sector is also not a given. According to World Bank’s 2019 Ease of Doing Business survey, Lebanon is ranked at the 75th place.

“Credible and concrete reforms to improve the investment climate are the only way to attract investments from GCC countries and from other sources,” Ghobril told Al Jazeera.

Resetting relations?

Walid Al Bukhari, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, said that the kingdom had received the required security assurances from the Lebanese government and no longer saw the travel warning as a necessity.

Saudi officials cited improved security and assurances from the Lebanese government as reasons for its policy change. But experts said that it was taken to undo the damage of its previous policies in Lebanon.

They said Saudi Arabia was changing tack more than a year after it strong-armed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign whilst in Riyadh. Purportedly, that was an attempt to contain the growth of Hezbollah, a dominant political and armed group backed by regional rival Iran.

The move backfired. Not only did the Saudis receive widespread condemnation for what many in Lebanon termed the high-handedness of the newly anointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it also turned the public mood in Lebanon against the Saudis.

The Lebanese hung posters across their cities accusing the Saudis of holding their prime minister captive.

Hariri returned to Lebanon after French mediation and rescinded his resignation. However, it was not he, Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician who is also a Saudi citizen, but Hezbollah which emerged stronger and gained a majority in the parliament along with its allies in the elections held in May.

A different approach

Thanassis Cambanis, the author of a book on Hezbollah and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, said that the Saudi leadership seemed to be acknowledging that they could not simply “order” regional allies around.

“It seems that Saudi Arabia has decided not to cut ties with Lebanon and with the Sunni politicians that it sponsors, a break that seemed a very real possibility after Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to fire Saad Hariri as prime minister of Lebanon.

“The new generation of Saudi leadership is learning, slowly, that other nations have sovereignty and that it can’t deal with other countries in the region simply as enemies or vassals,” Cambanis said.

The Saudi announcement, made a few days after Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif met Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and a few weeks after Qatar pledged aid worth $500m.

As tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran intensified, Lebanon became a concourse for their rivalry. Lebanese do not typically like to talk about the sectarian differences strengthened by regional powers. But even among friends enjoying the Argeelah, they don’t stay concealed for long.

Minutes after Aabdi and Tarek hailed the Saudi decision, the clash was evident.

Aabdi, a Sunni, did not see a negative side to the return of Saudi tourists. Tarek, a Shia, said that many people in her community opposed their presence as that would mean eventually politically conceding space to Saudi demands.

“Many Shia do not want Saudis in Lebanon because they support Israel, are against us and want Hezbollah to give up its weapons,” Tarek said.

Meanwhile, cafe manager Wissam Merhi sees no reason to place politics above business.

“Lebanon is safe for tourists. It is the media and political groups who make it unwelcoming but everything is fine here,” he said.

40 COMMENTS

  1. Hi! I’ve been following your blog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Atascocita Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic work!

  2. I just want to mention I’m very new to blogs and really enjoyed you’re web site. Almost certainly I’m likely to bookmark your blog post . You amazingly have excellent well written articles. Bless you for sharing with us your blog.

  3. It’s really a nice and useful piece of info. I’m glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to give it a look. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Exceptional blog and amazing style and design.

  5. Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one!
    It’s on a entirely different topic but it has
    pretty much the same layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

  6. I’ve been exploring for a little bit for any high-quality articles or weblog posts in this sort of space . Exploring in Yahoo I at last stumbled upon this site. Studying this info So i am satisfied to convey that I have a very just right uncanny feeling I found out exactly what I needed. I such a lot unquestionably will make sure to don’t disregard this web site and provides it a look on a continuing basis.

  7. Hi, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, fantastic blog!

  8. I’ve been browsing on-line more than three hours nowadays, yet I never discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is beautiful price enough for me. Personally, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content as you probably did, the net shall be a lot more helpful than ever before. “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” by Lawrence Peter Berra.

  9. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your site. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme? Great work!

  10. Hi, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, fantastic blog!

  11. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually one thing that I think I would by no means understand. It sort of feels too complicated and very huge for me. I am taking a look forward to your next put up, I¦ll attempt to get the grasp of it!

  12. After examine a few of the weblog posts in your website now, and I truly like your approach of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website record and might be checking again soon. Pls check out my site as well and let me know what you think.

  13. whoah this weblog is magnificent i like studying your posts. Stay up the good work! You recognize, a lot of people are searching around for this info, you could aid them greatly.

  14. There are certainly numerous particulars like that to take into consideration. That is a great level to convey up. I provide the thoughts above as common inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you deliver up the place the most important factor shall be working in trustworthy good faith. I don?t know if greatest practices have emerged round issues like that, but I’m sure that your job is clearly recognized as a fair game. Each girls and boys really feel the affect of just a second’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

  15. I really like your writing style, excellent information, regards for posting :D. “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk” by Laurence J. Peter.

  16. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

  17. I¦ll immediately grasp your rss as I can not in finding your email subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you have any? Kindly permit me know so that I may subscribe. Thanks.

  18. There are certainly quite a lot of particulars like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I provide the thoughts above as basic inspiration however clearly there are questions just like the one you carry up where an important factor will be working in trustworthy good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around issues like that, however I am certain that your job is clearly recognized as a good game. Both boys and girls really feel the affect of just a second’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here