Lebanon

Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut

Thirteen years ago, one of my oldest friends, Omar Naim, made a documentary film about Beirut’s Grand Theatre, a landmark building that once hosted the great touring theatrical groups and musical stars of Europe and the Middle East. The film was Omar’s senior project at university, and it went on to win a Best Picture nomination at the 1999 Student Academy Awards.

I composed the score for the film, and when I played it for my grandmother a couple of years later, she told me that her father had worked as a backstage grip in the theater in its heyday, and then later as a projectionist when it was turned into a cinema during the 1950s or 60s.

Apparently, during rehearsals for the production of Rasputin that is mentioned in the film, the great Egyptian actor Youssef Wahby (who played the title role) demanded that a real baby be used in one of his pivotal scenes, rather than the toy prop that he deemed not lifelike enough. According to the story, my great-grandfather stepped forward and offered up his youngest daughter for the role (my great-aunt Fadia), who was only a few months old at the time. Her siblings would always joke that her acting career had begun brilliantly with an appearance opposite Youssef Wahby.

According to the Solidere Annual Report of 2009 (here’s a PDF, see pp. 86-87), the Grand Theatre is to be turned into a boutique hotel within the next few years. This is yet another sad chapter in the history of the building, and a fitting epilogue to the film.

You can now watch Omar’s documentary on YouTube. It’s half an hour long in three parts. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

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Discussion

51 thoughts on “Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut

  1. Thanks for this.

    Beautiful.

    Posted by Gabriel | July 14, 2011, 12:00 pm
  2. But but….ISRAEL!!!!

    Oh wait. Wrong topic? :)

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 14, 2011, 1:05 pm
  3. BV,

    Let me make the connection. Solidere is a Saudi-Israeli conspiracy to rob Lebanese of their heritage. There, everything in order.

    Posted by AIG | July 14, 2011, 1:13 pm
  4. QN,
    What was the exact address of the theater. I think that I have seen a few inexpensive films there in the mid 60’s.
    Have you written other scores?

    Posted by ghassan karam | July 14, 2011, 1:14 pm
  5. AIG,

    Thanks. I can breathe easier now. My world is back in order.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 14, 2011, 2:03 pm
  6. BV,

    If it is not about Israel then its often Hariri’s fault. Get on with the program.

    Posted by MM | July 14, 2011, 2:29 pm
  7. That goes without saying, cause Hariri is an Israeli agent…

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 14, 2011, 2:41 pm
  8. What are you guys talking about?
    You talk more on what “Not to be” than you talk on what “To be”. You’re talking about talking, of the past.

    Now is the creative point. If you truly understand that the moment changes the “meaning” of the past, then you’d get going. Collectively people work as a unit.

    Think of Bees, Ants, you know… high cultures.

    @BadVilbel humoured us by raising the wrong flag.

    @QifaNabki my compliments to Omar Naim.

    Posted by theFool | July 14, 2011, 4:13 pm
  9. QN,

    I have been personally involved in the Grand Theater project with some of my closest friends since 2001 :)

    It is a loooong story and there’s an ongoing lawsuit on the subject with Solidere for years now. Ever wondered why nothing has been done on the renovation of the building itself up until now ?

    The project is not only a Boutique Hotel. The Theater itself was supposed to be turned into a wonderful project.

    I will not go into the details.

    It is ironic you brought it up, though.

    Posted by R2D2 | July 14, 2011, 5:04 pm
  10. Let’s move on to more serious and important matters … and rest assured the spirit of the Grand Theater is in good hands.

    Posted by R2D2 | July 14, 2011, 5:23 pm
  11. Thank you for mixing a little art into your political dialogue Loulie. I think you should start to do this more. After all art and politics have been friends (enemies?!) since day 1. And Lebanon specifically, has no shortage of either.

    Posted by Rosie | July 14, 2011, 6:07 pm
  12. Thanks sis.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 14, 2011, 7:12 pm
  13. QN,

    Is this the structure next to 3azariyye…Before Riad Solh square ?? If yes I remember people stoned to death sitting at a cafe at the front building (I think)at 7am when I used to walk to school…

    Help dude!!

    Posted by danny | July 14, 2011, 9:04 pm
  14. QN,

    Nice film. Hope someone restores the theater. The scenes of borj brought some emotions. Takes me me back to my childhood. Although I grew up in Hamra, I used to go downtown with my mom shopping at the Souks in the 60’s and early seventies. Downtown was very charming, full of life and quite busy. Most of the times we made the trip by Service, but sometimes we took the trolly from Bliss by AUB.

    I do miss that period a lot. The golden age of Beirut in my book.

    Danny,
    I do remember the 3azariyye quite well. It was accross from souk el samak.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | July 14, 2011, 10:36 pm
  15. For Pete’s sake… Pete..

    What the hell is more important? Haven’t all discussions been exhausted?

    I am rather interested in hearing more on this story.

    Danny… “Stoned to death”. Since I’m never sure in that part of the world… Did you mean Afghan-style, or HK-style?

    Posted by Gabriel | July 14, 2011, 11:12 pm
  16. Hi All,

    Been really enjoying the debate from afar the past weeks. Kudos to Mo and Gaby for having a really interesting discussion in the last thread.

    BV, you are right. We Lebanese have many issues. I think it all starts with the complete and utter lack of consideration we have for our fellow citizens. It only takes 10 minutes behind the wheel on the autostrad to see this.

    With regard to the Grand Theatre, and all due respect to R2D2… 7aram ya Beirut. Yet another public space meant for all being turned into a playground for the filthy rich.

    You can see this everywhere you turn in Beirut. The beautiful old souks has turned into an open air mall with all the same luxury designer stores that you find in every other enclosed mall in the country. The supposedly public beaches turned into luxury clubs where a family of 4 must pay well over $100 to enjoy the Lebanese coast for a few hours – and while there try to avoid being killed by the douchebags on jetskis.

    I have been looking at business-decision making in Lebanon since I returned here a little over three-years ago. I have not conducted a scientific test by any means, but have a ton of anecdotal evidence to show that the Lebanese make intuition-based decisions as opposed to data-based decisions. This pervades every facet of life, not just business. It’s silly the amount of waste due to really stupid or corrupt decision making.

    This pile of dung called Lebanon needs to cease existing. As a development professional it’s sad to say that it can’t be fixed. Interests are too entrenched and Lebanese too self-centered to make anything good of it. Give it back to Syria.

    Posted by Johnny | July 15, 2011, 3:14 am
  17. gabriel,

    Bekaa gold stoned lol…(HK specialty)
    I used to see these flaked out old men with ergilehs early in the morning in front of that structure. When was the last time it was operational?

    Posted by danny | July 15, 2011, 6:22 am
  18. danny,

    You could be referring to an old cafe. If my memory serves me correctly, it used to be called “2ahwet l’zez” (glass cafe). But that cafe was not on the same street of Azariyeh, it was close by around the corner and on the SW of Martyr square. Men used to smoke erguileh and play Tawleh there.

    You are correct about the Grande Theatre location, it was very close to Azariyeh building by Riad el Solh square.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | July 15, 2011, 9:53 am
  19. Yesterday when I read the comments after reading and watching QN,s post I was surprised, went back to reading it again thinking I missed politics there. well no it was a very interesting post about one of many situations in that small country that is being left alone to the corrupt few to take over the land in the name of Progress or in the name of Defending The Land… don’t miss understand me nothing is wrong with either, but Lebanon was and will always be these few trees, stones and pillars that attracted the world to come and visit. Not cabers or street cafes. Those were nice addition in small numbers to support the Ruins and Cultural background of the country.
    Banking, education, beautiful weather, mountains and sea among the many, has been the attraction… the welcoming and hospitality of the people has been the attractions.
    What the corporate Politician doing turning their positions from serving the people into buying them and changing the image of the country from a historic cultural place into a place for the Arab princes to come shop and play. Because it is easier for them to have a close by shopping grounds that speak their language than to go to Europe where they cannot speak their languages and they are not liked and welcomed there any ways.
    Thank you QN for reminding the told and in lighting the young about some culture that is being pushed aside.
    Thanks jhonny on 16 you sure said right.

    Posted by kt | July 15, 2011, 9:59 am
  20. Found this old piece by Anthony Shadid about Hamra and the acting/theatre scene.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/02/AR2006070200803.html

    Posted by Ras Beirut | July 15, 2011, 10:57 am
  21. The Beirut Report had a rather interesting post about the “Grand Theatre” based on a personal visit by the Blog author , Habib Battah, accompanied by many pictures that he took. It is an interesting read.

    http://www.beirutreport.com/2009/10/sneaking-into-grand-theatre.html

    danny,
    I asked Habib about the exact location and it is opposite the AlAzarrieh building at Ma’arad.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 15, 2011, 1:56 pm
  22. Ras Beirut & Gus,

    Thank you very much. Childhood memories are still strong…I hear the whole are has been “modernized”…

    Posted by danny | July 15, 2011, 2:33 pm
  23. “whole area”…

    Posted by danny | July 15, 2011, 2:34 pm
  24. Danny

    Why, when was the last time you went to Beirut?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 15, 2011, 3:12 pm
  25. For those who have been to the BCD recently it is the gorgeous structure across the street from the top entrance to the BCD – where Costa, TGI Fridays and Entrecotte are. Also across the street from the downtown archaeological site cum landfill of cigarettes, pepsi cans, plastic bags and overgrown weeds… And not the good kind of weed either!

    All the above are distinctively Lebanese relics – especially the TGI Fridays. Nothing says Beirut to me more than TGI Fridays… Who knows maybe they’ll put an Applebees in the lobby of the new hotel replacing the Grand Theatre.

    Posted by Johnny | July 16, 2011, 12:01 am
  26. When I first read the post I thought to myself: here we go again, another nostalgic piece about Lebanon. Then I said let me watch the video, maybe there is something grand about this place. 
    Honestly, I wasn’t impressed. Yes it was a nice place at the time it was built but it has faded away long before the civil war and the Hariri DT. It’s ridiculous to think that this place can be restored to be THE “Grand Theatre” of Lebanon. It’s too small, lacks basic logistical requirements of modern theatre and looks unsafe to deal with crowd management.
    The best thing that can happen to this place is to transform it into a boutique hotel.
    If anyone thinks that Lebanon needs a modern venue for performing arts, this is not it! Lebanese should stop living in the past and should embrace creative destruction (maybe if we start by a soft target like arts, we can do the same with politicians)

    Posted by IHTDA | July 16, 2011, 5:06 am
  27. IHTDA

    The last few plays I went to in Beirut were completely sold out for their entire runs, and were very enthusiastically received. The crowd was full of young people who were totally engaged by the material and seemed to be regular theater-goers.

    There is definitely a market for the performing arts in Lebanon; witness the 3 or 4 major summer festivals held every year, which are also generally sold out. Why wouldn’t a venue in downtown Beirut be similarly successful?

    Ok, so it needs to be renovated. Big deal. It would need far more than renovation to become a hotel. The place would have to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up, like everything else that Solidere did.

    Your argument does not make much sense.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 16, 2011, 6:07 am
  28. QN
    Where did I say that performing arts are not important? On the contrary I believe that this is one of few strength points of the Lebanese. Creative destruction should be looked at in a positive context. Where will you find better grounds to unleash creativity than in performing arts?

    As for transforming this building to a boutique hotel, some people feel that it doesn’t make sense. Others disagree (I refer you to the link you provided in the post above pp 86,87). I feel performing arts need a better venue than this building.

    Posted by IHTDA | July 16, 2011, 7:20 am
  29. Thank you QN well said. the least needed is another store. Boutique is nothing but a store….

    Posted by kt | July 16, 2011, 8:40 am
  30. It might be interesting to note that Masrah Al Madina in the Hamra district ( what used to be the Saroula cinema) was born when Ms. Ashkar failed to revive the “Grand Theatre” . She reports that Rafic Hariri helped her find the financing for the project which is arguably one of the major theatrical outlets in Beirut.
    QN,
    The theatrical scene in Beirut is vibrant but on a very small scale. Simply there aren’t enough patrons. Most shows, to the best of my knowledge, run for under two weeks and have only one performance each evening with a rather small crowd. A city of almost 2 million should be able to do better, much better.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 16, 2011, 9:44 am
  31. I don’t see why the space can’t be both a Boutique Hotel and a theatre. (Are there height restrictions in the area?

    I agree with Johnny that Beirut (BCD) really is just a playground for the rich. But the public space is beautiful, and it does belong to all Lebanese people. (Hey I walked around it, lounged around, snapped shots and got away without spending a dime, or sucked in to be seen with the In-crowd at Buddha Bar or some like establishment).

    Toronto’s building a Condo complex on top of a nasty piece of 60’s architecture performance center.

    http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS-fRmxILcE6PtSy2s2nfaekmjHOWqmEWQi3h-1DYljj_MhjVSHTA

    There is no reason not to be creative and incorporate the space and the history within a new purpose or a combined purpose. Maybe R2D2 can expand more.

    Posted by Gabriel | July 17, 2011, 12:26 am
  32. How Hariri ‘acquired’ his Beirut residence: a dark story that mirrors the story of downtown Beirut.

    Les langues commencent à se délier depuis qu’il n’est plus premier ministre…

    http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/16936

    Posted by Sophia | July 19, 2011, 8:51 am
  33. Sophia,
    Let me be very clear that I am not condoning any abuses by Solidere , if such abuses took place and if they can be proven. But I object rather strongly to the over all tone of the Al Akhbar piece . Eminent domain is a very well known principle that is practiced in one form or another in a large number of countries. It gives the state the power to expropriate private property and determines what is an appropriate compensation. The owner seldom approves of these transactions that usually are completed for projects that benefit the public good.
    Solider appears to have acquuired its property in Beirut through this process. What was wrong , in my opinion, is the alarming conflict of interest present in the fact that Rafic Hariri was in the government and yet was major shareholder of Solidere.
    What I would like to see is a challenge based on the fact that eminent domain is often done to benefit the public good but not a private third party , as Solidere. But even the above concept does not rest on solid grounds as one can argue that the benefit to Solidere had tremendous “Halo” effects that spilled over to the public sector.
    I am sorry to say that the AlAkhbar piece was full of inuendos and devoid of facts.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 19, 2011, 9:12 pm
  34. Mr. Karam I have always read your contributions on this site. Almost every time I felt how little informed you seem.. with respect to your educations and states whatever it might be I really think you are ill informed of many things about the country we all claim to love so much. Please do have an opine mind and do not label others that you do not agree with… over the years there are many facts about Solidere’s actions in the country. Frankly I am not AlAkhbar fan but there are enough people alive that do talk all the time face to face or on the media to give testimony of the wrong doing of that corporation. Please Mr. Karam I ask you to really do not take it so personally if some one points the faults of their highnesses the Politicians from all weave they all have a share in destroying the country…

    Posted by kt | July 19, 2011, 11:26 pm
  35. Mr. Karam,

    “What I would like to see is a challenge based on the fact that eminent domain is often done to benefit the public good but not a private third party , as Solidere. But even the above concept does not rest on solid grounds as one can argue that the benefit to Solidere had tremendous “Halo” effects that spilled over to the public sector.
    I am sorry to say that the AlAkhbar piece was full of inuendos and devoid of facts.”

    I think there is here an attempt to distort the facts that are in Al-Akhbar piece because not only in this case the domain benefited a third party (solidere) but a specific private party, Hariri family.

    Also, for the sake of dialogue based on facts, can you tell me what you mean by the tremendous ‘halo’ effects that spilled over to the public sector in this specific case?

    Thanks.

    Posted by Sophia | July 20, 2011, 9:42 am
  36. Sophia
    The simple facts as i know them are the following:
    The cabinet of Mr. Karami passed Law 117 which is the basis upon which Solidere was formed

    CDR established Solidere to develop the BCD

    There are at least 100,000 tenants of the BCD that were affected.

    Solidere has evolved over the years and many argue that it is no longer the company that it was envisioned to be upon its creation.

    A few of the BCD tenents have tried many times to sue Solidere on the basis that the compensation was not adequate, there have been abuses… To the best of my knowledge non of these cases has gone to court yet.

    I am not aware of the specifics of the Beit AlWasat but they cannot be as simple as the Al Akhbar article alleges. If they were then the Lebanese justice system should restore the property to its rightful owners on the spot. They have not and AlAkhbar did not say a word about the events from the point of view of the Hariris.

    I have always been a supporter of eminent domain when properly applied. I suspect that it was not in the case of Solidere, but that does not make its activities illegal.

    I would favour a proper legal challenge on the grounds that the firm has evolved beyond its mandate.

    The concept of a “Halo” effect is nothing new and has been used by many in real estate. It simply means , in the case of Beirut, that had it not been for Law 117, the CDR and the creation of Solidere then the BCD would not have been developed, Beirut would not have become a magnet for real estate development, jobs would not have materialized as rapidly…It might be a tough case to present but that is what makes arguments built on the “Halo” effects so attractive. They give the author of the arguments lots of room to make a case built on shaky assumptions that are difficult to disprove.
    .

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 20, 2011, 1:32 pm
  37. Well obviously I don’t know much about the story. But a quick point about the chap who lost this property.

    It says he’d been out of the country since the 60s, and that he was not aware of anything since he’d been living in the Gulf.

    I don’t think the Lebanese people in the Gulf typically have severed their ties (in maybe the way the ones in South America or elsewhere) have over time. They don’t get naturalized as Gulfies, typically, and unless they’ve started immigration processes to Australia/Canada or such like, they are still Lebanese. They also typically still go back and forth to Lebanon.

    So at the very least, the Akhbar piece seems rather one sided.

    Posted by Gabriel | July 20, 2011, 3:27 pm
  38. I don’t think it was Law 117 or Solidere that produced the results the real estate market in Beirut observed in the last 3 years … it was a natural reaction by Lebanese following the abnormal surge in Dubai real estate value in comparison to Beirut 3 years ago.

    Posted by R2D2 | July 20, 2011, 4:12 pm
  39. R2D2,
    I will be the first to admit that I am neither an entrepreneur nor am I capable of thinking like one. You are.
    Honestly, do you think that Beirut would have been as attractive to real estate developers had the BCD not been restored? What role , in your opinion, did Law117 and Solidere play in the rehabilitation of Beirut?

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 20, 2011, 5:04 pm
  40. I’m no expert on this matter, but Ghassan, considering the ridiculousness of real estate in Beirut, even during the years of the civil war, don’t you think it likely that there would’ve been some kind of real estate boom in Beirut after 1990 regardless of the BCD?
    It might not have been as pretty or well planned….but I suspect it would have still been there.

    Let’s face it, real estate prices in Beirut are overinflated not because of local demand. Not because of quality of life (traffic/access/amenities/etc.)
    It’s -IMHO- an artificial overinflation simply used as collateral by those foreigners who would float us money over the years.
    A lot of money comes in to Lebanon (for no real productive return, one would argue)…ask yourself where it goes, in the end….
    Typical Beirutis could not afford to buy in Beirut even in the war days of the 1980s and they certainly cannot these days. So the prices have very little to do with the presence of BCD/Solidere/etc.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 20, 2011, 5:33 pm
  41. I am no “entrepeneur” myself. But it seems to me that the Lebanese like to complain at every level, without really much of a cohesive narrative.

    Given free reign over construction, we have seen the results outside the Beirut central district core and how all that’s been produced is eyesores, defaced mountains, etc.

    Then you have the BCD which, whatever else one may think of Hariri/Solidere, is at the very least attractive, pleasant, unencumbered.

    Could the same result have been achieved without a Dictatorial/Fascist approach? Perhaps. One could have had all sorts of zoning laws, then one would have the problem of getting all parties involved to commit to updating/fixing/whatever with the constraints of zoning laws/requirements. Beirut would likely have remained a dump for a much longer time.

    Instead we have, as Johnny suggested, a playground for the Rich.

    But at least the paupers can walk through something pretty, and at least one can say that rich people come at all to Lebanon which seems to me to be a far better situation than no-one coming to Lebanon at all.

    Kudos to Al-Akhbar for highlighting the negative repercussions to some people from the development work in Beirut. They should continue to do so. But, I think the overall issue is a lot more complex than the “emotional” issues pertaining to some of the individuals who may have been adversely affected.

    BV: That’s indeed a good question. Where does all that money go?

    Posted by Gabriel | July 20, 2011, 5:43 pm
  42. Gabby,

    Well, if you figure that basic “apartments” in most buildings in Beirut (not just BCD) are selling in the millions of dollars.
    If you do some quick math and estimate that there’s….let’s say a hundred thousand such units (and that’s probably conservative). That’s one hundred Billion dollars in real estate “value” in Beirut.

    Now ask yourself who owns that real estate?

    There’s your answer (Hint: It’s not the Lebanese).

    And now ask yourself why it is that despite economists (like Ghassan) predicting doom for the Lebanese economy (or at least its foreign debt aspect), Lebanon continues to hum right along….Ever wonder why that is?

    Well, if you put 2 and 2 together from the above: Our “foreign debt” is leveraged in large part (indirectly) on this real estate. In other words, we can keep borrowing money because we’re essentially selling the proceeds of it (the construction of luxury, etc) back to those rich folks from the gulf and elsewhere.

    The biggest farce of all this political mumbo jumbo is that in the end, none of this (or very little) is ever used towards infrastructure or anything that actually benefits the regular Lebanese citizen.
    In the end, Lebanon is “bought and paid for”, as the saying goes. They fund the construction of luxury playgrounds for the rich, which they then turn around and purchase from us.
    We, the people – ironically, have always been – nothing more than cheap labor.

    We’re cheap labor in that we build their playgrounds and get no ownership ourselves. Or benefits.
    We’re cheap cannon fodder too. We fight their wars for them and die in their names (while they get to enjoy the luxury and riches)
    We’re cheap whores…basically.

    Lebanon is owned and operated by foreigners. The Lebanese people just happen to be the sheep (analogy is intentional) who came with the plot of land you just bought…best put them to work.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 20, 2011, 6:21 pm
  43. Gabriel,

    “Could the same result have been achieved without a Dictatorial/Fascist approach? Perhaps. One could have had all sorts of zoning laws, then one would have the problem of getting all parties involved to commit to updating/fixing/whatever with the constraints of zoning laws/requirements.”

    Well, this is what Israel has done but the result would have been the same anyway at the level of perception. ironically, some Lebanese feel that their country has been stolen from them, just like the Palestinians, they feel refugees in their own country, this is what a taxi driver from Byblos told me lately.

    “Beirut would likely have remained a dump for a much longer time.”

    My feeling is that you’ve never visited Beirut or at least you’ve visited only the Solidere area. Outside this area,, Beirut remains a dump…except some small parts of neighbourhoods like Achrafieh, Gemmayzeh, and the new developments…

    Posted by Sophia | July 20, 2011, 7:24 pm
  44. BV/Gabriel/Sophia…
    Have you noticed that the Al Akhbar column mentions that the ownership of what has become Beit Al Wasat used to belong to Mohammad Nissouli and Khaled Daouk. The article then goes on to speak about Mr. Nissouli’s allegations of having his home taken away from him without his knowledge but no mention is made of Mr. Daouk. Why? Does Khaled Daouk agree with Mr. Nissouli and if not why not?

    BV
    It is very difficult to play the what if game. Could Beirut have developed without the CDR and Solidere? Maybe but maybe not. Anyway all booms need a catalyst and it is not difficult to see that Solidere did act as a catalyst in the resurgence of Beirut. I have a shoe box somewhere with many pictures that I personally took of the center of Beirut in the late 70’s. Believe me Martyrs square, Bab Idriss, Riad solh … were not a pretty sight. It would have been very difficult to get a developer to undertake the construction or reconstruction of one building in a sea of debris. It had to be a master plan and substantial resources. Let me repeat I do believe that Solidere morphed into what it was not supposed to be but it appears, until the courts rule otherwise, that all its activities have been legal including the amended areas in 1995.
    Let me add that Solidere has benefited tremendously from the subsidies and the land that the government has donated without being adequately recompensed for it. If the above can be proven in a court of law then the Lebanese state should sue for at least a 27% share of Solidere that it was initially promised

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | July 20, 2011, 11:47 pm
  45. Gabriel, I agree wholeheartedly that Solidere is just about the only nice place in Beirut. Even if we look at the trendier areas in Hamra, Verdun, Achrafieh and Gemmayzeh, they are still dumps if one takes standards into account. Bad drainage, horrible electric and telephone wiring, etc. And nobody would abide by any zoning laws or codes. As sheepish as they are, the Lebanese do not follow laws or codes. They are in fact quite libertarian…

    My main point of contention with Solidere is that it did not allow those owners who could have afforded to make renovations according to master plan carry them out. Instead they appropriated the land.

    Ghassan, I think the real estate boom is independent of Solidere. How else do you explain the increase in price in rural mountaintops (in some areas over Jbeil from $2 to $50 per square meter? Some places in Faraya went from $10 to $1,500 per sqm. Additionally, and this may be unrelated, housing development here is not financed by debt. It is mostly family financed with the funds coming from family members living abroad. So the developer is not forced to sell to pay off the debt. There’s no bank to foreclose. Developers will literally sit on the asset. The mentality of old still prevails in the Middle East. Investors will take an idle asset over cash or stock market deposits 9 out of 10 times.

    BV, I think your assessment is a bit unfair. The foreign money in the local banks is mostly Arab. A big chunk of it came after 9/11 when the Arabs were scared off by the Americans and Europeans. You can still get 3% on your USD savings in a Lebanese bank and 6% on LBP if the deposit amount is high enough. For small amounts (under 10k) it’s 1.5% on USD and 3% on LBP. That’s about 3 times the going rate in US banks for USD. People put money in the bank here because they see a nice safe return for it and the funds are secure and most importantly banking secrecy applies.

    ————————-
    Don’t get me wrong. The place is a dump and it is completely irrational that it somehow manages to function despite the corrupt government and morally bankrupt citizen.

    Posted by Johnny | July 21, 2011, 1:40 am
  46. Oh Ghassan,

    I wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with you. I know full well that
    1) Without Solidere there would be no master plan.
    2) Without a master plan BCD would be a dump.
    3) The rest of Beirut is still a dump, despite 20 years since the end of the war.

    I think my rant went a bit off target there and digressed.

    I think my point was more about the financial side of it all. Mainly the fact that Lebanon is essentially “owned” by foreigners (and their servants the “elite” of Lebanon). The prices do not reflect much else, IMHO.

    Normally, there’s some kind of ‘wow’ factor in the price of real estate (artificial bubble, if you will), but there’s also fundementals like Location, infrastructure, access to something (tourism, industry, etc.)
    That’s the reason NYC, San Fransisco, Paris and Los Angeles are so expensive, and yet I can buy a 3000 sq. ft home in Iowa for under $100,000.

    And indirectly, the price of real estate reflects the economy of the area, it reflects its productivity, and it reflects it’s stability, and so on.

    In Beirut, almost none of that customary logic seems to apply. Even in the dead of war, prices were going up. Land was being snapped up by foreigners for reasons other than the common reasons I stated above.
    The proportion of “artificial” that’s factored into the price of Beirut real estate, is in my opinion, much much higher than it would be in a normal European or American city.
    What i mean is that a very large portion of the price is not tied into any economic metric such as infrastructure, safety, stability, industry, tourism or the such.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 21, 2011, 2:22 pm
  47. Johnny,

    You ever wonder WHY we get a safe return of 6% in Lebanon?
    That’s unheard of in the current economy in ANY country in the world.
    Much more stable countries and much more productive economies are not giving that much.
    Why is it that the Lebanese govt. is willing to give 6%?

    (Maybe Ghassan can answer this one).

    I don’t think I’m being unfair at all. In fact what you just said ties into what I said. It’s not the Lebanese people who are benefiting from this 6%. On the contrary, that is our resources and treasury that’s being squandered. You think many Lebanese are depositing millions of dollars in LBP and earning 6%?
    Or do you think it’s more likely to be the wealthy Gulfies?
    So ask yourself this: Gulf guy deposits $100M (in LBP) in Lebanon and gets 6% return. Who’s paying that interest? Where is it coming from? Is Salameh printing that 6 million dollars in his basement to pay our customer?
    Or is he taking it from SOMEWHERE? Probably borrowing it from someone else…?
    Specially when you consider that the same Gulf guy then takes that $6M he annually gets in interest and uses it to buy Lebanese land.
    End result:
    Gulf Guy:
    – Now owns half of Beirut (purchased using the debt repayments of 6% for his loan).
    – Is owed $100M when the loan matures or he decides to withdraw his monies.

    Lebanese people/state:
    – No longer owns half of Beirut.
    – Still owes someone the money it borrowed to pay Gulfie his $6M/year. But why worry about that. Those loans aren’t due till a few years down the road (typical kick the can formula).
    – What was the 100M used for in the meantime? Has it improved our roads? Education system? Public safety? Healthcare? Nope.

    So, in the end the Gulfie benefited. He still has his money + he now bought parts of Beirut.
    The Lebanese state and its people have not benefitted at all. Except the select few who get to steal that $100M (the corrupt). In fact, we are further in the hole now, and have less collateral to sell next time around (since we now no longer own half of Beirut AND we don’t really produce anything else of value that we could offer to sell instead).

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | July 21, 2011, 2:35 pm
  48. I do not personally agree with Solidere’s business practices in the hospitality and F&B segment .. or with their gravely mistaken master plan that put “businesses” in what remains in architectural authenticity there and residents in brand new building projects and high-rises.

    It seems they have moved on from being a pure re-construction and development company to a local hospitality and F&B business as well.

    That is why the Grand Theater has been on hold for a decade now.

    All waterfront marina F&B outlets coming up in 2012 are corporate Solidere projects. They raised the sqm rental price on that project to such astronomical levels that no sane entrepreneur would rent within it.

    Has Solidere been vital to the tourism sector ? Yes. Just go back to when Hizballah and the Aounis camped out within it for months and what that did to tourism in Lebanon throughout those years.

    Posted by R2D2 | July 21, 2011, 2:42 pm
  49. And … Hariri wasn’t the first “visionary” with deep pockets who thought of a master plan for the reconstruction of BCD.

    He just happened to be the one that got Hafez Al Assad’s primary demand that any such endeavor would have to benefit Syria’s millions of unemployed.

    BCD has not been built with local labor. Neither are most real estate projects beyond the BCD.

    Posted by R2D2 | July 21, 2011, 2:58 pm
  50. How many of our ministers hold a dual nationality ?

    I wonder if Aoun’s girls got one after all these years in France?

    Can anyone check?

    Posted by R2D2 | July 21, 2011, 3:14 pm
  51. hello all,

    i’m deeply sad to see that after reading Qifa Nabki’s article about the egg, it only took me 3 seconds to scroll down and see that all of the comments expect for the first three maybe are political and racial arguments that have ultimately nothing to do with the egg itself.
    People are forgetting that this building is an icon of the 1960’s lebanese architecture and culture, which i think is save to say outdates all of the stupid politicians or political agendas everyone is talking about!
    Come on people, we can’t even agree on what to write in our history books, maybe this monument is the only chance we’ll have to have a history we can all relate to.
    There are plenty of blogs, talk shows, books and cafes to discuss the never ending disgusting whirlpool of lebanon politics, maybe for now and in this situation we can focus on talking about the egg!

    I honestly prefer that it would be kept intact as it is, then having any organization or activist touch or change anything about it, I think with all of the changes our country has witnessed maybe somethings or even only in this case this dome could just BE… the way it is today, the way, i want my kids to see it. Somehow this building has an energy that surpasses its broken down walls and structure and touch all of us.

    I dont want to save the egg, I just want to let it be.

    Posted by nadine Khoury | March 16, 2012, 5:01 pm

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