BEIRUT — Not so long ago, the historic downtown of Beirut was a wasteland of scorched buildings and rubble. Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, destroyed an area known for its picturesque Mediterranean vistas and Roman and Mamluk ruins.
Now, after a multibillion-dollar reconstruction project, the city center features plush apartments and posh cafes, refurbished Ottoman-era buildings and boutiques by Burberry and Versace.
Yet one element seems to be lacking: people.
“Even the rich people don’t bother coming anymore,” Mohammed Younnes, 27, said
on a recent Saturday evening as he gazed at the empty tables of Grand Cafe, an eatery he manages in downtown Nejmeh Square. Businesses in the square, distinctive for an art deco
clock tower with “Rolex” written on its dial, are relocating or going bankrupt.
Beirut’s shiny new downtown has struggled for various reasons. Despite the end of the civil war, violence has continued to batter the country. In 2006, war broke out with Israel, damaging Lebanon’s economy and leaving shops and restaurants empty. In addition, persistent sectarian feuds have erupted in bombings and demonstrations in central Beirut. Lately, fighters in Syria’s civil war have launched cross-border attacks into Lebanon.
With such upheaval, tourists from oil-rich Arab states no longer fly into the elegant city for shopping sprees and fine dining.
But many Lebanese say that there is another problem: The reconstruction project demolished historical buildings and filled the area with upscale condos and shops. There are few parks or other public spaces.
“Downtown should have soul. It should be alive,” said Mona Hallak, an architect and historical-preservation activist. “But what we have is a culture-free ghost town for the rich.”
Before the 15-year civil war, the city center bustled as a grittier, more Middle Eastern-feeling place. People of all income levels congregated at mosques and churches and bought vegetables and sweets at the souks. Theaters hosted performances by iconic Arab singers such as Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
But the average Lebanese worker earns less than $10,000 a year and can’t afford the new multimillion-dollar residences or the swank offerings from the boutiques of Ermenegildo Zegna or Swarovski.
“This isn’t a downtown. It’s an investment for wealthy people,” said Mohamad Hashash, a 38-year-old psychiatrist who traveled to the center on a recent weekend with his wife and young son for the first time in months to pray at the Grand Omari Mosque, which dates to the 12th century.
Hashash laid some of the blame for the problems on the man responsible for the rehabilitation of the downtown: Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister and billionaire businessman.
After the civil war, Hariri founded a state-affiliated company, Solidere, which led the rebuilding effort and now manages downtown like a virtual municipality. The company, which declined to comment for this article, has been accused by architects, heritage-preservation organizations and everyday Lebanese of driving out the area’s original property owners and unnecessarily demolishing historical buildings.
Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, believed that an aggressive reconstruction strategy was necessary to revive Beirut as a financial and tourist center linking East and West, a former minister said.
But he said the strategy depended on the political calm that many Lebanese hoped would result from a regional peace agreement with Israel. Such an agreement never came to fruition, and the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to undermine stability in Lebanon.
Moreover, by the end of the civil war, places such as Dubai and Bahrain had overtaken the country as regional trading and banking hubs.
“From an economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to have these skyscrapers and ultra-luxurious buildings,” said the former minister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concern over upsetting the Hariri family. “Beirut’s attraction is its history and its mountains and coastline.”
Some defend Hariri’s dogged effort to transform downtown.
The area just needs more time to grow, said Abed Halbaoui, a 66-year-old engineer who bought a three-bedroom apartment in the area in 2009. “You can’t have a vibrant downtown in just a couple of years. Something like this takes a hundred years to develop,” he said.
His property has been a good financial investment. But his family refuses to move in, preferring the security of their other home in Dubai, he said. The eerie evening darkness that blankets much of the area suggests that many other property owners also reside abroad.
Preservation activists and many Beirut residents say a rethinking of the center is badly needed. Hallak, the architect, said business would benefit from more cultural projects and public spaces. This would mean creating parks to attract families and sacrificing some profit for preservation, she said. For example, the building that once housed the famed Opera Cinema could become a cultural center, she said. Currently, it is a Virgin Megastore.
Back at the Grand Cafe, Younnes was too concerned over how to pay the restaurant’s $25,000 monthly rent to ponder how the reconstruction project should have gone differently. With so few customers, he said, it is not clear whether the restaurant can remain solvent.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said. “But is this business affordable? I don’t know.”