A
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French Version


Will protests add to list of refugee businesses ?

Downtown has had a rough ride since 2005

The anti-government demonstration entered its fourth day on Monday, leading many frustrated business owners in the Beirut Central District (BCD) to contemplate relocating to other neighborhoods in the capital, and in some cases elsewhere in the region.

As protesters dug in their heels amid heightened security, a few restaurants and shops on the periphery of BCD cautiously opened their doors for the first time since Friday. All were fed up after two years of intermittent interruptions.

The owner of Sunflower, a clothing and accessory shop in Saifi Village, said she will give the political environment one more month to stabilize before moving elsewhere. In the meantime she is scouting locations at City Mall in Dora and ABC in Achrafieh.

"First we will move out of Saifi to someplace far away from the [demonstrations], and then if it continues this way the second step will be out of Lebanon because we are not doing any business," Tania Skaff told The Daily Star from her empty shop in the so-called "artists' neighborhood."

Business had picked up for 10 days in September, she said, but dropped again with the renewal of political jousting.

Most shops in Saifi resumed regular schedules on Monday, but customers were rare. At V Knot, a yarn store that also offers knitting lessons, one student continued work on her latest project in the early afternoon. Her teacher said no regular clients had cancelled sessions for the week. Nearby a jewelry store employee waited for the approval of her boss before mounting the window display. A couple of cafes behind the Beirut Municipality's headquarters were also open.

Politics have undermined the business of restaurants and shops Downtown - home to some of Beirut's most expensive and vulnerable real estate - since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who also spearheaded the area's postwar reconstruction in the late 1990s.

In 2006 BCD businesses suffered indirect losses from successive national dialogue meetings, and were hit hard by the July-August war with Israel. According to the president of the Restaurant, Hotel, and Cafe Syndicate, many members of his organization opened branches in other neighborhoods in Beirut before the most recent upheaval to hedge their bets against Downtown locations.

"A lot of them have already moved to ABC or Gemmayzeh, and those who haven't are seriously considering moving now," said Paul Ariss, adding that the extent of the potential exodus will not be clear until next week.

He said no restaurants in his syndicate have closed entirely since the war, but some have changed owners.

"Restaurants are doing their bit to find alternatives. People are now expanding outside of Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt," he explained.

Maya Bekhazi planned to launch an Italian restaurant in Saifi Village in June, but was continually put off by the political situation. She decided to open less than two weeks ago in spite of the climate.

"Bad timing," said Bekhazi, gesturing across the restaurant occupied by empty tables and an idle wait-staff. "The first few days we were packed. I didn't even have to advertise. But people don't want to come ... under these conditions. You can't come by car. You have to walk 1 kilometer from the nearest parking lot."

Bekhazi, who has financial stakes in restaurants elsewhere in the capital, will continue operating regularly as long as possible, but her operating overhead is high and rent is "three or four times more expensive" in the BCD than other upscale areas.

Beirut 05-12-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star



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