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French Version

Could Byblos become the Cannes of the Middle East ? (Daily Star)

Local tycoon predicts $2 billion investment over next 7 years
Mammoth project includes convention center, new port and old city annex

It may seem far-fetched today, but the Edde Sands beach resort will, over the coming years, become the basis of a luxury destination that will compete with the likes of Monte Carlo and Saint Tropez.

At least that's the vision of international financier Roger Edde, who says he's in the process of building a world-class brand. Overlooking his $10 million private beach - currently one of Lebanon's most popular - is the 7,000-year-old Phoenician port of Byblos, one of the oldest cities on earth and the pearl of Edde's destination dreams.

Over the next seven years, he envisages a series of developments worth at least two billion dollars that will transform the small coastal village of Jbeil and its mountainous environs into the next playground of the wealthy. For starters: A $400 million dual port that will receive cruise ships and super yachts, the largest convention center in the country, and at least 7,000 hotel rooms.

"The problem with Beirut," says Edde 63, "is that it is still associated with memories of the war." Byblos on the other hand, is a "mystical place," he explains from his mansion in the small hillside village that also bears his last name. "Luckily enough, it was never mentioned in the war and people don't know where it is."

But if Edde has his way, Byblos will be revived into a modern day realization of its former glory, attracting artists, adventurers, and a wide spectrum of tourists via package offerings that will sell sun, ski, culture and history.

"We have tested the market, expensively," he says, in a reference to Edde Sands, which opened last year. "Now I have the guidance - I know I can continue developing a luxury resort with the highest upscale quality available on the Mediterranean," he said.

If Edde's many predictions are right, both Lebanon and Jbeil will undergo radical political and economic changes in the coming two years. His belief in an imminent resolution to the region's conflicts, either through peaceful means or US military action, seems to be the insurance policy behind the scale of his plans.

"The process of change in the Middle East has reached a non-return status," he begins, launching into an unflinching monologue on everything from a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 18 months, to military options against Iran, and the realization of stability in Iraq, "at any cost."

He is convinced of his ability to lure the world's largest yachts, including that of Saudi Arabia's king. The caliber of business generated by a single 60-meter private ship - which cannot currently be accommodated in Lebanon - is equal to that of a fully booked 120-room hotel, he says. But is this local multi-millionaire just a dreamer?

"I know what's going on very well," he interrupts. "I'm well connected." This much, perhaps is true.

A former resident of Washington, Edde owns half of a joint venture with HOK, the world's largest architectural and engineering firm. The St. Louis-based company has designed some of the world's most prestigious landmarks and corporate headquarters - with a client list that includes IBM, Exxon Mobil, Boeing, AT&T and the US military. Edde has also been known to entertain high level politicians, including the Czech president, who made the existing Edde Sands beach resort a stop in his short visit to Lebanon this year.

With excavations there now underway, Edde says the value of the relatively small strip of beach front property has already increased threefold. And that is just the beginning. Edde owns at least 3 million square meters of land from the shores of Jbeil to the snow peaks of Laqlouq.

Today, he is proceeding with the construction of a five-star, 400-room hotel nestled amid a beach side garden complex that features a man-made river and what he says will be the most expensive restaurants in the country.

"We will start with a luxury resort, with lodging space at no less than $1,500 per night and up to $5,000 per night," he says.

Then, extending into hills: the emergence of internationally branded spas, wellness centers and tennis camps. "We will also need a golf course at some point," he adds as an afterthought.

But going luxury is not always profitable. "We're doing this to brand a destination."

Once Byblos is recognized in the super luxury category, momentum will build for interest from other international chains. "Two, three and four-star hotels will follow with their own networks and clientele. This is how a destination becomes a destination," he says.

However, propping up Byblos will involve much more than hotels - and Edde wants to avoid the wild fluctuations between summer and winter business which plague vacation spots around the world and Lebanon in particular.

He says HOK will be brought in to build Lebanon's largest convention center, in order to capitalize on the lucrative international conference industry - which he says has saved of Southern France's smaller hotels during winter.

Jbeil's economy will also be boosted by the planned cruise ship terminal and yacht marina, which Edde hopes will spawn an industry of ship catering and maintenance, harking back again to Byblos' ancient past. He also says plans have been drawn up for a 7 kilometer urban annex of the old city, and at least three stone crafted mountain villages, each spanning at least 1 million square meters. Edde says he will invite outside investors, but is eager to keep up the meticulous brand of limestone architecture he has made popular at his beach resort.

"I always like to avoid a Disney kind of artificial thing," he says. But doubts remain.

Would the local government allow one man to have so much power over such a large swath of this country? Edde doesn't see a problem.

"There is no personal animosity between me and the leaders of Lebanon," he said.

Beirut 30-08-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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