|Holy month means big business in Beirut (Daily Star)
|Ramadan-related events draw serious revenue and criticism
Just a few hours before sunrise, a young Lebanese singer belts out Arabic pop melodies to rapid-fire percussion and swiveling lights - while his audience, nibbling on dinner or nursing bubbling tobacco pipes - sways to the rhythm on what would be a typical soiree in this town.
But missing from the tables tonight are bottles of alcohol, and this celebration, controversial as it may be, will be broadcast live to millions of homes across the Arab world.
Here the party honors the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to behave modestly, show concern for the needy and fast from dawn till dusk.
Yet in Beirut, the pious month also means booming business, and endless opportunities in marketing, sales, and brand development. This year, Ramadan-related activities account for the vast majority of revenues for cash-strapped hotels and restaurants, as they struggle through the annual lapse in between summer and winter tourist seasons.
"It's the only bread and butter this month," said George Assaf, food and beverage manager at the Beirut Marriott Hotel. The hotel's special for iftar, the sunset feast that brings an end to each day's fast, is priced at $22 a person - and fully booked daily, he said, at a time when occupancy levels have plummeted to nearly 25 percent, or almost a quarter of last month's highs.
But the show really gets started at souhour, the traditional pre-dawn breakfast which, in recent years, has evolved into an all-night entertainment event, shaped largely by the fierce competition cropping up across the country.
The synergy is perhaps most acute at the Movenpick seaside resort, owned by Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world's fifth richest man according to Forbes. Alwaleed also owns Middle East recording giant Rotana, which supplies nightly music acts to Movenpick's version of souhour, broadcasting the entire event live on its music video channel.
The best seats in the house go for $45 a person and, with cameras swirling through the air, technicians whizzing through the crowd and an on-air personality interviewing the stars backstage, the hi-tech showcase is pitching itself as the best place to be seen in town - if not in the region.
To bring its events full circle, The Beirut Movenpick published a brochure titled, "10 ways to Embrace the Holy Month of Ramadan" with each offering a hotel-based means of indulgence. "We are not marketing Ramadan, we are marketing our food and beverage outlets during Ramadan," said Movenpick spokeswoman Joelle Kahwaji. "People are going out this month, so why not come to our hotel instead of somewhere else," she said.
But critics lament Ramadan's absorption into consumer culture, saying the move is un-Islamic and parallels the marketing evolution that they say has befallen Christmas festivities in the West.
"The purpose ... goes against the spirit of Ramadan," said Ahmed Moussalli, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut. He described Ramadan as a month of worship, giving and coming to terms with social suffering.
"None of this is going on," he said. "It's a new fad. ... It's become like a regular party."
Moussalli faulted globalization for the "commercialization of religion," which he said was sweeping cultures worldwide.
But some suggest otherwise, claiming the changing face of Ramadan could actually lead to increased tolerance. Farouk Jabr, the president of Islamic charitable organization Dar al-Aytam said iftar has gained popularity among corporate event planners drawing together Christians and Muslims, much in the same way as Christmas parties.
He withheld comment on the sanctity of the singing and dancing that often goes on in a Ramadan tent, viewed by many scholars as sacrilegious or haram. For Jabr, the burden falls on individuals and not establishment owners.
"Haram is not the people doing business; haram becomes applicable if one does what he shouldn't be doing during Ramadan. It's a personal matter," he said. "I don't like to issue value judgments. I try to see the positive aspects."
If soaring consumer interest is any indicator, hotel operators are likely to do the same, and the competition is bound to increase.
Ramadan sales were up substantially on last year, according to Marriot's Assaf, with the hotel nearly quadrupling its iftar capacity, in addition to expanding into a bazaar shopping section.
"The competition is always tough in Beirut, but what we are doing is totally different. People are really coming for the atmosphere, it's not just one thing," he said, adding that $1 dollar from each dinner purchase is donated to charity.
Toufic Bekhazi, sales manager at the Safir Heliopolitan Hotel, linked an increase in Ramdan sales to "better marketing," both locally and across the region, in addition to a new e-mail campaign.
Ramdan-related events are crucial to October revenues, but he gave more weight to Aid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday commemorating the sparing of Abraham's son by God. In business circles, the four-day event is better known for the influx of wealthy Gulf tourists who provide a major boost to Lebanese retailers during the slower winter months.
"That's the biggest business in town," Bekhazi said.
The Daily Star