Kuwaitis find Lebanon more to their taste than jittery America
Robert Fisk in Bhamdoun, Lebanon
Saturday, 22 June 2002
The Kuwaitis love their mountains. All around Bhamdoun, the mountains – the Lebanese mountains, that is – drift into the haze. At 2,700ft, the Kuwaiti population can enjoy a balmy 27-degree heat – it is nearer to 52 degrees in their baking little emirate – and live in apartment blocks inhabited only by Kuwaitis.
As for the Lebanese real estate dealers , shopkeepers and property-owners, they are the beneficiaries of America's panicked and sometimes racist response to the mass murders of 11 September. Instead of going to the United States for their holiday, Gulf Arabs fearful of interrogation, fingerprinting and possible abuse are turning up, in their tens of thousands, in Lebanon.
As for Ibrahim Saleh, a Kuwaiti stock market dealer, Bhamdoun is as near as you can get to heaven. "Nowadays we have to go through a lot of bureaucracy and questions before we can even get a visa to the States," he says. "They make it difficult. They even make us bring along our wives to the visa office. But here, well, the Lebanese are so friendly that they even welcome our drivers and maids."
More than that, the half million Kuwaitis and Saudis expected to arrive by early July are given unprecedented freedom on the borders. Many send their limousines, drivers and cooks via Jordan and Syria in advance – free visas for Sri Lankan maids or baby-minders – while they and their families fly to Beirut first class.
At the end of the journey, in an old frontline town devastated during the 16-year Lebanese civil war, they find new hotels, a four-star Sheraton, and streets of coffee shops and restaurants.
A new branch of Bank of Kuwait has just opened, another local Gulf bank says it is arranging for cash withdrawals of up to $1m (£660,000) a day, and United Fisheries of Kuwait are flying daily supplies of hammour – the big fat fish so beloved of Kuwaitis – from their emirate.
In the neighbouring town of Aley, 12 restaurants are under construction in just one street. Flats with a view of the mountains can run to $30,000 (£20,000) for two months' rent. One villa has been sold for $1.7m to a Saudi who arrived with 15 car loads of relatives and servants.
No wonder Osta Abu Rejaili, the Michigan-educated Mayor of Bhamdoun, is smiling, puffing on a narghile hubble-bubble pipe at one of the best restaurants in town, bellowing into his mobile phone as he arranges a cultural festival with the Kuwaiti Embassy in Beirut.
"What did 9/11 do for us?" Mr Abu Rejaili said. "Yes, there's no doubt it's meant many more Gulf Arabs coming to Lebanon. In America, they are foreigners, they feel they can be denounced for their looks or their names. Here, they feel our hospitality. They are at home." And, Mr Abu Rejaili might have added, they can speak Arabic to anyone, all day long.
The Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, who also holds a Saudi passport, owns property in the mountains and is one of the world's top 100 millionaires, was the first to realise that Lebanon might benefit from America's response to the crimes against humanity of 11 September. As he should have been, in a country with an astonishing public debt of $30bn.
Mr Abu Rejaili was elected mayor in 1998 and was born in the house which is now his municipality office.
"Now I spend all day on the streets supervising the building and the infrastructure." He points to the newly-laid pavement. "So this is my real office. You see, I had a vision of how to rebuild Bhamdoun. People thought I was out in space. But I asked the government for help, to finance new water pipes, electricity lines, roads and sidewalks. Thirty per cent of the property here is now owned by Kuwaitis," he said.
"Every apartment has been rented, every hotel room is booked and we have 400 applications to open new shops. I treat this town like I'm in charge of an American shopping mall. We have 25 more policemen coming in, the garbage is collected every hour, there will soon be flower baskets above the streets."
Last year, 130,000 Kuwaitis came to Bhamdoun. The aftermath of 11 September has doubled that figure. But the Gulf Arabs loved this town long before the 1975-1990 civil war. They liked its old coffee shops and the 19th-century Swiss-made rack-and-pinion steam train that was destroyed in the conflict and, well, they also liked women.
Isn't Mr Abu Rejaili not just a bit worried that the "family city" of Bhamdoun might turn into a city of sin? "We need to preserve our morals," he responds, just a little piously.
"We must preserve our manners and our traditions. I did my research with the Kuwaitis about this and they were very helpful. One of them said, 'If you have a single nightclub here, all the Kuwaitis will leave.' We know, as men, where to go for something else."
The direction of "something else" is 20 miles away, a strip of coastline at Kaslik where Russian and Romanian prostitutes are available by the score for the Arabs who want them. It is the flip side of the gentle, caring Lebanon of cool mountains and soft Mediterranean waters. Then I spot, beside the Bhamdoun Sheraton, a sign with the ominous word "nightclub". Could Mr Abu Rejaili explain? "Yes, nightclubs are coming but they will be strictly controlled," he insists.
"And they must be in hotels of more than four storeys. But they will be a different sort of nightclub. We're not having Romanian women here. Kaslik has become a dirty word."
Mr Saleh, the Kuwaiti stock market man, never lost faith in Bhamdoun. "We knew how badly it was damaged in the war but we knew it would come back," he says.
Indeed, it must be the first time that one war – the "war on terror" – has succeeded in rebuilding a city devastated by another war.