Sex and the city, Beirut style

The behavior of some tourists leaves many Lebanese wishing that they

This year, record numbers of Gulf Arabs came to Lebanon. They came for our cooler temperatures, terraced cafés, chic shopping, beaches, and late nights. They came to turn heads with flashy cars with tinted windows, shiny credit cards and designer clothes. They came to drink openly (or discreetly) in bars, clubs, restaurants, and cabarets. And they also came for sex. And while they were, on the whole, satisfied with what they got, some did complain that there weren’t enough hotel rooms, that the food and service in many restaurants was substandard, that telephone calls were scandalously expensive, that Lebanese shopkeepers were charging them outrageous prices, that the country’s internet service was ineffective, that water shortages were too common, that something had to be done about the traffic jams, that the shopping was better in Dubai, and that there were too many prostitutes in the hotels. But hey, you can’t have everything.

For their part, the Lebanese publicly celebrated the record arrivals and rejoiced at the funds that would funnel into the economy. But privately, they complained that the (mainly GCC) tourists, although cash-heavy, didn’t spend that much, quibbled while shopping and taking taxis and were unpleasant and disrespectful to the Lebanese who serve them, while a significant number sullied Lebanon’s honor by chasing anything in a skirt (or trousers). “Dealing with Gulf Arabs is unlike dealing with anyone else,” said one exasperated luxury hotel employee. “We can’t check them out before four, because they don’t get up before then. Cleaning up after them is a nightmare. They spill drinks, scratch the floor, and ruin the furniture. Once, they covered one of our most beautiful suites in narguileh smoke. They even covered the smoke detectors up and had a barbecue.”

But Abbas Mohamed, a 42-year-old UAE banker in Lebanon for a month with his wife and two daughters, said he and other Gulf Arabs were not always being treated decently either. “In Bhamdoun and Aley, 70% of restaurants are below standard. They place greater emphasis on the number of customers than on quality,” he said. “The shops increase prices to ridiculous levels for Gulf Arabs,” charged another disgruntled Gulf tourist, sitting on a bench in the new Ashrafieh ABC shopping mall (where curiously enough many of the outlets were on sale). Lebanon’s shopkeepers claim that over the last few years, the Gulf Arabs have become even more reluctant to spend like they used to. “They aren’t spending blindly, like in the eighties,” said Ziad Annan, director of the new Rolex showroom in the downtown. “Nowadays, they are a lot more careful.” Others disagreed. “It’s ridiculous. They sleep on money,” mocked a taxi driver. “They don’t respect us,” complained another. “They spend a thousand dollars on a hooker and won’t give us a dollar.”

He has a point. One 22-year-old “businessman” from the UAE, who had just emerged with two friends from a custom-made reflective silver Audi glinting in the afternoon sun, said his nine-day shopping bill would run at around $50,000. He and his friends are staying in a four-storey palace, complete with its own chefs, and have had another three vehicles flown over for their visit – a Mercedes MacLaren SLR, an SL55, and a Bentley. Some hotels reported bills of $500,000, settled directly by the guests’ banks. A prince staying at one luxury hotel was spending in excess of $100,000 a day, said a hotel employee. Jewelry has been the big-ticket item this summer. When EXECUTIVE visited Chatila jewelers to ask about summer business, one customer was inquiring about stones worth millions of dollars. Other Beirut jewelers confirmed that over 90% of buyers were Gulf Arab women, who when alone might spend a paltry few thousand dollars, but when accompanied with their husbands would shell tens, even hundreds, of thousands. “After all, the husbands are the bank,” quipped one jeweler. Another popular outlet is Abdul Samed Al Qurashi’s House of Aoud, Amber and Perfumes in the downtown, where vials of rare scents can fetch thousands of dollars, and a kilo of Indian amber retails for $35,000. Also fashionable are the $31,500, VERTU diamond-encrusted cell phone and the ever-popular Rolex watches – although gophers, sent to buy the prestigious Swiss time pieces for clients sleeping off the excesses of the previous night are politely sent away. “We don’t sell to pimps,” said the director of the Rolex showroom. But the pimps sell to others; and it is the world’s oldest profession that has stolen the show this summer. The big money has, and always will, go on the hookers.

“Our hotel has changed. All we need is a red light above our door,” complained an employee at one of Beirut’s most luxurious hotels. It was now impossible, she said, to control the flow of prostitutes in and out of the hotel. She claimed that the staff, such as housekeepers and valet parking employees, were providing prostitutes, pimps and drivers with the room numbers of single, male Gulf Arabs, who are then solicited by phone. Security guards, in turn, were being paid to let the prostitutes into the hotel. A taxi driver outside the hotel said drivers regularly arranged prostitutes for guests. “They say: ‘I can arrange anything for you’,” he said.

“I have seen this hotel change,” said a 29-year-old Kuwaiti tourist sitting in the lobby. “Over the last two years, it has gotten much worse.” He said prostitutes now roamed the hotel corridors, loitered in lifts, and knocked on the doors of single male guests, ostensibly by mistake, to make contact. “You can see them in the lifts. They are wearing tight clothes. They look at you in a certain way, eye you in certain places. They move from room to room, knocking on doors. Then they pretend they have made a mistake, but get talking to you. They say: Are you Ali? I say: I can be Ali, or whoever you want me to be.”

“Sometimes I have a massage,” he conceded. “And I take the ‘extra’ massage. After all, the massage must be perfect. You don’t cut something off half way through. But no sex,” he added quickly. He said he did frequent Super Nightclubs – cabarets at which meetings with prostitutes can be set up for the following day – every night, but only to relax and drink screwdrivers.

Two years ago, security wouldn’t let prostitutes into the hotel, he added. Now, he confirmed, they were doing so, in return for a cut of the prostitute’s earnings. Sometimes, he claimed, security would also solicit money from the prostitute’s client. They had done so to him. An employee of the hotel acknowledged that prostitutes operated in the hotel. “The reputation of the whole area is suffering. It is happening in all the hotels. But at the end of the day, it is a source of revenue for the country.”

An 18-year-old Saudi tourist standing next to his bright red Chevrolet Lumina in a downtown side street said he will spend around 20 nights in Super Nightclubs, and routinely meets prostitutes the following day – feeding a roughly $17,000-a-month holiday bill. Along with beaches, high-end nightclubs like Cassino, Crystal and Tempo, and the free flow of his favorite alcoholic drink, Black Label, Jounieh’s Super Nightclubs are the prime attraction in Lebanon, he admitted. The Super Nightclubs he frequents are packed with Gulf Arabs of all ages, many of them drinking, he said. Behind the wheel of a giant jeep he’d been hired to drive by Saudi tourists, a Lebanese driver spoke angrily of the shame brought upon Lebanese women who cater to the sex tourists. He claimed there was particular demand for virgins.

“Every night, the guys I drive around spend until six in the morning in the Super Night Clubs, drinking,” he continued. “They’ve been doing it for five weeks. They go to Jounieh, Kaslik, or Maameltein and spend thousands of dollars on prostitutes. It’s a shame Beirut has become a whorehouse.” He said that minibuses full of prostitutes pass by the Ain Mreysseh hotel strip, stopping just up the road. “Scouts” for wealthy clients then peruse the occupants, choosing those deemed satisfactory. “They cost $600 to $800,” he said.

A tourism ministry official, who asked not to be named, shrugged off the complaints: “Yes, [some] people, especially from the Gulf, come here especially for [sex]. But this kind of tourism is everywhere. And we have other things as well, like eco-tourism.”

For some Gulf Arabs, a trip to Lebanon also means enjoying a few drinks, but although they are emboldened by Lebanon’s more liberal mores, most drinkers prefer to be discreet. “They drink beer out of teapots, or whisky out of glasses wrapped in cloth. Sometimes, they leave their families at the table, come to the bar for a couple of beers, and then go back to the table,” the downtown restaurant employee noted. “It’s not the Lebanese they’re concerned about. It’s the other Gulf Arabs.”

Plus ça change.

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Bhamdoun’s mayor, Osta Abou Rejeili, likes to see himself as something of an enforcer. And while Lebanon’ sex trade may be booming elsewhere, he insists the mountain resort of Bhamdoun is strictly family oriented. “They know what will happen if they set foot here,” says Abou Rejeili, sitting a restaurant from which he surveys the town’s main shopping street, two-way radio in hand. “We have made it clear through action in the past. The road to Bhamdoun is blocked for people seeking prostitutes. There is not a single bar or Super Nightclub in Bhamdoun.” While he became uncharacteristically coy about what action had been taken in the past against suspected prostitutes, Abou Rejeili is nonetheless determined to maintain the secure family environment he says is the secret of Bhamdoun’s success in attracting ever-increasing numbers of Gulf tourists. He has employed a host of undercover security officers to safeguard an atmosphere, which allows women and children to stay out safely late at night. A few weeks ago, an undercover squad observed a man verbally harassing a female tourist. “He got what he deserved,” declares Abou Rejeili. “They didn’t break his neck, but they roughed him up real good – not a little bit – real good, in front of everyone, to set an example. Then he was handed over to the police, and deported. We mean it. We will never allow anything to disturb our way of life here. We are on full alert. Our eyes and ears are everywhere.” Abou Rejeili acknowledges that his undercover forces had no written mandate to act as law enforcement officials and detain, let alone “rough up” troublemakers. But he says he had a verbal understanding with all the security services allowing his forces to act in such a manner.

Other forms of “unacceptable behavior” are also not tolerated. “One guy was walking along with his elbows out. He nudged a girl. I stopped him. I said: ‘Keep your arms down. This is a public street.’ If someone is walking along in a tank top, we ask him to change. If he’s carrying a beer we ask him to go and drink in a café.”

On the street, the effect of Abou Rejeili’s security regimen is palpable. A 46-year-old Saudi tourist, in Bhamdoun with his family for the 6th or 7th year running, said: “Saudi Arabia is very safe. But it is even safer here. I feel as though everyone is a policeman.”

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