Lucas William, tapped to be the director of operations at the Hilton Beirut, is not talking about the elephant in the room. Indeed, most of the affiliated parties are keeping mum about the eight-storey, 158-room hotel in Minet a-Hosn that stands ready but is suspiciously closed. The hotel’s awkward silence in the midst of a buzzing touristic hotspot has lead many a curious mind to speculate what went wrong.
Davis Langdon Lebanon (DLL), the hotel owner’s representative during the construction phase, which ended in January of 2007, abruptly left the Hilton party when its contract was up. A spokesperson from the group declined to comment, instead referring queries to the “sole owner,” Nadhmi Auchi, chairman of General Mediterranean Holdings (GMH) — an expansive holding conglomerate made up of 120 companies in 28 countries, with more than 11,000 employees and assets worth over $4 billion. However, the Iraqi-born businessman — most well known in Lebanon for his Dbayeh landmark, Le Royal Hotel, and its Watergate theme park – also shied away from an interview with Executive after originally accepting the proposal in early July. However, Nizar Younes — the original owner of the central district land behind Beirut Souks and president and founder of Butec engineering firm, which constructed the Hilton — and the commissioned architect, Younes’ daughter, Hala Younes of Atelier d’Etudes techniques et d’Architecture Beyrouth (AETA), responded to interview requests regarding the five-star hotel’s nearly three-year delay and the tangle of legal disputes.
In 2005, Nizar says Auchi was brought in as a partner in a holding company Nizar had started, called Sharikat Al Ikarat Wal Abniat (SIWA), which owned the Hilton property in full. As construction of the $70 million hotel project neared the halfway point, Nizar says he needed extra capital. He and his brother Issam retained a 49 percent share of SIWA (29 percent and 20 percent respectively), and sold 51 percent to Auchi, making him the majority stakeholder.
Auchi heralded his new stake in SIWA in GMH’s 2005 chairman’s statement, which read: “Through subsidiaries we own controlling interest in the Beirut Hilton, located in the center of the city, which is in the final stages of construction and is expected to be ready by the end of 2006.”
Nizar claims that Auchi has the master key and is leaving the Hilton locked up until he can purge the Hilton’s management, obtain full ownership and have his Le Royal team manage the hotel instead.
On July 12, the International Court of Arbitration in Paris, under the International Chamber of Commerce, ruled that Auchi must pay compensatory damages for delaying the hotel’s opening, “which was estimated by the court for the whole period to be… around $40 million dollars,” said Nizar.
In 2007 Nizar says he sold Auchi his 29 percent share, but has yet to be paid in full, with this dispute now the subject of a pending legal battle in Lebanon in the Jdeideh Court of Arbitration.
Issam Younes has held on to his 20 percent share, despite several takeover attempts by Auchi. AETA’s Hala Younes says that her firm’s role in the project has dragged on for roughly 10 years, starting from the original contract signed with Hilton in 2000, to court arbitration in Lebanon with Auchi over lack of payment. AETA finally received full payment in 2009.
Hala claims that the GMH chairman was in agreement with the original layout for interior design, but later didn’t pay in full, claiming that the result deviated too much from the original agreement.
Refuting the rumors
Among the more persistent rumors regarding why the Hilton has remained closed is that it failed to meet Hilton’s construction standards. However, on Feb 21, 2007, Hilton International headquarters sent a letter of approval to the architect’s Verdun office, confirming that the hotel’s physical structure, surfaced in acid-etched glass to protect it from the sea climate and featuring custom-made interior design, was up to par. According to Hala Younes, Solidere signed the occupation permit in January 2008, verifying that the building meets legal standards. The hotel still doesn’t have a legal permit to operate, however, as SIWA has not signed it.
If, or when, the new Hilton Beirut does open, the Lebanese can be thankful that its delay was down to simple, old fashioned business wrangling, rather than an omen of imminent war like its ill-fated predecessor; the original Hilton was due to open one day before the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.