31 October 2010

* Lebanon and Iran make uneasy bedfellows

I think it should be a Beirut Diary this week. Deep background, you understand. The truth. Believe me, it is.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the palace dining room to eat with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week – Saad being the son of ex-premier Rafiq who was murdered by ... we'll come to that later – Saad made sure that Beethoven was on the public address system. It was the Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Freedom". The moment the Iranian President sat down, he turned to Saad and said: "Let's skip the lunch. Let's have sandwiches and go to southern Lebanon together."
Now here was a problem. Saad is a Sunni Muslim; Mahmoud, of course, is a Shia, and the Iranian President was inviting a Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon to visit the Shia south of Lebanon where he (Mahmoud, that is) would declare that southern Lebanon – he was speaking less than two miles from the Israeli border – was Iran's "front line" against Israel. Saad politely declined the invitation and Mahmoud went on to Bint Jbeil to rally his lads and lassies on his own. Lucky that he was even in Lebanon. The Beirut air traffic control boys (they are, indeed, all lads) had already expressed their concern when the Iranian President's Boeing 707 aircraft made its final approach. Wasn't there a ban on ancient 707s arriving at Beirut's ultra-modern airport? Ban overruled.

Then there was the rally in the southern suburbs of the capital – Hezbollah's (ie Iran's) section of Beirut. Long live Ahmadinejad. Many choruses. Long live Lebanon. Many choruses. Long Live Hariri. Many booes. This was a difficult one. Is Lebanon the "lung through which Iran breathes" (thank you, the late Sayyed Fadlallah) or just the front line against Israel (potentially even worse)?
Posters the previous day on the airport road. Next day, they honoured southern Lebanon. Khomeini, Khamenei ("Supreme Leader", as we all know) and Ahmadinejad pictures clustered the houses of southern Lebanon. And that half-cut apple that is the symbol of the Islamic Republic. "Could we have our flags back?" the Iranian embassy asked the Lebanese army two days later. Indeed they could, immediately replaced with billboards of half-naked ladies and watches, swimming costumes and whisky. The Syrians were very pissed off with the Iranians. Why no posters of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria whose Hezbollah-Iranian relations are second to none?
Stopping over in Damascus, Ahmadinejad told Assad he wanted Nouri al-Maliki to be Iraq's prime minister. Assad told his Syrian cabinet – the source is impeccable – that "our friends want Maliki". And Ahmadinajed, like the Syrians, opposed The Hague tribunal which may – so Hezbollah's leader (Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, close friend and confidant of Ahmadinajed) – blame Hezbollah members for the murder of Rafiq Hariri.
Nonsense. Wasn't it supposed to be the Syrians who killed Hariri (or so The New York Times and the London Times would have us believe) that blew Hariri's motorcade up – along with the 21 others whose names we have all forgotten – on St Valentine's Day of 2005? Nope. Since the Syrians offered their assistance to the United States in Iraq, it's been the pesky Iranians (courtesy The New York Times and The Times of London) who, through their Hezbollah allies, have been blamed for the mass slaughter Notice, by the way, how the Syrians and Iranians were blamed for Lockerbie and then, post-Syrian help in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the Libyans?
Anyway. Amadinejad poured scorn on the UN's Hague tribunal which may – or may not (watch this space) – accuse Hezbollah of killing Rafiq (son of Saad) on Syria's behalf? And lo and behold, on Thursday morning this week, two officers of The Hague tribunal turned up in the southern suburbs of Beirut to examine the records of a gynaecological clinic.
Yes. GYNAECOLOGICAL CLINIC?, I hear you ask. Well, The Hague spokesmen/spokeswomen won't say what this is about. But I can tell you. Between 15 and 17 Shia Muslim women from the southern suburbs of Beirut – who are having pregnancy tests at the clinic – are sisters or wives of leading Hezbollah officials, and The Hague guys wanted their mobile telephone numbers to match them with calls made from the same numbers on the afternoon of Hariri's murder, perhaps by their husbands.
Now, 11 members of the Lebanese Alpha mobile company (Mr Robert's mobile, by the way, belongs to the same company) have been arrested and charged with spying for Israel. Hezbollah claims that Israel has inserted mobile calls into the record of the 14 February 2005 calls – the originals came from the British listening system on Mount Troodos in Cyprus – in order to plant evidence. So The Hague men arrived at the clinic with the usual horde of Lebanese security men to protect them. But they were met by up to 150 ladies, minibussed to the clinic by – Hezbollah? – to complain at this grotesque personal intrusion. Hezbollah denies all knowledge of the affair. Of course. But the women pulled the hair of the Hague's female interpreter and so jostled The Hague men that they managed to get their hands on one of their briefcases.
Needless to say, The Hague won't identify the nationality of their own two foolish officials who thought they could brazenly walk into Hezbollah's fiefdom with their secrets intact in a briefcase. I can reveal that one of them was French, the other Australian.
They had asked for a 9am appointment with the head of the clinic – this appointment was, of course, betrayed to Hezbollah – and they didn't get those mobile telephone numbers. They just lost their briefcase. As I write, the contents are being translated by Hezbollah. What hope The Hague tribunal? What hope Lebanon?


29 October 2010

* Beirut’s property boom prices many Lebanese out

Beirut used to conjure up images of clear skies, sparkling sea and red-roofed Ottoman-era houses, but cranes and new buildings now puncture its Mediterranean skyline and the cacophony of bulldozers has shattered the idyll.

All over Beirut, developers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars building luxury flats for high-income Lebanese, and prices are soaring, especially in the central district widely dubbed Solidere after the company that rebuilt it from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war.

While analysts insist no property bubble is looming, price rises are forcing middle income Lebanese out of a capital city some refused to leave even in the midst of war and unrest.
"I'm frustrated. It's going to be a while before I can afford something and I'll have to get a loan and pay for it for a long time," said Labib Ghulumiyyah, a 35-year-old doctor, who has been trying to buy an apartment for two years.

"With all the problems in Beirut, I'd still rather be here."

A 2010 report by property consultants Cushman and Wakefield said Beirut was the 30th most expensive retail rental city in the world, up three places from last year, and the most expensive compared to 10 cities in the Arab world.
Retail rents in Beirut's Solidere area stood at 1,470 euros ($2,063) per square metre, ahead of Luxembourg, Stockholm and Tel Aviv.
In Beirut's central district, a mixture of restored period properties and new buildings, property sells for anything from $7,000 to $13,000 a square metre. Other prime Beirut neighbourhoods see prices in the range of $4,000 per square metre, several real estate experts have said.
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said the sector was worth $10 billion a year in sales and projects.
That may seem small compared to even single developments in the oil-exporting Gulf, but is a lot of money for Lebanon.
To put the numbers in perspective, Lebanon's government budgeted total spending of $12 billion for 2010.

Unfazed by politics
Demand in Beirut has been driven up by Lebanon's large community of expatriates, who are either returning or want a foothold in the city though they do not live there full time.
Wealthy Gulf Arabs and Lebanese who are buying flats as an investment for their children have also pushed up prices.

Analysts and real estate experts insist, however, that this is not a property bubble in the making because the buyers are end-users, not speculators, and many are either paying in cash or borrowing amounts they can afford.

"I don't believe there's a bubble in the market. It's true that prices have risen significantly, but they emanated from a low base so prices today are more in line with regional and international benchmarks," Marwan Barakat, head of group research at Lebanon's Bank Audi, told Reuters.

Salameh, the central bank governor, said Lebanon's property sector was not overleveraged so he did not expect a price crash.

"The credit linked to the real estate sector does not exceed 8 per cent of the total balance sheets of our banks. Usually you have negative effects on real estate prices when there is high debt attached to that sector," he told Reuters.
"We expect prices to level after this big increase and historically we have seen this pattern in Lebanon, where you have a quick rise, and then a levelling and then another rise."
Only a dramatic deterioration in security could hit demand for property, but even that does not seem to faze developers who are breaking ground on projects across Beirut.
Indeed, Lebanon's resilience has translated into an average of 8 per cent growth for the last three years, driven by strong consumer confidence.
Property prices have risen 30 per cent each year since 2007, Barakat said, impressive for any city let alone one that has seen dozens of bombings, weeks of protests, days of deadly clashes and a war with Israel in the last five years alone.
House prices fell only 2.3 per cent during the a 34-day war Israel fought with Hizbollah in 2006, according to a December 2009 Global Property Guide, and residential property prices in central Beirut rose 40.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2009.
But in a 2010 report, the guide warned that Beirut properties were becoming too expensive.
"Lebanon is now overvalued, in our opinion," it said.

More projects under way
There are now more than 20 developments under construction in the prized area of central Beirut.
One is the $500 million Beirut Terraces project, developed by Benchmark, where the asking price for an apartment starts at $7,200 a square metre and reaches $12,500 a square metre for the penthouse, with delivery in 2014.
Beirut Terraces, which boasts an "open air sparkling marina coastline" and "lush suspended gardens" has been 30 percent sold off-plan - a trend that is growing and that helps developers finance construction without resorting to too much borrowing.
Zina Dajani, Benchmark's managing director, admits the market for luxury properties is smaller than that for more affordable homes, but says demand for high-end real estate remains strong enough to justify such projects.
"Those who are looking for a deal are not the clients we are looking for," Dajani said. "In Beirut, prices have been raised enough not to allow you to cater to the mid-income level."
Bank Audi's June 2010 research says real estate sales grew 19.5 per cent a year between 2004 and 2009, and more than doubled in the first five months of this year.
But despite Lebanon's resilience to political upheaval, tensions have grown in recent months amid reports that an international tribunal could indict Hizbollah members in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Al Hariri, the former prime minister who was the driving force behind Solidere.

Sectarian rhetoric has grown and some politicians have even warned of a return to civil war.
Anthony Al Khoury who is developing the $250 million District//S in Solidere said there is still demand but that political worries make it difficult to conclude sales.
"The political factor is the biggest risk to the market, for us as a developer, this is how we see it," he said.


27 October 2010

* Saudis Push Lebanese PM Hariri to Quit

In a sudden about-face, the Saudis on Monday, Oct. 25, urged Lebanon's pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down without delay and make way for an administration dominated by pro-Syrian ministers and Hezbollah. King Abdullah, according to Middle East and Beirut sources, sees no other way of saving Lebanon from tipping over into civil strife over Hezbollah's demand to disband the international tribunal probing the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Last week, Hariri confided to US Deputy Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman he was close to resigning and giving way to the Saudi King, long a friend of the Hariri family, now siding with its antagonists. When Riyadh saw he was sticking to his guns, the Saudi mouthpiece Asharq al-Awsat published an article of a sort rarely seen in the Arab media telling the Lebanese prime minister in no uncertain terms that he had no choice in the matter.

Chief Editor Tariq Alhomayed warned Saad Hariri that he had run out of options and the only thing left for him was to follow his father's example and resign as prime minister as Rafiq Hariri did in late 2004. A few months later, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. "Afterwards," said Alhomayed, "you will become, wherever you may be, a sanctuary" because only then will the Lebanese public and Arab leaders appreciate the threat against them.

DEBKAfile's sources spell out this "threat" as the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah conspiracy to break up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in time to pre-empt the indictments of nine senior Hezbollah security officials for involvement in the assassination due to be published before the end of the year.

Asharq al-Awsat acknowledged that no Lebanese leader stepping into Hariri's shoes would be able to invalidate the tribunal's legitimacy or dismantle it because this would condemn Lebanon to the anarchy of civil war. Nonetheless, the writer stood by the demand for Hariri to remove himself from office without delay as the only viable option left in the unfolding crisis.

Our sources note that a new Lebanese government under the thumb of Damascus and Hezbollah will waste no time in annulling the tribunal and so be free to parrot the Hezbollah charge that Israeli intelligence was behind the Hariri murder. When the tribunal asked Hezbollah for evidence of its charge earlier this year, it received no answer. Raising it again may well have the effect of precipitating a renewed Lebanese-Israeli clash of arms which a new government would not raise a finger to prevent.


05 October 2010

ديوان المحاسبة يدرس قطع حساب موازنة العام 2008

عقد مجلس ديوان المحاسبة جلسة طارئة بدعوة من رئيسه القاضي عوني رمضان، الذي استهل الجلسة وفق بيان للمجلس، بعرض موضوع قطع حساب الموازنة العامة عن سنة 2008 واللغط الدائر حوله في بعض الأوساط.
وبعد المناقشة، تبين بحسب البيان أنَّ "قطع الحساب لم يرسل إلى ديوان المحاسبة بعد، وأنَّ مديرية المحاسبة العامة في وزارة المال أرسلت قطع حسابات السنوات 2005 و2006 و2007، ثم طلبت استردادها شفهياً بغية إعادة صياغتها مجدداً، ولما طلب إليها تقديم كتاب خطي بالإسترداد، لم تفعل، لكنها لجأت إلى إرسال قطع حساب سنة 2005 مرة ثانية إلى ديوان المحاسبة، مغاير للأول".
كما تطرق المجتمعون إلى موضوع قطع حساب الموازنة الذي يعتبر مرتبط عضوياً بحساب المهمة، وأنَّ عدم قيام وزارة المال بإرسال حسابات المهمة إلى ديوان المحاسبة منذ سنة 2001، حال عملياً دون تمكن الديوان من تدقيق قطع حسابات الموازنة وفقاً للأصول.
وبناء عليه، قرر مجلس ديوان المحاسبة "الطلب رسمياً إلى وزارة المال المسارعة إلى إيداع الديوان قطع حسابات الموازنة عن السنوات الماضية، بما فيها قطع حساب سنة 2008، بالإضافة الى حسابات المهمة العائدة إلى السنوات 2001 الى 2008 ضمناً، وذلك بعد التدقيق فيها من مديرية المحاسبة العامة لدى الوزارة عملاً بأحكام المرسوم رقم 3373 تاريخ 11/12/1965 (تحديد أصول تنظيم الحسابات المالية ومهلها)، لأنَّه يستحيل على ديوان المحاسبة، من الناحيتين الحسابية والعملية، أن يدرس قطع حساب سنة معينة ويدقق فيه بمعزل عن حساب المهمة العائد إلى السنة عينها".

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.