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How the Syrian War Has Changed the Face of Beirut’s Club Scene

Lebanon embraces more casual nightlife as a proxy war and travel ban impacts the bottom line of the country's ultra-luxious clubs.

Beirut is a party town, which a lot of Westerners think is weird. Nearly every lifestyle piece published about Lebanon's capital has some variation of the old refrains: the seemingly strange juxtaposition of "wanton licentiousness and utter terror" recently in the New York Times; similarly, "war is a million miles away when the Lebanese begin to party," reads a Telegraph headline. VICE has joined the fun too, reporting on "bars offering coke-fueled benders down the street from Hezbollah headquarters."

The past 40 years have been turbulent for Lebanon: the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the 29-year occupation by the Syrian government ended in 2005, and a series of bombings, including one that killed former prime minister Rafic Hariri, in addition to skirmishes and general unrest, have plagued the country ever since. Throughout all of this, the country's nightlife remained robust—and still does, despite the five-year-old war raging next door in Syria.

But, club owners and other stakeholders say, recent developments in regional politics have thrown the local nightlife industry into flux. Due to a travel ban imposed by the Saudi government, Gulf Arabs and other high rollers become themselves increasingly scarce on the party scene. Without the influx of cash that they would have previously brought, the city has moved away from eye-wateringly expensive, 2000s-era Paris Hilton-style VVIP bottle service clubs and Oriental-style shisha bars and toward a more casual, less expensive, more street-oriented vibe catering to tourists from the West—who would prefer to spend their Thursday night standing on the street listening to Arabic hip-hop than preen in Versace at a rooftop club.

Since the Syrian conflict began at the outset of the Arab Spring, it has brought over a million refugees, more bombings, and, evidence increasingly shows, ISIS operatives to Lebanon. This has also led to a proxy war, just the latest in Lebanon's convoluted history, between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Hezbollah (the Lebanon-based political and military party listed as a terrorist organization by the US) over the latter's involvement in Syria on the side of Bashar al Assad. The Saudi government, which subscribes to the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, objects to the Shia Hezbollah's minority role in the Lebanese government. As a result, they, along with several other ideologically aligned Gulf countries, instituted a ban this spring on its citizens traveling to Lebanon.

Beirut's MusicHall, photo courtesy of MusicHall.

Some places have closed altogether. At the start of the Syrian war, downtown Beirut's Place de l'Étoile, destroyed during the war but now rebuilt in a not-quite-authentic neo-Italiante style, was one of the busiest spots in town for visiting khaleejis (the Arabic term for people from the Persian Gulf region) to take in the temperate climate and designer-clad beauties passing by, while puffing a watermelon shisha. Now, the area is eerily dead; most of the restaurants and bars were boarded up even before the government closed the area off last summer to dissuade protesters fired up about the ongoing trash crisis (the country's dumps are overflowing and trash has been piling up in unofficial sites around the country since last summer, sparking serious public health concerns and violent protests).

Falamanki, a Lebanese restaurant and shisha lounge on Beirut's Monnot Street, has also experienced a massive drop in the number of khaleejis coming in. "A few years ago we received every day 50 or 60 people from the Gulf," an employee who declined to give his name told me. "Now we get only two or three per week. I believe it is because of the Syrian war and political clashes between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia." (Requests for comment from Falamanki's head office went unanswered.) Still, he says, it's not all bad: "the Syrians who have come to Lebanon, they add something to our business."

Many of the most popular clubs are suffering as well. Skybar Beirut, which claims to have been listed as the best nightclub in the world back in 2009, was for years a symbol of Beirut's bacchanalian spirit. You had to have wasta, a special connection or clout, to be admitted at all. Once in, you could get drunk at the bar overlooking the container cranes of Beirut's port for about $100. But after a fire last May, Skybar has yet to reopen. Malek Tambourgi, the club's marketing manager, denies any problem, saying the bar will open in a new location next summer (the exact date, he says conspiratorially, is "the best guarded information in the country"). The two-year delay has just been part of the natural process of relocating, he says.

Beirut's original Skybar, photo courtesy of the club.

Michel Elefteriades, the nightlife doyen, sculptor, accused devil worshipper, and armchair philosopher, is slightly more forthcoming. "The Syrian war has impacted the Lebanese economy," he told me when I met him in the Count Dracula-esque attic lair above his downtown Beirut club MusicHall, filled with red velvet-upholstered furniture, gothic iron chandeliers, and his collection of antique firearms. "We have Lebanese clients who are making less money because the khaleejis aren't coming and because the war has interrupted the import-export business, so they're not partying as much."

"We don't suffer because we're leaders in the market," he says. "We used to refuse 4,000 [people] a weekend; now we only refuse 1,000. Those who are on the edge have lost clients. Those who had half capacity are now left with no one. Only the strongest survive a crisis."

Others are adapting to the new normal. Ricky Dakouny, founder and CEO of event planning company Tarte aux Poires, and tech-house DJ on the side, says his business has been impacted by a decrease in wealthy people, especially families, coming from the Gulf states to hold events in Lebanon. "We have been directly hit by the ban," Dakouny says. "We had two cancellations for big events at the beginning of the year from couples who wanted to come and get married here—their families had an issue with Lebanon as a venue."

However, for Tarte Aux Poires' public events, like a launch party for corporates like Pepe Jeans, or a party for the Spanish embassy in Beirut, "the ban hasn't meant much," Dakouny says. "The cool crowd who know the Lebanese market and the dance scene here aren't scared; they're still coming."

Dakouny's experience with Tarte Aux Poires' public events is similar to observations made by several other members of the nightlife community: there may be fewer khaleejis coming to Beirut, but generally bars are still busy enough with Lebanese, foreign residents, and increasing numbers of tourists to notice much of a difference.

As a result, bar owners and event planners are tailoring their offerings to match the tastes of this market. "[Tarte aux Poires] doesn't know how to cater to the stereotypical taste of the Gulf market, the unreachable luxury. The luxury we propose is more down to earth, more European... for instance, I use the gold color only in a funky, modern way."

The trend toward casual, less expensive nightlife is apparent in the explosion of Mar Mikhael's street scene (as well as those in other neighborhoods and suburbs of Beirut). Four years ago, there were one or two bars among refrigerator repair shops and wholesale kitchen suppliers. Now, revellers spill out of the pubs onto the sidewalks every night of the week. For a few blocks, every storefront is a bar; in between there are shops that sell beer and cigarettes for those who want to soak up the scene without paying for marked-up cocktails.

Bashir Wardini, co-owner of Floyd the Dog, one of the bars in the middle of the scrum, says Mar Mikhael has been unaffected by the ban; in fact, business is up from last year. "Nightlife in Lebanon has evolved in a way that it does not need khaleejis to survive," he says. "Look at downtown—at some point it became so full of khaleejis [that] Lebanese stopped going there."

The spike in tourists from the West certainly hasn't hurt Beirut's nightlife industry; neither has the influx of Syria's young and hip for whom being stuck in Beirut is the best among a series of terrible options. But at the end of the day, says Elefteriades, Lebanese nightlife is politics-proof. As long as there is strife in the country, he believes, Lebanese people will rely on bars and clubs to take the edge off.

"In war zones, you always have people who want to keep living, keep eating, keep having sex, keep drinking," he says. "Maybe we'll die during the war so let us keep living and enjoy while we can. The Lebanese are very resilient, they get over catastrophe very quickly."