After years of blockade, downtown Beirut to turn the page

A joint committee, bringing together representatives of the Cabinet and Beirut's municipality, will be formed to lure businessmen into investing in downtown Beirut.
by Zeina Nasser English Zeina_w_Nasser

4 January 2018 | 19:37

Source: by Annahar

A Lebanese army soldier stands in front of a blockade in Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut. (Annahar Photo/ Michel Sayegh)

 BEIRUT: Beirut Municipality is joining efforts with the Government to breathe life into downtown Beirut after a series of political setbacks and years of tight security measures dealt a serious blow to the country's once leading tourism destination.

A joint committee, bringing together representatives of the Cabinet and Beirut's municipality, will be formed Thursday to lure businessmen into investing in downtown Beirut, Sleiman Jaber, a member of Beirut's municipal council told Annahar.  

The committee, which will be formed under the patronage of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, will negotiate discounted rental rates with real estate owners in downtown Beirut as well as other incentives to encourage investors to set up businesses in the area, Jaber told Annahar.

This committee's formation follows a decision by Speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday, in which he ordered security forces to ease access to Nejmeh Square, the seat of the Lebanese parliament, after years of restrictions. 

Berri ordered the removal of barricades, barbed wires and cement blocks surrounding the area, restoring pedestrian access to the square for the first time since 2015 when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest the government's failure to manage an ongoing waste crisis.

The decision comes days after the square witnessed one of the largest gatherings on New Year's Eve.

The New Year event was a turning point for many businesses that had suffered a drop in the number of clients due to the economic downturn and restricted access to the area.

Hawraa Sleem, an employee at "Zayyat exchange," a currency exchange shop that remained in business despite the challenging circumstances, said “the situation has improved since the big New Year event.”

"People used to be afraid of coming to the region because Lebanese Army soldiers used to inquire where they were going,” she noted, adding that “we hope that the municipality organizes more events in order to encourage people to come."

Aida Zayyat, owner of "Zayyat exchange" told Annahar that he extended opening hours from 7 P.M. to 9 P.M. following Berri's decision.

"We were closing at 7:00 P.M. compared to after midnight in 2012," he said.

“Grand Cafe”, one of the most renowned cafe-restos in Beirut re-opened its Nejmeh square branch on New year's eve. The branch was closed over the past two and a half years.

A manager at the cafe told Annahar that it is too early to tell whether business activity at the Nejmeh Square branch will pick up again.

Grand Cafe's two other branches in Beirut have weathered the economic downturn.  “We’ve been here for 16 years, and plan to stay,” he said.

Place de L'etoile, a restaurant and coffee shop that has attracted leading local figures since its opening in 2000, hopes activity will pick up in 2018.

Mirna Farhat, Manager at Place de L’etoile, told Annahar that the restaurant has been offering discounted prices since 2012 to stay in business.

Bassam, an employee at Place de L’etoile for the past 11 years, said he was affected by the drop in the number of clients but chose not to seek another job.

“I love my work here, and I never thought of leaving, even in the midst of the crisis,” he said, adding “Hope is always present.”

Antoinette Ghorayeb, an employee at Boutique Samiia, a clothing store, is upbeat but insists "it is too early to tell whether the economic situation will improve.”

“Hope for the best and you shall find it,” she said, a statement echoed by the shop's manager, Therese Salame.

Economist Kamel Wazni agrees. He told Annahar that business activity will pick up in downtown Beirut only if enough incentives are provided to investors.

Berri’s decision, he explained, is a message to the international community and Arab countries that the "heart of the Lebanese economy" is open to investors and businesses.

Wazni urged a series of measures to lure investors into setting up shop in the area including lower rental prices as well as lower parking fees to attract more clients.

“Make downtown Beirut competitive again,” he said.

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