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For Beirut, this time, maybe, it's different

The Middle East Investor Relations Society held its annual conference in Beirut, partly to demonstrate the backing of regional investors for Lebanon's attempts to climb back out of the bad times and partly because the city is just a great place to hold a business conference.

Beirut is full of surprises. You walk into a hotel lobby to spot George Galloway, the former British member of parliament and a friend of Saddam Hussein, ensconced in conversation with some heavy-looking men, for example.

Now, what would you give to be a fly on the wall of that meeting? Mr Galloway is a "friend of the Middle East" and campaigner against the western military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a vocal advocate on behalf of the Palestinians, so perhaps his presence was understandable.

I was about to introduce myself to him again (we met some years ago in another hotel lobby in Glasgow before a big football match) when he suddenly disappeared, along with his party.

A few hours later I asked reception whether he was staying at the hotel, the deliciously decrepit Le Bristol, in an area of the Lebanese capital that has seen its share of trouble over the war-torn years, but was informed he had already checked out.

It was an opportunity missed: but Beirut is like that. The city has been through many booms and busts in the past 30 years, usually sparked by events entirely outside its control such as war and invasion.

Each time it seemed as though the most recent disaster would be the last, that peace would endure long enough for the Beirutis to resume their role as the "Parisians of the Middle East", but each time another catastrophe came along to thwart their ambitions.

This time, maybe it's different. Since the Israeli assault on southern Lebanon in 2006, there has been a period of peace and prosperity, apart from a small border skirmish between the two in August, that may have convinced many Beirutis the good times are here to stay.

Property in the city centre, a beautiful melange of Arabic, Christian and Levantine architecture that has been faithfully restored by the Lebanese property group Solidere after numerous assaults by land and air, is for sale at astronomical prices.

So astronomical that nobody has moved into the stylish apartments, which would not be out of place on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

The result is a stylish downtown area fit to grace any big city in the world but which is almost deserted after midnight, despite the fact it is within rocket-propelled grenade range of some of the most bustling and sybaritic nightspots in the Middle East. Another Beirut surprise.

In the four years since the last major outbreak of conflict, the Israeli attack on southern Lebanon in pursuit of Hizbollah activists and the bombing of the city that accompanied it, Beirut has had time to recover.

Because its recuperation period coincided with the global financial crisis, it was able to take its time getting back to normal. Local financiers say there has been a surge of foreign investment in the city as investors who got their fingers burned on the international markets sought a new speculative opportunity.

The event I was attending illustrated Beirut's ambitions to become, once more, an international financial centre. The Middle East Investor Relations Society held its annual conference in the city, partly to demonstrate the backing of regional investors for Lebanon's attempts to climb back out of the bad times and partly because Beirut is just a great place to hold a business conference.

There were some big global institutions in attendance, such as the Bank of New York Mellon, but the main interest was from Middle East investors from the Gulf.

The UAE was well represented by organisations including Emirates NBD, Shuaa Capital, M:Communications and Capital MS&L. They were all enthusiastic about Beirut and the investment prospects for Lebanon.

The conference itself was about the investor relations (IR) business in the Middle East. IR is a growing trend in the region, which has been stung by western criticism of its lack of transparency and corporate governance, especially during the financial crisis.

One point emerged from the conference that struck me as essential to the debate: good IR requires planning, preparation and training.

There will always be external events that throw even the best-laid plans off course. Who could have foreseen the convulsions that overtook Dubai World last November? But maybe the conglomerate could have avoided some of the subsequent confusion if it had implemented a coherent IR strategy before it entered restructuring.

Beirut could perhaps teach the IR business a lesson in this respect. The good days are back and the city appears bright with optimism. But the realists know a sudden lurch in the geo-political balance of the region could throw it back into the doldrums.

Hope for the best but plan for the worst. That should be the motto of Beirut - and the investor relations business.

fkane@thenational.ae

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