Region The streets have names that are evocative of the past and genuinely old masonry shimmers through on rare corners.
Souk project helps transform Beirut
BEIRUT // The streets have names that are evocative of the past and genuinely old masonry shimmers through on rare corners, but the centrally located Beirut souks project that is set to partially open its doors next month is a shopping mall by any other name. The long delayed launch of what is marketed as a 100,000 square metre-plus retail and leisure centre signals a new phase for Beirut's downtown area, reconstructed after the devastating 1975-1990 civil war. It also sends a signal of continuing stabilisation after the political troubles and violence that plagued the country until last year. The souks will feature leading brands such as H&M, Zara, Massimo Dutti and Lebanon's Aïshti and attract shoppers to the downtown area which was known more for its outdoor cafés and restaurants. Because of its size and central location, it is expected to draw foreign visitors away from other large shopping malls in the capital. The project is taking place on the site of the former gold souk and the Bab Idris vegetable souk. The opening of the souks is also significant for Solidère, the huge development company responsible the reconstruction of downtown Beirut that was set up by Rafiq Hariri, the five-time prime minister who was assassinated. Solidère oversees the master plan for downtown Beirut and gets most of its income from land sales. The souks are among the few projects for which the company has retained ownership. A report earlier this year from Citibank estimated that Solidère's revenues from rental income would rise from 7 per cent last year to 11 per cent next year because of the opening of part of the souks project. Solidère has been criticised in the past for its commercial approach to reconstructing downtown Beirut and its supposed disregard for the original atmosphere of the place. But this time the response from the business community has been overwhelmingly positive. "The souks will not be what they were but they look great. They used modern techniques and they did a good job," said Beaudart Issa, a board member of the Beirut Merchants Association who before the civil war used to own a shop in downtown Beirut's souk tawileh. "Without Solidère, the reconstruction of downtown may not have happened," he says. Solidère last month announced pre-tax profits for last year of US$214.3 (Dh787.1m), an 18 per cent rise over the previous year despite the global downturn. Traders in Beirut point out that the stock's performance is not likely to be affected much by the opening of the souks or other commercial developments. Solidère is the most traded stock and largely determines the movement of the BLOM index. However, its performance seems more tied to the overall political and economic situation of the country. Solidère shares gained 15 per cent, for example, after the June 7 election victory of Lebanon's pro-western bloc, led by Mr Hariri's son Saad. The opening of the Souks sends a signal of continuing normalisation after the turbulent years between the assassination in 2005 of Mr Hariri and last year's violent street battles between rival factions in Beirut. The downtown area was particularly hard hit by a continuous anti-government sit-in from December 2006 until June last year that all but paralysed the area. Shop owners still reeling from the effects of the long period of political turmoil say that rather than feeling threatened by the opening of a shopping mall on their doorstep, they are optimistic. "It will increase foot traffic and we will profit from a certain percentage," said Toni Traboulsi, the executive manager of the Middle East Luxury Group that has shops for several high-end brands, including Ferré, facing one of the souks' entrances. The southern part of the souks will open next month. "We have a gentleman's agreement with several retailers," said George Chamoun, the head of operations for Lebanon's Retail Group, which will open 10 stores in the mall. email@example.com