Playroom of the Gulf
Again we stared at the bill. The answer was all around us. The restaurant was packed with unquestioning tourists. Not just any tourists, but Arabs from the Gulf.
'I guess it's the season to hike up the prices,' said my husband. 'We came at the wrong time.'
You couldn't miss them last summer. Arabs from Gulf countries, known here as Gulfies, came to Lebanon in droves, booking all the hotel rooms, renting all the hire cars and filling the restaurants - great news for Lebanon, which is struggling with a debt of more than $40 billion.
Women in black veils browsed shops while cafés were packed with families staying up until the early morning hours. Money was no object. They had it and they could spend it.
With its Arab culture yet Westernized lifestyle, pre-war Lebanon had long been a favourite destination for Gulfies. But during the 16-year civil war, Europe and the US became the main holiday resorts. And they remained so until the attacks of 11 September 2001 when, overnight, attitudes in the West hardened against Arabs.
'They (Americans) hate us,' said a 24- year-old Kuwaiti man who was vacationing in one of Lebanon's mountain resorts. 'I still like to go to the US but they don't want us there.'
Arabs complain that the strict and sometimes humiliating security checks at US airports have become routine. Also, reports of anti-Arab harassment have reached all Arab ears.
'We may be detained in jail for God knows how long just because we look Arab, and that automatically seems to mean that we are terrorists,' the Kuwaiti tourist continued.
A recent Saudi travel report said that 90 per cent of the Saudi Arabians who used to spend their holidays in the US chose to go somewhere else. Last August alone, 212,000 tourists came to Lebanon, most of them from the Gulf.
Lebanese businesses took full advantage. One luxurious hotel in downtown Beirut charged $8,000 a night for its royal suite. It was booked the entire summer.
And since few questioned bills, many restaurants happily increased their prices (although if reported or caught, the restaurant would be closed down by the Lebanese authorities). I guess a few extra dollars for a meal is nothing when some are spending $50,000 for a 10-day stay. One prince reportedly spent more than $100,000 a day.
Huge amounts were spent on the oldest profession in the world. Hotel management found it impossible to control the flow of prostitutes. Employees were readily providing pimps with room numbers of single male Gulf Arabs. The guests were then solicited by phone.
'I am so shocked,' said a friend of mine who drives a taxi. 'These young girls, who look so wholesome, come into my car and I take them to their rendezvous. They look like anybody's daughters. It upsets me to hear some of them talk that they are about to lose their virginity and get paid for it. Apparently, virgins are the most in demand.'
Cabarets - better known as super nightclubs - had a great season. Russian, Ukrainian and other Eastern European women in skimpy clothes dance in these for a room full of men. While the men are required to have a drink with the girl of their choosing, they may not actually escort her out of the cabaret. But there is nothing to stop the pair from arranging a date outside working hours. Since such clubs are forbidden in the Gulf, men flocked to them all summer.
'I spent most of my nights waiting for my clients to leave the nightclubs,' said my taxi driver friend. 'We ended up going to several cabarets every night.'
While the return of the Gulfies has positive effects on the Lebanese economy, locals like myself end up paying some of the price. My husband and I have been trying in vain to buy a reasonably priced flat in central Beirut. Developers, however, barely give us a glance. They are building for wealthier customers. Much wealthier.
'Saudis, Kuwaitis and others want to own apartments in Beirut,' one developer told us. 'And they want the best. They are our main clients.'
Over and over again we heard it. 'Sorry, but there is nothing for you in this development.'
And so our search continues.