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A Souk in name only

December 25, 2007 10:00 by

Beirut, Solidere

Just as the shops and restaurants of Beirut’s central Downtown district were beginning to recover from the civil war years, Israel launched last year’s devastating summer war on Lebanon. And just as the dust began to settle after that conflict, protesters set up a makeshift camp in the downtown whose tents now threaten to become a permanent fixture of the city center.

A year later, along with the tents and throngs of protesters, coils of Baghdad-style razor wire swathe the government buildings. It’s hardly ideal for upmarket shopping, but Solidere, the company that was established to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-90 civil war, will next year open its long-delayed flagship retail development, the 120,000 square meter Beirut Souks mall, upon which hangs the hope for a return to a profitable Downtown. As it is, many merchants have already rolled down the shutters and moved on. Worse, during the six-year delay retail developments elsewhere in the capital have sprung up, such as the upmarket 200-shop ABC mall in east Beirut.

Given the country’s fragile political situation and Solidere’s tendency to secrecy, the company has been less than forthcoming about the project. Industry insiders say the original plan was for Galleries Lafayette, the French department store, to be the anchor tenant. That plan has fallen through, and the company has not found a tenant of similar international stature.

However, says Raja Makarem, the founder and managing partner of Ramco, a leading real estate company, Lebanese retailers Aishti and Maxima Fashion could move in instead. “As I understand it, Solidere has agreed with the tenants on the space and the location but not on the prices,” he says. The two companies, while lacking the cachet of Lafayette, are respectable retailers in their own right. Maxima fashion, established in 1998 by Wassim Daher, has developed eight brands, including Max Mara, Max & Co., Marella, Gianfranco Ferre, Sergio Rossi and Zara.

Similarly situated at the high end of retail, Aishti operates department stores in Jal El Dib, Verdun, the Sofil Center and the Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel, and has branched out into spas, restaurants and publishing. The company, which has a presence in the UAE, specializes in apparel and home furnishings, and boasts a portfolio of high-end brands, including Prada, Herm

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