Glamorous young couples twiddle their cocktail stirrers on the terraces of Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay, looking out across a balmy evening scene that could be lifted straight from Monaco or Cannes. The lights of glitzy towers twinkle on the water, as a group of teenage girls stroll along the teak boardwalk, posing for selfies in front of freshly polished super-yachts. At the end of the curving esplanade, the jagged form of a new yacht club, designed by shape-making American architect Steven Holl, juts out into the bay, topped with apartments that boast some of the most expensive views in the Middle East. It is “the premier seaside destination for luxury living and recreation,” according to the marketing blurb, “catering exclusively to the region’s cultural and social elite.”
But, as Islamic State fighters gather at the border with Syria to the east, there is an uneasy tension in the air. It is a looming threat that not even a bottle of champagne on the region’s most exclusive terrace can mask. And there are signs that, beneath the veneer of waterfront sparkle, this optimistic image of Beirut’s glory days – revived like a phoenix, 20 years after the civil war blew the city to rubble – might not all be quite what it seems. The city centre now boasts immaculately rebuilt streets, lined with the stores of Gucci and Prada, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, but the whole place is strangely deserted. There are thickets of new apartment buildings, but few lights are switched on behind the curtains. ….