- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

BEIRUT The Arab summit here presents a good chance for Lebanon to erase the memories of its civil war and to attract Arab tourists and investments.

The presence of most leaders of the 22-member Arab League in Beirut at the summit today and tomorrow will confirm that Lebanon has become a safe place, Lebanese officials hope.

Tight security measures, enforced by nearly 4,500 soldiers from the Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces, have been adopted to ensure the safety of the Arab kings and presidents and their 2,500 delegates.

The summit has also attracted more than 1,500 journalists, nearly half of them foreigners.

Hundreds of presidential guards are being deployed along the streets leading from Beirut International Airport to the seaside Phoenecia Hotel, where the majority of the Arab leaders are being housed during the summit. Army tanks and armored personnel carriers also were positioned in the main intersection of the capital while the few army helicopters hovered over Beirut.

A "red zone" was established around the Phoenecia Hotel and other hotels where delegates will be staying. Journalists, who would be confined to a nearby makeshift media center, are not allowed to enter the Phoenecia unless accompanied by security officers and only if with prior approval for interviews by the Arab officials.

Life is not easy in Beirut during the Arab summit, with roadblocks and checkpoints around the "red zone" and main intersections. But to ease the traffic jam and impact of the security measures, schools and universities were ordered closed.

A Lebanese security source justified such heavy security measures, saying: "We cannot allow any mistake or risk with the presence of a big number of Arab leaders."

This week marks the first time Lebanon has hosted such a big event. In 1956, nine Arab leaders gathered in Beirut to discuss the attack by Israel, Britain and France on Egypt. The main absentee at that time was then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This year, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has cited Israeli travel restrictions as keeping him from Lebanon, is not expected to attend, along with other Arab leaders who may not join the summit for different reasons.

Saudi King Fahd and the Kuwaiti emir would not be able to fly to Beirut because of health problems. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been confined to Baghdad since the United Nations imposed its embargo after the 1991 Gulf war, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi decided to forgo the Beirut meeting, although he wanted to present his own peace initiative.

"We have been working on the basis that the 22 Arab countries will be represented at the summit," said Ghassan Salameh, who was in charge of organizing the event.

The summit grew in importance after Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah offered Israel peace and normal ties in exchange for its withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied during the 1967 war.

Besides its political importance, Mr. Salameh views the Arab summit as "an excellent business" for Lebanon.

He said 21 hotels, mostly in Beirut, are fully booked while more than 27 private jets were to deliver Arab leaders to the city.

Mr. Salameh told UPI the United Arab Emirates granted Lebanon $5 million in cash to cover summit expenses, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar offered about 40 armored cars.

"Many delegates will stay in Lebanon after the summit for a little tourism, shopping and even looking for business opportunities," he said, adding that he expects the summit to generate revenues of tens of millions of dollars.

Adnan al-Hajj, head of the economics section at As Safir newspaper, shares the same optimism.

"The importance of the summit is that it would boost the idea that Lebanon is safe and stable, meaning good for tourism and investment," Mr. al-Hajj said. "When the Arab leaders come here, this means that security is guaranteed. Our mission is to market Lebanon well."

He explained that such a high number of delegates and journalists will see for themselves "the tourist, banking and financial services Lebanon can offer."

"We hope they will discover that they [Arabs] can come back to Lebanon for investment and tourism, especially after what happened on September 11," he went on, noting that Lebanon's 72 banks make it the largest banking center in the region.

Special preparations also have been made to please the Arab guests.

Erik Weinmann, director of sales at Phoenecia Hotel, told UPI the employees will not know whose heads of state would stay at the 462-room hotel or which floor they will stay on until the day before the meeting "for security reasons."

"Hundreds and hundreds of security men will be in and around the hotel just to make sure nothing happens," Mr. Weinmann said, noting the hotel's 1,200 employees have been briefed on the security measures.


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