Arab summit sets scene for Beirut's postwar renewal

All eyes are on Beirut for the Arab summit, the city's biggest event in decades.

The last time Beirut held an Arab summit, it was 1956 and before a 15-year civil war tore apart this country.

So, as hundreds of Arab dignitaries arrive here for this week's Arab summit, Lebanon is hoping that the high-profile two-day meeting will help eradicate the country's war-tarnished image and restore some gloss to its international reputation.

The downtown district of the Lebanese capital, which is being rebuilt, has been given a $10 million facelift paid for by Arab governments in preparation for the summit.

Lebanon's economy has stagnated in the past two years, having accumulated a staggering $28 billion public debt. Middle East peace remains as elusive as ever, and the constant threat of further violence in the region deters potential investors from plowing capital into Lebanon.

But Lebanon's determinedly optimistic prime minister, Rafik Hariri, says he believes the Arab summit will reestablish Beirut as "the oasis of the Arab world."

"The summit signals to everybody that Lebanon is back not only as a place for Arabs to meet, but also the place where they debate the peace, which is very important to their future and the future of the region," he says.

The seafront Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel, which reopened two years ago after being gutted by war, is the venue for the meetings.

The scars of conflict in Beirut have been discreetly hidden behind massive advertising banners. The bullet-holed facade of the Holiday Inn, long recognized as a symbol of Lebanon's bloody conflict, has been covered – the side facing the Phoenicia Hotel at least – with a colorful banner running the height of the building and reading "Vivre le Liban," or "Long Live Lebanon.

Other war-shattered buildings in key downtown locations have been draped with sheets advertising the more mundane, like Arabic coffee and fashion boutiques.

The 2002 summit is the biggest international event to be held in Lebanon for decades, and the Lebanese government is determined that it proceed without a hitch. Some 8,500 troops are deployed in central Beirut, with another 6,000 on standby, to guarantee a trouble-free meeting.

Soldiers lined the streets in the "red zone" surrounding the Phoenicia Hotel, which was closed to vehicles, as the 2,500 delegates from 21 Arab countries and the Palestinian territories began arriving.

Normal traffic at Beirut airport was suspended, and a disused military airfield in northern Lebanon was reopened to park dozens of private jets for the duration of the summit. Armored personnel carriers carrying twin-barreled anti-aircraft guns parked on street corners between the airport and the center of the city. Army helicopters clattered overhead as Navy gunboats cruised up and down the coast.

A senior Lebanese Army officer said that some soldiers have been equipped with outdated shoulder-fired SAM 7 anti-aircraft missiles to deter would-be emulators of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

"We don't have anything more sophisticated than that," the officer said. Arab foreign ministers released a series of draft resolutions Monday, following a preliminary summit meeting. The 21-page, 52-point draft document concentrates on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, US threats against Iraq, and Baghdad's relations with Kuwait.

A peace proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which calls on Israel to return territory occupied since 1967 in exchange for normal relations with the Arab world, is due to be discussed by Arab leaders today and tomorrow.

The Lebanese are usually skeptical of the ability of Arab summits to produce anything worthwhile. But Mohammed Itani, who works in a mobile-phone shop, is hopeful that the summit will address the grievances of the Palestinian refugees. Some 350,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, the bulk of them in squalid refugee camps.

"I think it's all been arranged already," he says. "The Arabs will pay Lebanon much money to improve the conditions in the camps and settle the refugees from 1948."

And other residents at least appreciated the government's efforts to improve the roads ahead of the arrival of the delegates.

"The potholes have gone, and they have painted white lines on the roads," says Fadi Awada, a taxi driver. "They should have a summit here everyday."

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