The business of war: the unexpected role of the Middle East's luxury hotels
During the long and bloody civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990), The Commodore Hotel in Beirut was the residence of choice for most correspondents covering the conflict. It became the quintessential war hotel in modern history.
The reporters were well taken care off by the staff and electricity was always available for writers having to wire texts by telex before deadlines. The bar also never ran out of alcohol, and if it did there were always someone to make a run into the Christian East Beirut to stock up more.
The refreshments however had to be hidden. On more than one occasion Shiite militiamen would storm into the lobby and smash every bottle they could find containing the “satanic beverages”.
It was through writing from the Commodore Hotel that Tom Friedman of the New York Times would win the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes.
Luxury hotels in war zones have always been surreal places, often taking on the role of impromptu media centers. But in spite of all the comfort and services you might find on the inside, there is always the notion that terror and danger await on the outside. And there have been many times when even the confines of a first rate international hotel has not been enough to feel safe.
During the second war in Iraq, many international journalists stationed in Baghdad would stay at The Palestine Hotel or the Sheraton Ishtar in Firdos Square, overlooking the Tigris. In 2003, at the start of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, an American tank fired a shell that accidentally hit the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists - Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and José Couse of Telecinco, a Spanish television network - and injuring three others.
“The incident raises questions about the judgment of the advancing U.S. troops who have known all along that this hotel is the main base for almost all foreign journalists in Baghdad," Geert Linnebank, Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief told AP after the accident.
Two years later, in October of 2005, a cement-mixing truck packed with explosives detonated close to the two hotels, leaving at least 15 people dead and many more injured. There was considerable damage to rooms at both locations and the ground floor of the Sheraton was completely devastated.
Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attack, being executed at dusk for maximum exposure to the media.
This however was not the first attack at the Palestine Hotel by the terrorist organization. A year prior to the event a rocket, fired by Al-Qaeda, hit the building killing 29 and leaving over 50 people injured.
More recently, at the end of former Libyan despot Muammar Gadhafi’s rule, 35 foreign journalists and cameramen were held hostage by soldiers loyal to the now fallen leader at the five-star Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. For five days the group were under siege in the hotel compound by gunmen desperate to stand their diminishing ground against the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the rebel movement.
During these five days, water and food supplies were quickly running out and desperation started to set in amongst the captives.
AP reporter Dario Lopez-Mills described the hotel as a “£500-a night prison, with a spa but no power or air-conditioning, with candlelight but no romance.”
Fortunately, all 35 hostages were brought to safety by the International Red Cross.
These war hotels are often selected by the media for their rooftop views of combat and are made known to governments and rebel forces alike in the hope that both sides will deem it in their interest to respect the neutrality and allow foreign media to do their jobs.
Many famous writers down the years, like Ernest Hemingway, John le Carre and Graham Greene have all used hotels in times of war as settings for their novels and plays because of the unique situations their characters find themselves in, trying to stay sane together in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
More often than not - luxury hotels in areas of conflict are considered safe zones from the ongoing battles outside its premises. The manner with which bellboys and desk clerks carry on with their chores, as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on, creates an absurd and tense mood for its foreign patrons.
The Four Seasons Hotel in the Syrian capital Damascus is one example. Located in the very heart of the city center, the five-star hotel has not been subjected to direct attack during the three year long civil war. However, two mortar shells detonated some 1000 feet away from the building in early October of 2013, killing an 8-year old girl and wounding 11 others. The strike was said to be targeting the chemical weapons inspectors and UN staff staying at the hotel at the time.
“The mood inside the hotel is completely absurd."
Other than that, Four Seasons enjoys unusual tranquility given its location. The regime takes pride in keeping the area of central Damascus relatively calm as it shines a light of power and control onto the country´s ruling elite. Inside the hotel it’s business as usual.
“The mood inside the hotel is completely absurd. The relative safety that it provides makes it a first choice for many reporters that come to work in Damascus,” Caroline Salzinger, a reporter from Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s equivalent of BBC Radio, tells Your Middle East.
“When you approach the check-in counter, having heard your first grenade detonating outside only minutes earlier, the receptionist kindly asks you not to miss their latest offer of aroma therapy treatment in their SPA.”
Caroline Salzinger has stayed at the Four Seasons in Damaskus on several occasions, with the most recent visit being in November of 2013.
She tells us that the staff at the international hotel, part of a chain famous around the world for its service and high quality, do their utmost to maintain a supreme level of service and accommodation towards their guests, but also make sure not to get involved in the work of the journalists staying there.
“I tried getting a girl from the waiting staff to translate a voice recording in Arabic that I had just obtained. She shied away from me and said nothing. Right then and there I realized my mistake, of course they cannot get involved in anything that might jeopardize their job or even worse – their life.”
When Your Middle East sent an email to the head of PR at the hotel asking to for a comment, the reply was swift but firm: “Thank you for your interest in Syria and the Four Seasons – unfortunately we cannot assist in answering any questions at this time. We hope to be able to comply with your requests in the future.”
The “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” mantra of The Four Seasons Damascus is made painfully evident by a painting hanging in the hotel lobby, depicting three women, each having pink flowers covering their ears, mouths and eyes. Much like the famous motif with the three monkeys from the Japanese original pictorial maxim.
“The painting in the lobby was almost too good to be true when you think of the way the staff conducts itself. But that’s the way it is, we get no information whatsoever, only first class service,” Salzinger says.
The cautious manner adopted by the staff is well founded. There is always a group of men in suits sitting in the lobby that no doubt are members of the Syrian Ministry of Information, supervising every move the workers make.
“I guess the fact that I am from a little country like Sweden and don´t speak Arabic make me less interesting to the authorities. That’s probably why they take little notice of me, let alone gave me the visa to enter the country.”
A hotel that gets too involved in politics and take sides in a conflict can suffer the consequences, as was the case during this summer’s protests in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
When Turkish police brutally broke up the protesters camp in Gezi Park, clashes broke out and left many protesters injured. The nearby Divan Hotel harbored injured protesters and allowed them to be treated in the rooms and elsewhere on the hotels premises. The hotel is owned by the Koc family – the wealthiest family in Turkey that provides 9% of the country’s GDP, 10% of its exports and 9% of its tax revenues.
This action by the Divan Hotel led to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordering a tax police raid on the Koc family´s refinery subsidiary and the cancellation of a €1.1 billion tender for Koc to build a warship and threats to cancel another $5.7 billion Koc tender for the building of roads and bridges. A stern message to an important family that they would be well advised staying out of the Prime Minister’s business.
Before the technological revolution of the past decades, nights in the war zone hotels of the world were spent by members of the international press drinking, laughing and sharing experiences with each other. Trying to find meaning and some sort of normality after a day of chasing first hand accounts of atrocities and tragedy. Even romantic encounters would occur in spite of the tensions of war.
Today, things are different as described by veteran journalist HDS Greenway: “Reporters today are too busy reading text messages, talking on their cell phones, and updating copy for the web to go out and get drunk together — and too serious to even want to. But they have to stay someplace, and the war hotels endure.”