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Nicholas Frakes

Businesses struggle as Lebanon's economic crisis continues

The Beirut Cat Café which opened last year, will permanently close it's doors soon

Date of publication: 17 January, 2020

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As Lebanon marks 90 days since widespread calls for an end to corruption rang across the country, businesses are struggling to stay open as their operating costs increase.

As Lebanon's economic crisis continues to worsen and with Lebanon's country-wide protests appearing to have no end in sight, businesses are struggling to avoid raising their prices or stay open as their operating costs increase.

With ninety days having passed since widespread calls for an end to corruption rang across the country, Lebanon's protest movement gained fresh momentum this week after a brief holiday lull.

In Beirut, the Metropolis cinema, a cultural landmark that often screened independent films and was the setting of Beirut's International Film Festival, closed its doors for the last time at the start of this month. This came despite its attempts to remain open by holding a massive fundraiser in the summer of 2019, but, due to the economic crisis, it was not enough.

Another business that is set to close is the Beirut Cat Café which opened in March 2019. The café's founder, Lynn al-Khouri, started making plans to open the pet restaurant back in June 2018 and worked with the Beirut Municipality to create new laws for the country's first pet café. However, by the time they opened for the first time, the country was starting to show signs of the crisis to come.

"The country was already in a bad place, economically, when we started," al-Khouri told The New Arab, "but it wasn't really showing that much. We started with a fundraiser and we raised some funds from people who wanted the place to open. And, through that, we got some investors, we have like six partners, and we opened."

While optimistic that the café would find success despite the looming crisis, they were quickly dealt their first blow when the Municipality refused to give them a licence to serve food.

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"We struggled at first with the municipality," she explained, "They weren't on board with having animals in a place with food and beverage. So, they never ended up giving us the licence to have food. That was one of the reasons why we never did as well as we should have because you can never make real sales without food. A person can visit and have one coffee, maybe two, but it's still not enough."

Then, on October 17, Lebanon's protests began.

"Before everything happened with the revolution, we were doing okay," al-Khouri stated. "We weren't making any real profit, but we were fine. And, then, we had these three months where people were so busy with the revolution and the banks weren't giving people their money that we barely had any visitors for two and a half months.

"This was our downfall. We had to pay salaries, rent, suppliers, electricity, water and everything is so expensive in this country. We weren't really making the money, so we were spending from our capital and by the end of December, we were pretty much almost broke."

We had these three months where people were so busy with the revolution and the banks weren't giving people their money that we barely had any visitors for two and a half months

"The revolution started happening and people started coming out onto the streets," she later added. "This is where is went really bad for us and I think for many other places too.

"People's priorities were not to go out and enjoy themselves anymore. It was to go fight for their rights and I really respect that. But sadly, it affected us. I have a lot of friends who have similar businesses, like bars and restaurants, it's affected everyone, even the best of us."

This is something that protesters Jad and Aline, members of Raseef 17 who asked to have their family names omitted, agree with. They told The New Arab that because of the economic crisis, they have had to change aspects of their lives in order to get by.

"Even if you had planned your spending," Aline said, "now your previous budget can't work anymore because prices have surged."

"I worked in a company for a short while," Jad exclaimed, "and I still can't get my whole salary from the past months."

Even if you had planned your spending now your previous budget can't work anymore because prices have surged

With stores raising the prices on many of their products, the two said that they are being forced to find alternatives.

"Our spending has changed lately," Jad said, "like, for example, now you can't afford original brands and you need to look for alternatives for everything. Because of the dollar everything doubled, especially in supermarkets."

Aline adds even chocolate has become expensive. "My nephew used to get Kinder Delice every day for school, but, now, the price has doubled, and the quality of an alternative is sort of similar.

"All of us now need to think of alternatives. Now we have to think twice before eating out, especially since we can't even access our salary. Even if you take money from your parents, it's the same thing. We are all damaged and hurt by the situation."

For Abbas Haidar, he recently started protesting because of the affect that the economy has had on his life.

"There is no more work, and everything is pricier," Haidar explained to The New Arab. "Then there is the threat of no fuel. Personally, I have felt the damage a lot otherwise I wouldn't be here [protesting]. For example, I used to smoke Marlboro [cigarettes] and now I smoke Cedars [the local brand]. Coffee beans were 4,000 Lebanese Lira (£2) and now they cost 7,000 Lira ($3.54). Even shampoo is more expensive!"

Despite the surge in business the café received after posting on social media that they would be closing and support that they have received from many of their customers, al-Khouri said that they would still be closing since the economic situation has only continued to worsen.

"We posted [online] that we were closing by the end of January and it was nice to see people show up to support," she said smiling. "We had the place start filling up again and people were proposing that we do another fundraiser or have someone invest their money.

"But we don't think that it's smart putting money in again during these situations because the whole thing is just going to happen all over again. Now our priority is paying our debts. That is why we are open for this month and there is a chance that we may be open for next month as well, but it's not a sure thing."

From now until they close, the café is trying to make sure that all of their cats get adopted instead of having to send them back to the shelter.

"The other priority is having the cats adopted," al-Khouri said, "So, we are just trying to spread the word as much as we can that they are all up for adoption. We don't want them to go back to the shelter because they are so used to people here."

She happily added that they have already received numerous applications to adopt the cats.

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist who reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno

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