Living in Beirut is costly but special

An annual survey by the global consulting company Mercer on the cost of living in 207 cities has pushed Beirut up 19 places, from the 63rd-most expensive in the world to the 44th. The Lebanese capital was also the third-priciest among the 16 Arab cities in the survey, losing out only to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively.

Mercer explained that Beirut’s progression up the charts is because of the high cost of what it calls “unfurnished housing” (presumably lettings), along with leisure and sports facilities, transport and utilities – all of which, with the exception of the unfurnished housing, are more expensive than New York.

Even though New Yorkers will privately admit that their beloved city is a bit Third World – the subway hasn’t changed much from the bad old 1970s, the roads can barely survive the winter and a worrying number of taxi drivers can’t speak a word of English – that’s still quite staggering, considering the relatively low buying power of most Lebanese.

So let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Mercer says rents are on the rise, and it would be fair to assume that this is down to the number of landlords scrambling to exploit the swelling number of middle-class Syrians seeking refuge from the calamitous situation in their country. There is also high demand for one-bedroom apartments and studios, which, because they are so scarce, can punch way above their weight in terms of rental returns and have become highly efficient investments. The same can’t be said, however, for the super-luxury end of the rental market, where properties of more than 300 square metres have struggled to achieve anything approaching the 4 to 5 per cent that landlords traditionally look for in a rental yield.

That utilities are exorbitant didn’t come as much of a surprise. Before we moved out of Beirut nearly a year ago, our monthly electricity bill, which was divided between the state provider and the private generator that made up the shortfall, would come to about US$250 a month, compared to the $120 we pay today in the United Kingdom.

In fact, our monthly bill for water (which we can also drink), gas and electricity still comes to only $240. In Beirut, all three came to more than $300 a month, and that did not include paying an extra $100 each summer for extra water after the state claimed it had run out.

But the prize for ripping off the customer must surely go to the Lebanese government for its outrageous mobile rates. My monthly bill, which admittedly was probably higher than most but certainly not profligate, was about $230. In the UK, I pay about $50 and probably use the phone twice as much, even when roaming.

Mrs Karam tells me her bill never exceeds $25. In fact my family’s monthly mobile phone bill, which covers four users, costs about $140. Go figure.

In what Mercer calls leisure and sports facilities, it’s again not hard to see why Beirut scored so low – or high, depending on how you look at it. Gym fees are about two-and-a-half times more expensive in Beirut than London, and this must surely be down to the fact that working out is still regarded as the pastime of a bourgeoisie that is quite happy to pay a premium if it keeps out the riff-raff.

Ditto beach clubs, where a day out with the family to one of the many day resorts that have sprung up along the coast in the past 15 years can easily cost more than $100 per person. Some establishments, no doubt feeding off this Lebanese obsession with elitism, have set up VIP areas, creating a rather unsavoury “them-and-us” situation even within the same venue.

But what Mercer didn’t say is that Beirut always beats the odds. It’s mayhem central. It’s loud and dirty. It’s a cauldron in the summer and the drains explode with the first rains – and yet it is one of the most infectious cities on Earth and more than a bit of me misses it all. And you can’t buy that feeling at any price.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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