Casino du Liban is six decades old and at least 1,200 families are counting on this institution.
In November 1996, Lara Hafez joined Casino du Liban, which was about to re-open after a long renovation following 15 years of civil war in Lebanon that severely damaged its grounds.
Twenty-five years later, she sits tall in her chair as Casino du Liban’s marketing manager, a position she has held since 2000.
Behind her, a panoramic window reveals the stunning landscape that has lured hundreds of thousands to the casino in the last half-century. Even the dark clouds hanging in the sky do little to dim the beauty of the blue waves crashing against the Bay of Jounieh, a family of mountains towering above the water.
Hafez furiously swipes through her phone. After finally finding the right picture, she turns the phone around.
“I took this picture the other day,” she laughs. The snap is the same view seen through the window behind her.
“Can you believe that after all this time, I still take pictures of the same view I’ve seen for more than 20 years? It just doesn’t get old.”
Decades of decadence
Casino du Liban, which sits some 25 kilometres north of Beirut, officially opened its doors in December 1959, after a presidential decree gave the casino a monopoly on gambling in Lebanon. For the last 60 years, it has remained the only institution in the country that is able to host or practise gambling-related activity. In exchange, the casino delivers 50 percent of its profits to the Ministry of Finance.
When it was being built, the surrounding area was nothing but untouched, green mountains, making its construction - on 35,000 square metres of sprawling land - all the more special. According to Hafez, the opening night at Casino du Liban saw more than 4,000 guests from across the country and region, many of whom had never seen such a venue before. After all, it was the first legal casino to be opened in the Middle East. Rave reviews led local papers to describe the casino as the “Monaco of the Middle East,” a “Glowing Diamond Hill,” and a “Hub for Entertainment lovers.”
But glamorous as it was, it soon became apparent that Casino du Liban’s quick rise to its status as a cultural icon had little to do with gambling itself. Instead, it was the sleek architecture, world-class performances, and exotic dining experiences that soon attracted audiences from across the world.
It was, effectively, the “place to be” for the international elite: Fairouz, Sabah, Duke Ellington, and Julio Iglesias are just some of the artists to have performed at the casino, with visitors also having included political heavyweights like Jordan’s King Hussein, the Shah of Iran; and even Osama bin Laden. Miss Europe was also held at the casino several times.
“The 60s and 70s were our golden eras, deeply rooted in the collective memory of local and international audiences. [Those years] gave Casino du Liban unrivaled prestige,” says Hafez.
“Every couple, aged 50 and over, has memories here. It’s a legacy.”
But when boiling sectarian tensions led to civil war in Lebanon in 1975, things took a turn for the worse. For the next 14 years, the casino opened only intermittently, unable to maintain its former glory due to the political violence that still scars the vast majority of the country.
Between 1989 and 1990, the casino sustained serious war-related damages, forcing an all-out renovation between 1993 and 1996, which cost an estimated $50 million. Even when it officially reopened to the public on December 4, 1996, it was a staggered reopening: first the gaming, then the venues, then other parts of the casino.
For both Hafez, who was just beginning her career as a marketing assistant, and the casino itself, it was the start of more than two decades of unparalleled success.
While the rest of the region was beginning to modernise, the casino was already well-positioned to accommodate a growing number of tourists, and diversify its event lists to include the region’s most in-demand award shows, and other cultural events.
Hafez names the Lebanese Poker Championship in 2009, and Casino du Liban’s Christmas Village in 2018, as some of her favourite career events.
“[These] were [significant] marking points that added to the reputation of Casino du Liban as the main event generator of events locally and regionally. It brought us to another dimension,” she says.
“Poker gave us huge international exposure, and the Christmas market gave us the feeling of being part of the local community. We’re not just gamblers. We broke the barrier, we spoke to the community as a whole. That’s what made the event very special.”
An economic war
Between the casino’s reopening in 1996 and 2019, Lebanon enjoyed a relative amount of political stability that attracted tourism and business alike, and fostered the success of establishments like Casino du Liban.
While accusations of corruption and complaints of the country’s lacking infrastructure and rising costs of living were never in short supply, most muddled through, knowing all too well what could happen if conflict were to make a reappearance in the country.
But when the government proposed a tax on the popular WhatsApp application in October of 2019, this all changed. Across the country, thousands of people took to the streets, determined to put an end to an out-of-touch political class that paid little attention to the needs of the public.
At the time, most of the country had already been using generators for the last 20 years, with Electricite du Liban never having provided stable electricity; telecommunications costs were some of the highest in the region; and transportation infrastructure, including stoplights, had been out of commission for years. The WhatsApp tax was the last straw.
But even the cleverest of economists couldn’t have predicted what happened next: after the resignation of then-PM Saad al Hariri, the local currency began to drop to lows that even the civil war era had never seen.
Officially, the Lebanese lira is pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1,500. But unofficially, it changes by the day: at the beginning of January 2022, it hit a new low of nearly 35,000 lira to the dollar. At the time of publication, one dollar was worth 23,000 lira. The constant fluctuation, matched with little to no salary increase and a sharp rise in the prices of basic goods, has forced much of the Lebanese population into poverty.
For Casino du Liban, weathering the economic crisis has required the same level of innovation seen in the post-war era. Failure simply was not an option.
“For everything it represented, and the potential it still held, at no point was completely closing the casino seriously considered,” Hafez says.
“We haven't completely made up for the drop, but we have adapted. We have to keep it affordable,” she says, crediting management, a rise in international tourists, and loyal locals for the casino’s ability to stay afloat.
Surprisingly, she says, the number of visitors per night has not changed drastically since 2019, and, perhaps even more miraculously, Casino du Liban is still making a profit, Hafez says.
Because the casino has always dealt strictly with the Lebanese lira - and pays most of its expenses in the Lebanese currency - it has not been as affected by the crisis as other businesses, and has been able to make up for the losses by charging more for games, dining, and admission.
The dollar rate applied at Casino du Liban is the one officially communicated on the Central Bank platform, attractive to both the local and international community.
One of the casino’s biggest successes through the crisis, she says, was not having to lay off a single employee, as was the devastating consequence for hundreds of Lebanese businesses.
“Casino du Liban is not just another casino. There are 1,200 families counting on this institution and we will not let them down during a time of crisis,” Hafez says.
“The situation is not ideal,” she sighs. “But we’re doing better than most institutions.”
A future of questions
For Hafez, who, after 25 years, still has no plans to leave the casino, the most pressing issue for Casino du Liban will be its ability to continue charging forward, and living up to its own history in the minds of the Lebanese people, both of which will be dependent on the renewal of the casino’s monopoly agreement with the government in 2026, which will review a myriad of negotiation points, like the future of online gambling in the country.
Hafez says expanding, and offering more services in line with the newest technologies, will be necessary to keep up with the growing gambling industries.
“We need to undergo an expansive restructuring plan that would allow us to reposition [ourselves] on a regional map. Otherwise we can’t cope. If [this can] happen, we need to hope for better days for the country as a whole,” she says.
But, that will require political and financial stability in the country, given that the casino is, according to her, closely interconnected to the country’s highs and lows.
“If we want to maintain the high standards of what Casino du Liban used to be, we have challenging days ahead, but we will continue to deploy all [of our] resources to meet our and the public’s expectations.”