Closure of Pizza Hut chain feeds into Lebanon’s deepening sense of loss

Lebanese are feeling a sense of loss after the news Pizza Hut would be closing its Lebanon outlets earlier this month. (AFP/Supplied/File Photos)
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Updated 30 May 2021

Closure of Pizza Hut chain feeds into Lebanon’s deepening sense of loss

  • International franchise becomes the latest casualty of economic crisis made worse by pandemic
  • For many Lebanese, a pizza at any outlet symbolized an occasion to enjoy with family and friends

BEIRUT: It was Valentine’s Day and grand plans for the perfect date had been set for a young woman in Beirut. Unfortunately, a last-minute work trip intervened and forced the postponement of the romantic night out. To console their heartbroken friend, Haya and Mel picked up the perfect comfort food. 

“We ended up going to her place and I surprised her with pizza from Pizza Hut,” Haya told Arab News. “The restaurant was empty when I went to pick up the pizza. The chef let me decorate it with heart-shaped pepperoni.”

It might not have been the grand romantic gesture Haya and Mel had hoped to arrange for their friend after her boyfriend left, but they all enjoyed the evening and look back on it fondly.

They were therefore greatly saddened by the news that Lebanon’s favorite pizza chain was closing its doors, the latest culinary casualty of the country’s economic crisis.

In a message posted on Facebook on May 23, Pizza Hut Lebanon said: “We will never forget the excitement on your face whenever you get your cheese stuffed crust pizza ... Offering you the best quality and experience has always been our top priority. Until we are able to do that, with a heavy heart, we say goodbye.”

To some it might seem silly or trivial in a country where people have faced so much adversity in recent years to be upset about a fast-food joint closing down, particularly an international brand as ubiquitous as Pizza Hut.

But for others, a pizza on the table represents a social occasion to enjoy with family and friends, in a restaurant or at home, in a way that tacos or burgers and fries simply cannot match.

It is therefore understandable that the sense of loss goes beyond simple regret that the chain’s pizzas will no longer be available, and is perhaps more a reflection of the realization that precious memories of time spent in good company were often created while enjoying a slice or two.

Lebanon’s Culinary Decline

* 4,200 - Fall in restaurants and cafes since summer of 2019

* 2,000 - Establishments damaged in the Aug. 4 2020 blast

* 896 - Food and entertainment businesses that have shut in 2021

“My favorite memory is when they introduced PHD (Pizza Hut Delivery),” Farah Tabsh, a consultant in Dubai, told Arab News. “My mom was finishing her doctoral degree at the time. My brother, who was young, overheard us saying we were going to order PHD and he looked confused and said: ‘I thought that was mom’s job.’

“I think in general we equate Pizza Hut with a reward after school, like for doing well on a test or something. It was motivating when your parents said, ‘If you finish your homework, we’ll order Pizza Hut.’”

Other nostalgic customers said they will miss the restaurant experience the most.

Lebanese were greatly saddened by the news that Lebanon’s favorite pizza chain was closing its doors, the latest culinary casualty of the country’s economic crisis. (Supplied)

“It’s like a place where you connect with people — that was what Pizza Hut was for us,” said Sarah Siblini, an engineer who is studying for her Master of Business Administration.

“It wasn’t just delivery and takeout. When I think of Pizza Hut, I think of being at the place with people, enjoying my time with them and enjoying good pizza.”

The pizza chain — which was founded in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, and is the biggest in the world based on number of branches — is the latest international brand to pull out of Lebanon or scale down operations there.

Others include soft drinks manufacturer Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries Fanta and Sprite, and sportswear company Adidas, which has closed its stores in the capital and is focusing on selling through third-party vendors

The brands are reacting to Lebanon’s overlapping crises, manifested in a plunging currency, skyrocketing inflation and mounting social unrest. The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in August last year and the ongoing political paralysis.

Many local and regional businesses have also been forced to close, such as Cafe Em Nazih and Grand Cafe, as has Couqley French Bistro.

Some Lebanese view the departure of Western brands such as Pizza Hut as an opportunity for local businesses to step in and fill the void. (Supplied)

“The sequence of crises since the summer of 2019 has reduced the number of restaurants and cafes from 8,500 establishments to 4,300,” said Tony Ramy, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries. This year alone, 896 venues have closed so far, he told Arab News.

More than 2,000 establishments were partly or completely destroyed by the Beirut blast last year, which killed at least 200 people, injured about 6,000, and destroyed a large section of the city, including some of its hippest dining spots.

Many of the businesses that survived the devastation are struggling to survive the financial crisis and the effects of the pandemic. Even the famous, five-star Le Bristol Hotel — which in days gone by welcomed illustrious guests such as the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Prince Albert of Monaco, and former French president Jacques Chirac — has succumbed to financial pressures, closing last year after nearly 70 years in business.

In a kind gesture to help ease the suffering of the community that hosted them for so long, the hotel’s owners donated all of its furnishings to local non-profit organization Beit El Baraka, which is helping to support those in the city who lost their homes or livelihoods in the port blast.

The explosion, caused by nearly 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, was the final straw for many business owners struggling to survive the pressures of the financial crisis and stringent coronavirus restrictions.

Pizza Hut was just one of 896 food and entertainment businesses that have shut in Lebanon in 2021. (Supplied)

“Following several total and partial lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and despite the opportunity to be back in business, the restaurant sector is wary about reopening because operational costs now outweigh profits,” Ramy said. The reason for this is that purchases from suppliers are based on the exchange rate of the dollar in the parallel market, he said, which is much higher than the official rate and has caused prices to soar.

Even before the pandemic brought normal daily life grinding to a halt, Lebanon was experiencing an economic catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, with its currency losing 80 percent of its value.

According to the World Bank, real gross domestic product growth contracted by 20.3 percent last year and the inflation rate hit triple digits. The financial meltdown, the worst in the country since the 1975-1990 civil war, triggered social unrest across the country.

Restaurant Closures

October 2019 - Grand Cafe Downtown

April 2020 - Le Bristol Hotel

Aug. 4, 2020 - Cafe Em Nazih

October 2020 - Couqley

May 2021 - Pizza Hut

Fights have broken out in supermarkets over basic items such as cooking oil and powdered milk, while soaring unemployment and inflation have plunged half of the population into poverty.

Meanwhile, a temporary caretaker government, which took over when the elected authority resigned in disgrace following the Beirut explosion, remains in place 10 months later as politicians continue to squabble over the composition of a new cabinet.

The Lebanese people, who have endured so much hardship in recent decades, have a habit of finding silver linings even in the midst of seemingly impenetrable gloom. Some, for example, view the departure of Western brands such as Pizza Hut as an opportunity for local businesses to step in and fill the void — a cleansing, perhaps, that might make way for a social and cultural renaissance.

“There is a lot of hope among local companies, so I’m not saddened that Pizza Hut is closing, because I see the opposite: the local flourishing,” said Siblini.

“Even though we had good memories, they are just memories — and memories are in the past.”

Jordan battles to save rare tiny Dead Sea carp

Updated 18 June 2021

Jordan battles to save rare tiny Dead Sea carp

Jordan is racing against time to save a tiny rare fish from extinction as falling water levels partly triggered by global warming threaten to dry up its last habitat.
The Dead Sea toothcarp — scientific name Aphanius dispar richardsoni — has been on the red list of the International Union for Conversation of Nature since 2014.
The IUCN warns that the “exploitation of spring waters and climate change” are major threats facing the four-centimeter-long, silver-colored fish.
“This fish is threatened with extinction at the global level. It is endemic here and does not exist elsewhere,” said Ibrahim Mahasneh, the manager of the fish’s last home, the Fifa Nature Reserve.
Lying some 140 kilometers (85 miles) southwest of Amman in the Jordan Rift Valley and 60 kilometers south of the Dead Sea, the area is the lowest wet reserve on Earth.
Established in 2011, the reserve consists of some 20 square kilometers. It is located some 426 meters (1,400 feet) below sea level and is managed by an independent body, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).
Even though the Hashemite kingdom is primarily desert, this area of wetlands is criss-crossed by streams and is home to a variety of plant and wildlife species including birds.
“We have a plan to save and breed this fish... to create a natural habitat for it to breed and at the same time to mitigate the existing threat,” added Mahasneh.
“The reserve is the last home for this endangered species of fish,” said environmental researcher Abdallah Oshoush who works in the reserve.

The male fish also has a streak of blue along its sides, while the female has incomplete black stripes.
It is not known how many still remain, but “monitoring programs have warned of a clear decline in the presence of this fish in recent years,” Oshoush said.
Among the environmental threats causing numbers to drop is the “lowering water level due to low rainfall and the change in its environment, as well as the presence of other fish that feed on it and its eggs.”
Researchers are now preparing to open an artificial pond just for the toothcarp so they can grow safely and their eggs are not devoured by predators. Each season, a female produces around 1,000 eggs.
The aim is then to release the young fish back into the natural environment.
“In Jordan live two unique species of fish that do not exist anywhere else in the world. These are our precious treasures and they must be preserved for our ecosystem,” said RSCN spokesperson Salem Nafaa.
Two decades ago the RSCN succeeded in saving the endangered Aphanuis Sirhani fish in its only habitat in the Azraq reserve, about 110 kilometers (65 miles) east of Amman.
It got its scientific name from the Wadi Sirhan, which extends from the Arabian Peninsula to Azraq, but is commonly known in English as the Azraq killifish.
Only about six centimeters long, it is also silver but the female is spotted while the male has black stripes.

“In the year 2000, there were no more than 500 Azraq killifish in the oasis, which means it was on the verge of extinction,” said Nashat Hmaidan, the director of the RSCN Biodiversity Monitoring Center.
“It was declining sharply, and it reached just 0.02 percent of the number of fish in the oasis,” he said, blaming other predatory fish and migratory birds as well as a fall in water levels.
The RSCN studied the fish’s life cycle and determined it needed shallow water to lay eggs, and should be isolated from other species for the best chance of survival.
“We collected 20 fish over two years and put them in a concrete pond designated for breeding.”
After the first fish were released back into the waters the team saw its presence had increased from 0.02 percent to nearly 50 percent. It “was a great success,” he added.
Twenty years on, the Azraq killifish accounts for almost 70 percent of the fish in the waters. But he cautioned the goal now is that the numbers should “never drop below 50 percent.”
Hazem Hrisha, the director of the Azraq Wetland reserve, highlighted its important biodiversity, with more than 133 plant species and more than 163 species of invertebrates.
The reserve “is located on the most important bird migration paths,” he said, adding two thirds of the bird species found in the kingdom had been recorded in Azraq.

Billionaire admits cheating to beat Indian chess champ Viswanathan Anand

Updated 15 June 2021

Billionaire admits cheating to beat Indian chess champ Viswanathan Anand

  • Online brokerage firm founder Nikhil Kamath admitted to using “computers” to gain the upper hand

NEW DELHI: A young Indian billionaire has admitted to cheating in a shock win over five-time chess world champion Viswanathan Anand, saying it was for “fun and charity.”
Online brokerage firm founder Nikhil Kamath took on Anand during an online charity event on Sunday and caused quite a stir when he came out on top in a 30-minute rapid game.
The next day he admitted to using “computers” and the help of “people analyzing the game” to gain the upper hand.
“It is ridiculous that so many are thinking that I really beat Vishy sir in a chess game, that is almost like me waking up and winning a 100mt race with Usain Bolt,” Kamath tweeted.
“In hindsight, it was quite silly as I didn’t realize all the confusion that can get caused due to this. Apologies.”
Anand, acclaimed as the greatest player India has produced, played — and beat — a number of celebrity guests including cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan during the event.
The 51-year-old grandmaster appeared to play down the whole affair.
“Yesterday was a celebrity simul for people to raise money It was a fun experience upholding the ethics of the game,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I just played the position (on the) board and expected the same from everyone.”
India’s chess federation saw the incident as violating the spirit of the game.
“We don’t expect anybody to get help from computers, at the national and state level we are following the protocols,” the federation’s secretary Bharat Chauhan told local media.
“(Kamath) was doing it for charity, he shouldn’t have done. This is really bad,” he added.
Anand won his first world title aged 30, and enjoyed great rivalries with the likes of Russian champions Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Soviet-born Israeli Boris Gelfand.

Jill Biden, Duchess of Cambridge learn bunny care on tour

Updated 11 June 2021

Jill Biden, Duchess of Cambridge learn bunny care on tour

  • Biden and the former Kate Middleton visited with 4- and 5-year-olds who attend Connor Downs Academy in Hayle
  • “It’s a huge honor to have you in the United Kingdom,” the duchess said just before the discussion

HAYLE, England: US first lady Jill Biden and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, learned about bunny care Friday as they toured a preschool during a joint outing in southwest England.
They also took part in a talk about early childhood education with experts from the UK and some from the United States who joined the discussion via Zoom.
“It’s a huge honor to have you in the United Kingdom,” the duchess said just before the discussion. She thanked Biden — a longtime English teacher — for her interest in early education, also a topic of interest for the duchess, who has three young children with husband Prince William.

Biden, 70, and the former Kate Middleton, 39, visited with 4- and 5-year-olds who attend Connor Downs Academy in Hayle. The school works with children who have experienced trauma. It also has outdoor classrooms where children plant vegetables and flowers and tend to rabbits.
Biden carried a bowl of carrots when the women went outside to see Storm, one of several bunnies housed in pens, and handed the bowl to a group of kids so they could feed him.
Before the indoor roundtable, Biden said she was glad to visit the school.
“I met some wonderful teachers and principals and most of all the children, who were so inspiring and well behaved,” the first lady said. “I couldn’t get over it.”
She is traveling with her husband, President Joe Biden, who is attending a Group of Seven summit of leaders from the world’s largest economies that opened Friday in Carbis Bay.
She thanked the news media for covering the appearance “because early childhood education is so important to lay the foundation for all of our students.”

Both women took notes during the discussion, which centered on child mental health and the importance of early education in childhood development.
As they departed, reporters asked Biden if she had sought advice from the duchess on meeting Queen Elizabeth II, which the Bidens are set to do at a summit reception later Friday, followed by tea with the monarch on Sunday at Windsor Castle.
“No, I didn’t,” the first lady replied. “We’ve been busy. Were you not in that room. We were talking education.”
Jill Biden is scheduled to head back to Washington after meeting the queen, while the president continues on to Brussels for a NATO summit and to Switzerland for a highly anticipated one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Top Swiss court rejects climate activists’ appeal over tennis stunt

Updated 11 June 2021

Top Swiss court rejects climate activists’ appeal over tennis stunt

  • ‘At the time of their action, there was no current and immediate danger’ under Swiss law, the court said
  • In September appeals court found them guilty of "trespassing", a ruling upheld by Federal Court on Friday

GENEVA: Switzerland’s highest court on Friday rejected an appeal by environmental activists who were sentenced for trespassing after invading a bank to play tennis dressed as Roger Federer.
The Federal Court dismissed the activists’ argument that their playful demonstration two and a half years ago was an emergency action justified by the climate crisis.
“At the time of their action, there was no current and immediate danger,” according to the definition under Swiss law, the court said in a statement.
In November 2018, the 12 activists entered a Credit Suisse branch in Lausanne to denounce Swiss tennis star Federer over his sponsorship deals with Switzerland’s second-biggest bank and its financing of fossil fuels.
In January last year, a lower court acquitted the 12 defendants, accepting their “state of necessity” legal argument, finding that they had acted legitimately in the face of the climate emergency.
But an appeals court reversed that verdict last September, heeding the view of the public prosecutor who urged judges to “practice law, not emotion,” according to Swiss news agency Keystone-ATS.
It found them guilty of “trespassing” — a ruling upheld by the Federal Court on Friday.
The activists immediately announced that they intended to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, in defense of their “fundamental rights,” including the right to free expression and to demonstrate peacefully.
Laila Batou, a defense lawyer for one of the activists, slammed the decision and the court’s “lack of ambition,” according to Keystone-ATS.
“The Federal Court could have given a clear signal recognizing that global warming constitutes an imminent danger, but also that, in some situations, civil disobedience is necessary,” she told the news agency.
Instead, she said, the court “has ruled in favor of the powerful, the big corporations who can continue business as usual to the detriment of young people.”

Work dries up for Jordan’s donkeys as coronavirus cripples tourism

Updated 10 June 2021

Work dries up for Jordan’s donkeys as coronavirus cripples tourism

  • In 2019, the number of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site topped a million for the first time
  • Since Petra reopened in May, tourist numbers have been slow to rebound

PETRA, Jordan: Herds of hard-working donkeys once carried hordes of tourists on the rocky paths of Jordan’s Petra, but visitor numbers crashed amid the pandemic and the loyal animals are left without a job.
“Before coronavirus, we all had work,” said Abdulrahman Ali, a 15-year-old donkey owner at the ancient rock-carved desert city, where the sure-footed animals carry tourists up steep paths in the blazing sun.
“The Bedouins of Petra made a living and fed their animals,” he said, sitting waiting for a handout of fodder from a charity, explaining that many owners today are struggling to meet the cost of feeding them.
In 2019, the number of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site topped a million for the first time.
But in March 2020, the famous tourist destination was closed, and the crucial income from the tourists dried up.
“When tourism stopped, nobody could buy fodder or medicine anymore,” said Ali, who could earn as much as $280 on a good day, supporting his mother and two brothers.
“Anyone who has a little amount of money now spends it on his own food, not his animal.”
Before the pandemic, tourism made up more than a tenth of Jordan’s GDP, but revenues slumped from $5.8 billion in 2019 to $1 billion last year, according to government figures.
Since Petra reopened in May, tourist numbers have been slow to rebound.
Only some 200 visitors a day come to Petra, compared to more than 3,000 before the pandemic hit, said Suleiman Farajat, heading the Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority.
Farajat said some 200 guides used as many as 800 animals — including horses, camels and mules as well as donkeys — for tourist rides across the desert site.
The economic ripple effect of tourism was widespread.
“Before the crisis, 80 percent of the inhabitants of the region depended directly or indirectly on tourism,” Farajat said.
“With the pandemic, not only working animal owners were affected, but also hotels, restaurants, those with souvenir shops or stores, and hundreds of employees have lost their jobs.”
Many donkey owners are turning to a clinic supported by the animal rights group PETA, where vets treat maltreated and malnourished donkeys for free.
“Before coronavirus, my family and I owned seven donkeys working in Petra,” said Mohammad Al-Badoul, 23, waiting with four other donkey owners to fill a sack with animal feed.
“We had to sell them for lack of income. Now we only have one, and I can barely feed it.”
Egyptian vet Hassan Shatta, an equine surgery specialist who runs the PETA clinic, said he launched a donkey-feeding program late last year.
“During the Covid-19 lockdown, and with the lack of tourism, people could not afford to feed their animals anymore,” Shatta said.
“Some of them ended up starving and we picked them up brought them here,” he added, noting some 250 animals had been treated, with some 10-15 cases arriving a day.
In the past, PETA had treated animals with deep cuts from being beaten or abused, but Farajat, from Petra’s tourism authority, says the working conditions of the donkeys is now “not that bad.”
But there are plans to replace some of the traditional donkeys with a new system of 20 electric cars introduced by the tourism board next month.
The cars will be “driven by the animal owners,” Farajat said.
Switching to electric cars will, Farajat hopes, put an end to the criticisms against the mistreatment inflicted on animals.