MANSAA BORDER CROSSING, Lebanon – Most of the cars leaving Syria through the Mansaa border crossing in the heat were packed with poor families, suitcases piled on the roofs. So the air conditioned LandCruiser with blacked out windows and Damascus license plates stood out.
In no mood to talk, the driver quipped that he was a tourist.
“There’s nothing going on in Syria. We’ve come for a six-day retreat in Beirut,” he said.
Most of the Syrians who have fled the civil war in their home country over the past 16 months have been humble farmers finding shelter with sympathetic Lebanese families, in makeshift tents or abandoned buildings.
But not all. Now that civil war has hit even the wealthiest neighborhoods of Damascus, another class of refugees are coming over in style, fleeing in Porsches, staying in Beirut’s luxury high rises, swarming its nightclubs and dining in its marina.
Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled to Lebanon, and by last week Lebanese officials were reporting as many as 20,000 a day crossing the border.
The elite of Damascus largely remained loyal to Assad while his forces put down a provincial uprising through force.
Today, wealthy and middle class Syrians that have left for Lebanon tend to be cagey and resist discussing politics. Those interviewed by Reuters asked that their names not be used to protect family members back home or to prevent retribution when they return.
The presence of wealthy Syrians has already been evident in Beirut for months: Syrian children taking places in top schools and BMWs with Damascus number plates zooming around the city.
In the district of Hamra, a hub for major fashion stores and cafes, teenagers wearing the white head veil popular in Damascus can now be seen among the hordes of Lebanese girls in flip flops and denim shorts.
Seated in the cafe outside Midtown Suites, a Hamra-based hotel which costs more that $100 a night, a group of Syrian men discuss events back home.
“The situation is really not good in Damascus. We have come here but we are hoping to go back in a few days,” said one, who, like others, did not want his name used and declined to discuss the political situation back home in more detail.
Further down the road, a Damascene man and his wife step out of their car and walked idly on Hamra’s main street, gazing into shop windows.
“We had to come to Beirut. You know what is it like: you should watch TV and see,” he said.
The arrival of wealthy Syrians could ease some of the economic strain for Lebanon imposed by the cost of accommodating their poorer countrymen.
Hotels, restaurants and bars are grateful for the business in a tourist sector that has been hurt by the war next door, which has kept wealthy Gulf Arab visitors away from Lebanon’s mountain retreats and beachside superclubs this summer.
“There are Syrians with means coming to Lebanon; those who have bank accounts in Syria, resources to rent and move their kids to schools. Those contribute and partly help tourism in Lebanon,” said Ibrahim Seif, a political economist at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
Some property agents in Beirut are already talking up the Syrian influx as part of their sales pitch.
“Listen, you are going to have to raise how much you are willing to pay,” said one agent while he drove a customer around the leafy Ashrafieh district, where boutique jewelers and smoked salmon-serving restaurants line the streets. “Prices are higher now as apartments have been taken by the Syrians.”