The Arab League summit reminded me of Blackpool, circa 1981, and a chaotic Labour Party conference

<em>Middle East Crisis</em>

Good breakfasts need not involve heaving tables, sticky things, bubbling pots and steam. The president of Syria, for example, likes them to be more frugal. Fussing with food, Bashar al-Assad has decided, inhibits the flow of conversation. So an orange juice had to do when I abandoned the microphone and the Today audience for an irresistible invitation to the Arab League summit.

We were six or seven crammed together, high above Beirut, and it was obvious we were meant to listen and not to eat. As it turned out, we were glad we weren't trying to balance some wobbly scrambled egg on a fork with two prongs. At some political breakfasts, you count the mushrooms to keep you awake. Not with Bashar. He was unstoppable. The fascination was less with his world-view - a familiar mixture of Israeli terrorism, western ignorance of the Arab view and "strength" in support of the Palestinians - than with the style. His answers were of the seven- or eight-minute variety and were clearly meant to be delivered uninterrupted (a ten-past-eight interview, live, would be a test for all parties), but he listens as intently as he spouts.

The predictable earnestness - "correct view" is a favourite phrase - is shot through with exquisite politeness. You can see why the Foreign Office thought the 38-year-old western-educated eye doctor might be polite to Tony Blair at that Damascus press conference last year (he wasn't).

For a president running a faction-ridden state in a war zone, Bashar is startlingly mild. When he was telling Egypt and Jordan the day before that they should suspend their "normal" relations with Israel, he did not bang the table. He might have been asking for a semi-colon to be inserted in the communique. We rose from our sofas surprised, and thrown by his parting shot. An American colleague wanted to know how we'd refer to the conversation - as background from "senior Syrian officials" or "a Syrian source". No, no, said Bashar. You can quote me. Fortunately I had a microphone waiting and I ran through the rain, glad that I didn't have a sticky bun stuck in my teeth.

We were in the Phoenicia Hotel, which became for a few days a kind of souped-up Imperial Hotel, Blackpool, but with fountains. The lobby turned into a pulsating mass, sprouting mikes and cameras, of the sort that Saudi ministers seldom see. Startled functionaries found their robes tangled up in a rolling maul of TV cables, and various minor figures could be seen to remain in the lifts as they went up and down, presumably out of fear of the hordes patrolling the lobby.

But some eager foreign ministers have never said so much to so many in such a short time in their lives. A palm court orchestra provided incongruous accompaniment. As the Palestinian delegation walked out and a drafting committee was set up to get it to walk in again, as a torrent of rumour and disinformation filled the air, some of us were back in Blackpool, circa 1981, at a Labour Party conference when all about us was chaos . . . But by the next night, a phalanx of security goons was in place. The lobby was quiet. The delegates went about their business in peace. I shouted politely at a passing prime minister going up an escalator. A sturdy arm chopped me down. He was gone.

A familiar air lingered, however. Politics is the same everywhere. In Lebanon, the president, Emile Lahoud, is not a great friend of the prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. In fact, they can't stand each other. Lahoud kept Hariri away from the airport while he welcomed the visiting leaders one by one at the end of a long, red carpet, and the prime minister fumed in one of his several grand houses (he made billions as a building contractor in the Gulf and specialises in palaces). But when, the next day, the president pulled the plug on Yasser Arafat's satellite speech from Ramallah and asked for a speech from the Djibouti delegation instead, causing the Palestinian delegation to shoot out of their seats, the prime minister's entourage could beam out their message - he's an embarrassment in the presidential palace. Rivals for power, surrounded by their own courts. How unlike, how very unlike . . . no, no, it's too cheap.

But the Beirut they inhabit now is changing. It still has a love affair with dust and rubble, but the sweep of the corniche enfolds a city that's recovering some of the charm that was crushed in the 25-year civil war. It sparkles and grows. But is it all good? Near the start of the old green line, where you can still see the desolate strip that divided the Christian east from the Muslim west, there is what was the Beirut opera house. In another age, it was an elegant adornment of the Paris of the eastern Mediterranean. Then it was marooned in a fighting zone. Now it lives again and it is, says its proprietor, the most beautiful of its kind anywhere. It's a Virgin Megastore.

On a first visit there, well into the civil war but before the Israeli invasion of 1982, I remember a strange Hogmanay party where we had traditional dances - to the strict but jovial instructions of an ambassador who came from Aberdeenshire - to the sounds of AK-47s being loosed off outside by way of celebration. The lemon groves and the snowy Chouf mountains were intoxicating then, and still are.

But the breakfasts, the chatter and the lure of Arab politics and the city's renaissance were all a touch fake during the summit. We knew that, not far to the south, the landscape was darkening and the fire was spreading.

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