Running a successful hotel is a challenge at the best of times, let alone when set in the midst of a warzone. Monocle travels to Kabul, Tripoli and Mogadishu to visit three hotels that have strived to put hospitality first despite the turbulent times.
Visitors are not exactly swarming to Kabul. Decades of armed struggle, years under the Taliban’s Islamist regime and an enduring global war would take a toll on any business. But the InterContinental is one of the few hotels here to have survived it all. Perched on a hilltop to the west of the city with a view of the sprawling Afghan capital and snow-capped mountain ridges, the InterContinental is a reminder of a bygone era. When it was built in 1969 it was Kabul’s first international luxury hotel. It is also a symbol of perseverance and rebirth.
The InterContinental has endured thanks in part to its renovation five years ago. “The hotel was terrible,” says Mohammad Akbar Sarwari, who became its president in 2010. “If I showed you the pictures of what it looked like you would cry.” Foreign hotel developers were brought in to advise on the reconstruction. As a result the hotel regained its position as the finest of Kabul’s government-owned hotels; despite the name, it no longer has any connection to the InterContinental Hotels Group.
But the hotel has not gone through the ongoing war unscathed. In 2003 a former British sas soldier killed two Afghans in a shootout in his hotel room. And in 2011, nine militants laid siege to the hotel for five hours, killing 12 guests and wounding dozens of others. After the attack, Sarwari almost doubled the number of guards. He now has 140 gunmen and 60 unarmed guards patrolling the 95 hectares of hotel ground and surrounding garden 24 hours a day. Visitors are patted down and X-rayed twice before reaching the parking lot.
Sarwari refuses to let violence dictate his business. The InterContinental stayed open during the mujahideen’s war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s and during civil war and Taliban rule in the 1990s. He has no intention of softening that resilience. In times of unrest people must be able to rely on their hotels, he says. “Even the day after the  attack the hotel was open. It was not closed, not even for one day.”
Security is not the only thing that has changed since the hotel’s early days. With 195 rooms costing from afn8,000 (€110) for a standard to afn35,000 (€490) for the fifth-floor Khyber suite, rates are out of range for most Afghans. But catering to foreigners is not as easy as when wealthy adventurers and backpackers visited the country in droves decades ago.
The rooftop swimming pool rests on a plateau with an unrivalled view but is virtually empty all year round. Most Afghan men are too bashful to use a public pool and women are not allowed to. The conference hall on the top floor used to be a nightclub but alcohol prohibition has put an end to that. “People used to dance and have a good time,” says employee Mohammed Ebrahim Zahedi. Since then, dancing crowds have made way for young Afghans with a taste for espressos and international cuisine and, in the summer, wedding parties with live music and barbeques.
If anyone can testify that the hotel has changed in its 45 years it is Zahedi. When King Zahir Shah cut the ribbon in 1969 it was Zahedi, then 17, who served the guests drinks. A few years later he was promoted to run the nightclub bar. At 63 he now manages the lunch and dinner banquet. Cook Naser Ali Habibullah has also been with the InterContinental since day one. “I was a child when I started working here,” he says, smiling. He used to take breaks from scrubbing floors to peek over the shoulder of the European pastry chef and soon graduated to the kitchen. Now Habibullah has spent three decades treating guests to chocolate cakes and profiteroles. His European recipes, however, are harder to follow by the day. With Afghanistan’s economic demise, imported foods have become more difficult to attain, leaving Habibullah to go long periods without custard for his cream caramel puddings.
When the Taliban came to power Habibullah braved the new regime but sent his wife and nine children to Pakistan. He has had a room at the InterContinental ever since and sees his family only a few times a year. “People here at the hotel are my brothers and sisters,” he says.
There is really only one thing a foreigner need ask when deciding which hotel to stay at in Mogadishu: will I come back alive? For almost a decade Bashir Yusuf Osman has answered “Yes” to that question. The 42-year-old businessman opened the Peace Hotel in 2005 and it quickly became the go-to place for the city’s few foreign visitors, mostly journalists and aid workers. At the time Mogadishu was well into its second decade of anarchic conflict. Warlords and their militias ruled the city. Osman saw an opportunity. “The need at that time was for hotel accommodation for foreigners and for security,” he says.
The following year a religious coalition called the Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu, ushering in a brief period of stability. “We got a lot of business,” says Osman. He quickly expanded his security operation providing armed escorts around town, a service he still provides today. For a negotiable rate of around $1,200 (€800) a day (cash only) guests get an ensuite room with air-conditioning, three meals and wi-fi. So far so normal but then there’s the rest: a Toyota Land Cruiser with blacked-out windows, a Hilux pick-up with six gunmen carrying ak47s and belt-fed pkm machine guns, a driver-cum-security adviser with a walkie-talkie and a fixer to arrange meetings and translate when needed. If you lack body armour it can be provided at no extra cost.
At the end of 2006 the US backed an Ethiopian invasion and the Peace Hotel’s location, close to the notorious Bakara Market and far from the airport, became a liability. Just driving to the airport meant crossing a war zone where Ethiopian soldiers fought the guerrillas of al-Shabaab – the Islamist militia that later aligned with al-Qaeda. “We were thinking, ‘What if we need to do an emergency evacuation and we can’t get there?’” says Osman.
He shut down the original Peace Hotel in 2009, reopening near the airport. Two years later he opened Peace Hotel 2 on the main road between Mogadishu Airport and the K4 roundabout – the city’s ramshackle answer to Piccadilly Circus. A converted villa next to the government quarter became Peace Hotel 3 in 2013 and this year the first phase of Osman’s new beach resort will open 6.5km out of town.
Nowadays Peace Hotel 1 includes office space and is mostly used by international charities. Peace Hotel 2 is a whitewashed multistorey complex with rooftop views across the city and the ocean. It caters to short-term visitors, often journalists. Peace Hotel 3, next to the seat of government, is popular with those seeking an audience with politicians. In all three the food is plentiful but safety trumps all other concerns.
The security team has grown to nearly 200 hired from a cross-section of Somalia’s clans and more than a quarter of them have been with Osman since the start. If this was still the bad old days, the firepower Osman has at his command would be a match for most warlords but instead he runs a legitimate registered business.
In any case, it is not the guns but the know-how that matters, Osman points out. “First is the local knowledge,” he says. “Second is our neutrality. Third, we act professional, never getting into fights. We have a good network in Mogadishu and we have survived for 10 years by always thinking quickly and having a smart plan.”
There are newer and slicker places in town that also cater for foreign visitors who want security as well as a room. One guesthouse seduces with fresh pastries in the morning and candle-lit dinners at night, while the owner of another new hotel promised monocle he had “pimped the place like a Mexican drug lord’s palace”. But none have the Peace Hotel’s track record.
There have been close shaves. In early December a car bomb exploded a few hundred metres down the road so Osman confined his guests – including a monocle photographer – to the hotel compound for the day. After another terrorist attack on a nearby UN compound in 2013 Osman stopped using the main gate, switching to a side entrance that can be more easily defended. At night his guards patrol.
Other hotels have suffered worse: suicide squads hit the Jazeera Palace in 2012, the Muna in 2010 and the Shamo in 2009. The once-popular Sahafi Hotel lost its appeal after two French security agents were kidnapped there in 2009. But Osman’s hotels have never been targeted and he has never had a client killed. The reason, he says, is politics – or rather the avoidance of it. “We [host] no political meetings. Journalists, ngos, business contractors, diplomatic people and some tourists: these are our clients. People know our neutrality. We are a business.”
Tripoli’s hotels have long been places of intrigue where much of the messy politicking of post-Gaddafi Libya plays out. Lobbies feature an endless parade of politicos, sharp-suited tycoons, militiamen, diplomats, bearded clerics and more than a few chancers on the make. The best-known hotel is the five-star Corinthia, formerly known as the Bab Africa or Gate to Africa. Located in the heart of Tripoli’s commercial district its twin concave towers rise above the city’s Mediterranean shoreline. Nearby are the narrow, rutted alleyways of the Medina – or old city – where Ottoman-era mosques overlook crumbling homes.
Run by Maltese company Corinthia Hotels International, the hotel opened in 2003 when Muammar Gaddafi had begun his rapprochement with the West. The lifting of sanctions the following year prompted a steady stream of foreign investors who cut deals with regime officials in the Corinthia’s marbled halls. In late 2010 the hotel played host to 35 presidents and prime ministers attending an EU-Africa summit. “That was a big moment for us,” says events manager Ismail Azumi.
Just a few months later Libya tipped into revolution. The Corinthia found itself right in the middle of the action that August as Tripoli fell to rebel forces aided by a Nato-led aerial campaign. Foreign journalists packed its rooms, filing live reports from its balconies as gun battles raged across the city. At one point ragtag rebels searched the hotel’s well-appointed interiors as rumours swirled that Gaddafi’s son and presumed heir Seif al-Islam was possibly hiding out there as the rest of his family scattered.
Since those heady days the seafront Corinthia, a popular wedding venue for Tripoli’s elite, has witnessed its fair share of the tumult that has characterised Libya’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. In a city beset by militia turf wars, its soaring ochre-and-glass edifice was considered something of a well-guarded sanctuary for government officials and foreign visitors until a series of incidents in 2013 jangled nerves. That June a rocket was fired at the hotel but missed and hit a nearby residential tower block instead. Later that summer the EU ambassador’s convoy was shot at by the hotel’s entrance. In October dozens of gunmen made their way into the hotel shortly before dawn and seized then-prime minister Ali Zeidan from his room.
Mobile-phone footage showed a dazed Zeidan still dressed in his night clothes as he was bundled out of the Corinthia’s doors. “It sent a chill through all of us,” says a consultant who was staying there at the time. Zeidan was later released but many Libyans remember it as the point at which their optimism over the country’s trajectory began to unravel.
Until this summer several government ministers lived at the Corinthia and a number of embassies were based there. The Qatari embassy, which occupied an entire floor, stirred particular interest. The stream of visitors upstairs provided clues as to the machinations of a country often accused, along with its regional rival the United Arab Emirates, of meddling in the new Libya. Downstairs in the lobby café, politicians and militia leaders eyed each other warily over macchiatos. Prospective investors met local fixers who promised to help them navigate the dense tangle of connections and interests in Libya’s fledgling democracy. Civil society activists held meetings with international organisations where they mapped out an imagined state of the future devoid of militias and anchored in rule of law.
Much changed last July when a weeks-long militia battle upended the delicate balance of power in Tripoli, destroyed its international airport and prompted thousands to flee. That included the internationally recognised government of prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, which is now based in eastern Libya. Most foreign diplomats evacuated the city and have not been back. A self-declared government buttressed by the victors of the summer fighting holds sway. Several hotels are shuttered because their expatriate staff have not returned.
The Corinthia, however, remains open. Despite disrupted supply routes and the daily travails of what some residents call Tripoli’s abnormal normal, its management continues to host wedding parties, ngo workshops and a dwindling number of foreign guests. Among them is the UN’s envoy to Libya, Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon, who has been shuttling around the country in a bid to bring its warring factions to the negotiating table. The Corinthia’s lobby is a shadow of its once bustling self but Leon’s press conferences draw the local press pack. As Libya’s crisis deepens into what looks increasingly like a civil war, few will hazard a guess as to when the Corinthia and Tripoli’s other hotels will be fully back in business. Azumi, however, is an optimist. “Yes, things have been difficult but I am hopeful. Life still goes on.”