on the road

The Temporary Halls of Power

Stephen Rakowski
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst, Stratfor
10 MINS READMar 5, 2017 | 14:01 GMT
The Beau-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. The politically neutral space hotels provide can make them ideal spaces for leaders to convene for consultation in times of crisis.
Diplomats from countries involved in the Syrian civil war converged on the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, in late 2016 for peace talks. The politically neutral space hotels provide can make them ideally suited for such purposes.

The Forbidden City, the Reichstag, the Oval Office, the ExxonMobil boardroom ... the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. Some places where great power is regularly wielded become legend, needing no further introduction to conjure visions of their import. But the physical spaces themselves possess no innate power. They are imbued with significance because their inhabitants — and those affected by the decisions made within — perceive it. Other places, elevated by circumstance, can, for a time, become a center of global importance, only to return to their more mundane status when the crisis has passed.

Any place elite barons of authority convene can, at least temporarily, join the ranks of the world's important spaces. Well before Donald Trump's eponymous luxury chain drew global notice, elite hotels played a supporting role in momentous political gatherings. In countries where power is contested, a hotel's neutral space might be the only option for political or military rivals to engage in talks or to trade information.

Haunts of the Influential

The lobby of a busy international hotel can host a cross-section of visitors. Local residents and tourists could find themselves mingling with business executives, politicians, journalists, aid workers or intelligence agents who all populate the "neutral territory" offered by hotel spaces. Facilities that gain popularity among the powerful can become targets of intelligence agency surveillance. But for the most part, a hotel visitor can count on a degree of anonymity, adding to the appeal.

Hotels with large conference spaces are especially attractive to organizers of high-profile events. In 2015, the G-20 summit was held at the Regnum Carya hotel convention center in Antalya, Turkey. The event drew thousands of delegates, national leaders and journalists to the Mediterranean Sea resort, which by its neutral nature led to the kind of exchange one might find only in such spaces. An impromptu sideline meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin took place in the hotel's main lobby, grabbing headlines around the world. The two world leaders and their advisers huddled for more than a half hour for discussions over the crises in Syria and Ukraine, protected from eavesdroppers by the volume of noise that permeated the lobby.

Even after its glory fades, the name of a legendary hotel can evoke the romance of its powerful prime. The once-exalted St. Georges hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, comes to mind. Built on the city's corniche — its seaside promenade — during the heyday of the French empire, the St. Georges came to symbolize France's imperial presence in the Levant, attracting the patronage of soldiers, diplomats and colonial bureaucrats. Over time, the hotel gained a mythical status for hosting the country's elite businessmen and politicians, not to mention movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole. In the late 1950s, infamous British spy and KGB double agent Kim Philby could often be spotted at the hotel's bar talking to contacts (by this time he was working as a Middle East correspondent in a sort of exile). Today, the St. Georges, heavily damaged in Lebanon's civil war, is a gutted remnant of its glory days when Beirut was known as the "Paris of the Middle East."

Some leaders frequented specific hotels so often that they become synonymous with the establishment.

Like the St. Georges, a number of elite hotels in Africa are remnants of the colonial past and have played roles in their country's evolutions. European colonial powers were compelled to build hotels to match the standards that travelers were used to back in London, Paris or Lisbon. Consequently, they built grandiose hotels that few African states can match today. In poorer African nations, international travelers seeking the same amenities they expect elsewhere (clean showers, air conditioning and other perks) sometimes find them lacking. The relative shortage of such spaces encourages elite actors to share those that are available.

Heads of state often frequent the world's elite hotels on official trips, and some leaders come to favor certain destinations. Several French-speaking African presidents make recurring and long-term trips to Paris, the former colonial metropole to have meetings with French leaders or members of their respective diaspora. Some leaders frequented specific hotels so often that they become synonymous with the establishment. Longtime President of Gabon and dean of France's close heads of state in Africa Omar Bongo preferred to stay at the luxurious Le Meurice hotel in Paris. As Antoine Glaser noted in his book AfricaFrance, Bongo would hold court in Le Meurice, receiving visitors from across the French political spectrum, dispensing advice on domestic politics and, reportedly, handing envelopes of cash to French politicians to ensure their favor.

Another Francophone leader preferred a Swiss retreat. By late 2016, Cameroonian President Paul Biya, age 83 and in office since 1982, had spent so much time at the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva that a group of dissidents staged protests outside of the hotel to embarrass him. In time, the president and his large delegation retreated from the Intercontinental — which had essentially become an additional Cameroonian presidential palace during Biya's increasingly lengthy foreign trips abroad — and decamped to a private residence located farther away from prying eyes.

A Fresh Towel, Whatever the Cost

The Hotel Intercontinental in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was built in the early 1970s after a decree by President Mobutu Sese Seko. As the lone five-star hotel in Zaire, as the country was then known, it was the prime destination for VIP guests. Boxing legends Muhammad Ali and George Foreman stayed there as they prepared for their "Rumble in the Jungle" bout. It also housed foreign pilots who flew supplies to the U.S.-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) troops in Angola who were battling the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) for control of the former Portuguese colony. The hotel, which stands in the Gombe district that houses government ministries and ambassadorial residences, once epitomized the vigor of Mobutu's early reign (his massive portrait hung prominently behind the main desk). As Michela Wrong documented in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, the hotel was a bastion for the mouvanciers — those backing Mobutu's presidency — and a danger spot for the country's political opposition. (The hotel was known to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and served as an interrogation site for at least one unlucky prisoner.)

As Zaire saw a reversal in its fortunes — especially with the end of the Cold War and the decline of U.S. patronage — the hotel's fortunes began to decline to match those of the aging Mobutu's sclerotic leadership. Eventually, the country's elite presidential guard, the Special Presidential Division, was sent in to safeguard  the increasingly decrepit establishment from the rounds of looting that erupted as Mobutu lost control of the country.

Even a hotel not steeped in luxury can become the center of importance given the right circumstances, say a strategic location in a war zone. The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, became the epicenter of international media coverage during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Journalists documenting the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces (the longest siege of a capital city in modern history) made the Holiday Inn their home for months at a time.

The hotel had been built as the city prepared to play host to the 1984 Winter Olympics. A few years after the games ended, Yugoslavia began to splinter along ethnic lines and descended into violence. The Holiday Inn offered neutral ground where the conflict's warring political parties could meet. As fighting intensified, the hotel, which was situated along what came to be known as Sarajevo's "Sniper's Alley," became less of a place of power and more of a place of survival as the siege dragged on for 1,425 days. International journalists covering the conflict brought with them the hard currency the hotel's managers relied on to tap the city's black market to maintain the hotel's comforts as best as they could. Those efforts allowed the war's combatants and observers to both engage with each other and disengage from the conflict outside its walls.

History of Vietnam's Hotel Caravelle

Another war made a different hotel famous. During Vietnam War, the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) became famous for the corps of journalists who covered the war from its rooftop bar. The Australian and New Zealand embassies at one time were housed in the Caravelle, along with bureaus of the major U.S. television networks. It was the tallest building (and nicest hotel) in the city at the time. And as fighting encroached on Saigon at the war's end in 1975, reporters could see the front-line action from atop their perches at the 10-story structure's rooftop bar. As the North Vietnamese army began to overrun the city, a Dutch photographer in the offices of United Press International's headquarters in the penthouse of another Saigon hotel, the Peninsula, captured the iconic image of the war's end, documenting the helicopter evacuation of U.S. citizens from the roof of an apartment building adjacent to the U.S. Embassy on April 29, 1975.

Photographer Hugh Van Es's iconic image of the U.S. evacuation from Saigon, South Vietnam, in April 1975.

From the headquarters of United Press International, situated on the top floor of Saigon's Peninsula Hotel, photographer Hugh Van Es captured this iconic image of the U.S. evacuation.


Elite hotels in large international chains have their own advantages. Even in the middle of a serious conflict, they can offer services and amenities that VIPs crave. Sometimes, they can provide better facilities than anywhere else in the country — even a presidential palace. In 2013, Seleka rebels overran the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. They took over both the presidential palace after its former resident, President Francois Bozize, fled and the country's five-star hotel, the Ledger Plaza Bangui. The Ledger Plaza, part of the African-based Laico Hotel franchise, quickly became the rebel movement's new seat of power and command center. Its rooms housed battle-weary fighters, while its business center was employed to print official announcements.

The Security Challenges of a Public Space

Because of their popularity among the power elite, some hotels, especially those with links to the West, have become targets of violence. Even if a franchise of a U.S. or European chain is operated by a local owner, those with an ax to grind against the West could see it as a target. Devout believers can perceive places that serve alcohol and allow the sexes to mingle as dens of immorality, inviting attack by extremists. In some countries, a hotel that foreign diplomats or company executives frequent can gain the reputation as a gathering place for a nest of spies that must be dealt with. And any large luxury hotel can come under fire from terrorist groups who seek to inflict mass casualties that generate wide media coverage.

Because they are open to the public, even hotels that take precautions to protect their guests are known by security professionals as "soft targets," less secure than hardened facilities like embassies, military bases and other government installations. Islamic militants in Sahelian countries across sub-Saharan Africa have homed in on hotels. In 2015 and 2016, militants pulled off successful attacks on hotels frequented by local and foreign elites in Bamako, Mali; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, killing dozens. After the high-profile assaults dried up tourism, many West African states dramatically increased security around the facilities. This pattern has been repeated in other areas. Many upscale hotels in India installed metal detectors and other screening devices after the 2008 attacks on several hotels in Mumbai. But because one of the selling points of a large luxury hotel is the ease and anonymity of coming and going, it must walk a fine line between protecting guests and serving them.

Hotels can provide a refuge for anyone, from a weary aid worker to a head of state. Their unique characteristics — neutral territory, superior amenities and globally connected supply chains — mean that they will continue to attract a range of important visitors and remain a tempting target for militants.

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