by Lamia Radi, BEIRUT (AFP) – Wanted: Angelina Jolie’s luscious lips or Lebanese sex bomb Haifa Wehbe’s nose or breasts. Clutching pictures of their idols, Arab women are flocking to Lebanon which has become a hub for plastic surgery in the Middle East. The boom in plastic surgery started in 2000 in Lebanon, which then became THE destination for ‘plastic surgery tourism’ in the Middle East," plastic surgeon Tony Nassar, who owns the Brazilian Esthetic Clinics in Beirut, told AFP.

Men and women from oil-rich Arab Gulf states have been coming in droves to fix their noses, lift buttocks and enlarge their breasts in Lebanon, attracted by the reputation of the country’s surgeons, its low prices, good weather and buzzing night-life."Sixty percent of our clients are Lebanese and 40 percent from the Gulf," said Elias Shammas, owner of the Hazmieh International Medical Centre, which employs an army of no less than 50 plastic surgeons.There are no official statistics, but industry experts say as many as 1.5 million plastic surgeries are performed annually in Lebanon in addition to 10 million non-surgical operations such as Botox and collagene fillings.

Lebanon’s ambition to become the region’s plastic surgery hub has however been dampened by a prolonged political crisis and a series of assassinations targeting figures from the ruling majority.

"After the (2005) assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, our revenues went down by 70 percent," Shammas said. "But we have been rebuilding our client base, and this last August we reached a record of 240 operations in one month."

The most sought after surgeries are nose jobs, liposuctions, face-lifts and breast implants.

"A nose job costs about 2,000 dollars in Lebanon, against 4,000 dollars in London and between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars in the United States," Shammas said.

Clients, ranging from 14 to 75, often ask for operations to make them look like their favourite stars.

"It is rare for a client not to show up with the picture of a star, asking for Angelina Jolie’s lips or Haifa‘s nose and chest," Nassar said.

"For Lebanese woman, being beautiful is a national duty, not a luxury. Women compete with each others, and plastic surgery has ceased to be a taboo subject and become something to brag about," he said.

On Beirut‘s trendy shopping streets, women stroll along the sidewalks with band-aids covering their nose jobs and sleeveless shirts showing bandages covering recent breast implants.

"If at the age of 65, I can look 50 why deprive myself?" insisted Nadia, an elegantly-dressed Kuwaiti woman who did not wish to reveal her family name.

"A few weeks with a swollen face, and goodbye to wrinkles, bags and double-chins," added Nadia as she examined a computer-generated simulation of her future face.

Shammas said even mothers drag their daughters in to guarantee them a good catch.

"After I performed several operations on a young woman, she got engaged," he said. "Without the surgeries, she would have probably had to wait 30 years before finding a man."

He said winter is a busy time for nose jobs and face-lifts while summer is the hot season for breast enlargements, liposuctions and tummy-tucks.

Shammas said even men are entering the race and now represent three out of 10 clients.

"They mostly ask for hair implants, eye-lid liftings, removal of double-chins and liposuctions, in that order," he said.

In a country suffering an economic crisis, the plastic surgery craze has even prompted Lebanon’s First National Bank to offer three-year loans, with a six percent interest rate, for such operations.

"Demand for these loans has increased by about 35 percent since they were launched in May 2007," said Georges Nasser, head of the bank’s marketing department.

"The only requirements are for applicants to be over 17 years old, and with a minimum monthly salary of 600 dollars," Nasser said.

He brushed aside critics who say that the search for eternal youth ends up producing clones with similar lips and noses.

"All the women don’t become identical," Shammas insisted. "These are allegations made by people who are against plastic surgery."

For 25-year-old Myrna, the choice is simple.

"I would rather we all look like Haifa, than be ugly," she said.