Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
September will mark the 19th anniversary of the arrival on the political scene of Rafik Hariri, a man who back then was the almost mythical billionaire from Sidon with a reputation for getting things done. AP Photo
September will mark the 19th anniversary of the arrival on the political scene of Rafik Hariri, a man who back then was the almost mythical billionaire from Sidon with a reputation for getting things done. AP Photo

Shadow of Hariri looms large over Lebanon's isolation

Lebanon faces the biggest threat to its stability since the end of the civil war, writes Michael Karam.

I was originally going to write about insider trading after overhearing a conversation at a funeral last week, during which a banker was advising the son of the deceased to consider playing the Beirut Stock Exchange. "It's a quick way to turn around a quick US$5,000 [Dh18,365] every so often," he assured him. Unaccustomed to the dizzy world of finance, the young man was sceptical. Surely there was risk? "Not if you have someone on the inside," said our man. Everyone nodded. Yes, they all agreed, one had to have "someone".

But then that idea dried up. The recently released Cellular competition intensity index looked like promising grist for the columnist's mill. It ranks Lebanon last among the 19 Arab countries. But we Lebanese know all this and don't even blink when our monthly mobile phone bill is way higher than that of, not only a Kuwaiti, Emirati or a Saudi, but also of a Londoner. So, I figured, no story there.

One genuine development was the announcement that in September we will have third-generation, or 3G, internet connectivity, a move that one telecommunications executive claimed would revolutionise the economy (and allow me to enjoy YouTube in all its uninterrupted glory). If it were true, it would certainly lift us off the bottom of speedtest.net's league tables, which this year ranked us last in download speed and second-to-last in upload speed. Even the Afghans have faster internet.

But all this is irrelevant while Lebanon faces the biggest threat to its stability since the end of the civil war. Last week's indictments, handed down to four Hizbollah members by the chief prosecutor of the special tribunal for Lebanon (STL), was not the anticlimax we were all expecting, and the prime minister Najib Mikati is under extreme pressure from the opposition March 14 bloc to back all international commitments and resolutions on Lebanon, including the STL, or step aside.

It is an increasingly common ultimatum in these parts but, given that on Saturday Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah secretary general, said he would never allow his men to be turned in "not in 30 days, and not in 300 years", it is one that gives him little wiggle room.

To make matters worse, it has not been a good year for the economy. The tourist season has been virtually written off by the double whammy of a high-season Ramadan and unrest in neighbouring Syria. Now Lebanon faces isolation from the international community. Add to the mix the simmering tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities, a state of affairs already magnified by the Syria crisis, and suddenly from being the most stable country of the so-called Arab Spring, Lebanon has jumped to the front of the queue and threatens once again to become the violent prism through which the Middle East is viewed.

And all because of one man, whose influence has cast a shadow in one way or another over the country for nigh on 20 years. September, the month in which we are supposed to get super-fast internet, will mark the 19th anniversary of the arrival on the political scene of Rafik Hariri, a man who back then was the almost mythical billionaire from Sidon with a reputation for getting things done.

Back then, Lebanon was in a pitiful state. People sat around in darkness and paid for goods with wads of 1,000 pound (Dh2.40) and 500 pound notes. In February 1992 the US dollar cost 800 pounds. By September the price had nudged 3,000 pounds. Enter Hariri and almost overnight the dollar parachuted down to the 1,500 mark, where it has remained, albeit artificially, ever since.

Hariri rolled up his sleeves and set about Lebanon like a man possessed. As the years passed, his name became synonymous with unstoppable wealth and huge projects. In darker corners there were mutterings of his trying to "buy the country" but the reality was that had there been no Hariri, there was no one else standing in the wings with his vision, his muscle and his phone book. We felt the economic dynamism when Hariri rode into town, which is more than can be said for any other Lebanese leader in recent memory.

The dynamism has evaporated and we sit waiting to see if the government will thumb its nose at the international community. In a column in this newspaper last week, the American journalist Charles Glass asked: "How long will Lebanon's bankers and merchants, who include as many Shia as Sunnis and Christians, tolerate international isolation before banding together to demand that Hizbollah comply [with the tribunal]?"

After listening to Mr Nasrallah's speech, they will have their work cut out. Unlike those who play the stock market, they don't have someone on the inside.

Michael Karam is a communication and publishing consultant based in Beirut

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 The Greens, villas: Q1 no change. 3BR - Dh210-250,000. 4BR - Dh210-260,000. 5BR - Dh220-300,000. Q1 2013-Q1 2014 5% rise. Pawan Singh / The National

In pictures: Where Dubai rents have risen and fallen, Q1 2014

Find out how rental prices in the prime locations in Dubai have altered during the first three months of the year and the current rates you will pay according to data provided by Asteco.

 Above, the private pool of Ocean Heights' five-bedroom penthouse flat. Courtesy Christie’s International Real Estate

In pictures: Penthouse flat is height of Dubai luxury living

A five-bedroom penthouse in Ocean Heights in Dubai Marina is on sale for Dh25 million and comes with a private pool and an unparalleled view of Dubai.

 The cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant near the Tyn nad Vltavou in Czech Republic. The country wants to continue expanding nuclear energy capacity despite cancelling a tender to build two new units. David W Cerny / Reuters

In pictures: Best business images for the week to April 17, 2014

Here are some of the best business images for the week to April 17, 2014.

 Three generations of the Hakimi family tend to their stall Crawford Market in Mumbai. Subhash Sharma for The National

In pictures: Shopper’s delight at Crawford Market in Mumbai

Crawford Market is an old British-style covered market dealing in just about every kind of fresh food and domestic animal imaginable. Later on renamed Mahatma Jotirao Phule, the market remains popular among locals and visitors by its old name, taken from Arthur Crawford who was the first municipal commissioner of the city.

 The Wind, Energy, Technology and Environment Exhibition takes place from April 14 to April 16. Above, the Dewa showroom during last year’s Wetex. Jaime Puebla / The National

April corporate and economic calendar for the UAE and overseas

From Cityscape to Wetex to stock-market holidays to nations reporting first-quarter GDP figures, here is our helpful calendar of April's business events in the UAE and internationally.

 Get the latest information on credit cards, bank accounts and loan products in the UAE. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

Rates report: Latest on UAE loans, accounts and credit cards

Souqamal.com brings you the latest interest rates on banking products in the UAE.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National