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Well, that's our tourist season over already

Now that the European Union has designated Hizbollah, the militant Shia party, a terrorist organisation, the West's relationship with Lebanon will take on a new and irritating dynamic.

Now that the European Union has designated Hizbollah, the militant Shiite party, a terrorist organisation, the West's relationship with Lebanon will take on a new and irritating dynamic. It will also have lent significant ballast to a similar pronouncement made by the nations of the GCC on June 10.

The effect of that ruling, not only on what is left of the Lebanese economy, but also on the work opportunities for Lebanon's Shiite population, many of whom work (or used to work) in the GCC, home to half a million Lebanese of all religions, should not be underestimated.

Indeed, its impact is already being felt. A trickle of Lebanese Shiite are returning home with cancelled work permits and stories of what they believe is a culture of increasing, if unofficial, discrimination towards Lebanese Shiite, even those who do not support or vote for Hizbollah, who talk of delays in the processing of documents and awkward emails revoking previously offered positions.

The authorities say there is no such system in place but it is not hard to imagine, in a time in which traditional Sunni-Shiite tensions have been inflamed by the conflict in Syria and Hizbollah's entry into that conflict on the side of the regime of the president Bashar Al Assad, that some form of unofficial vetting is taking place.

For some years now, one's religion is thankfully no longer indicated on official documents, but in 90 per cent of cases a family name is all that is needed to indicate who is what. If the trend continues not only will this restrict job opportunities for the Shiite community but it will undoubtedly have an impact on the roughly US$8 billion sent home every year by the real - as opposed to the historic - diaspora, 50 per cent of whom work in the GCC. Bottom line is Lebanon's Shiite community, in particular, is paying the price for its unstinting loyalty to Hizbollah.

This is a pity, because the Shiite have shaken off their reputation as Lebanon's underclass by hard work and innovation, and not, as Hizbollah would have us believe, by "resisting" Israel.

Historic lack of opportunities, and that fact that for so many years they sat outside the cosy Sunni, Maronite Greek Orthodox establishment, forced the Shiite to seek work abroad, often in the harsh environment of Central and western Africa, where they integrated into society and even influenced local politics. They have also been successful in the US, where, by and large they have successfully (and ironically, given Hizbollah's ideological hatred for Uncle Sam) embraced the American way of life.

But even they might be feeling the heat. As the Lebanese journalist Michael Young, wrote late last week in NowLebanon.com, within the framework of the sinister Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, and in light of reports of extraordinary scrutiny by the National Security Agency, "Shiite Lebanese-Americans may be particularly vulnerable to surveillance, given the possibility of ties with Hizbollah".

Surely the party must now recognise that it has reached a crossroads in its history and that it cannot expect to throw its weight around Lebanon, the region, and indeed the rest of the word, with impunity and without repercussions.

Its supporters deserve better. They have stood by the party, despite the recent ideological U-turns over its involvement in Syria and the war it started with Israel in 2006, in which the mostly Shiite people of south Lebanon and south Beirut paid a heavy physical and material price. But one wonders just how long this loyalty can last if economic opportunities are curtailed and constituents become stigmatised by the party's activities.

Indeed, given the fact that the GCC ruling will have sounded the death knell for the Lebanese tourist season this summer - and the EU's announcement will no doubt tar all Lebanese with the Hizbollah brush - maybe it is time we all ask ourselves just what is the upside of our relationship with the Party of God. I for one can't see it.

 

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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