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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Big fail for ad aimed at Lebanese diaspora

Lebanon is trying to woo back its expatriate talent but would life in their homeland be any better than when they left?

I presume the Lebanese company Demco Properties meant well when it decided to make “Lebanon is calling”, a 40-second ad apparently aimed at wooing back expatriate talent. I guess it’s just unfortunate that it came across as a bit weird and somewhat insulting.

For those who haven’t seen it – I caught it on CNN twice in one hour last week during the coverage of the US presidential elections – the ad is set in a swish office, towering over what looks like New York. A well-groomed but thoroughly bored Arab businessman stares out across the city. The phone rings. “Lebanon” is on the other end.

Our man is surprised. He asks “Lebanon” where “he” – Lebanon is a man and sounds, as one friend pointed out, like the murderer from Scream – has been “all this time”. With unfault­able logic, the scary voice replies: “I’m here, I never moved. It’s you who left”.

Stung by the reproach, our hero argues that he had no choice, that “things haven’t been easy”. But Lebanon counters: “It’s even harder for me”. Our man is on the back foot.

“I’ve always wanted to come back,” he adds, as the camera pans to a selection of framed family photos behind his desk. Lebanon plays his ace. “Well, I’ve been working hard day and night and now things have changed. I’m back on my feet again.”

“So why do you need me?” the businessman asks in desperation (it is at this point that I couldn’t help thinking the poor chap didn’t really want to go back.) “I want you to walk with me,” Lebanon replies. “Home is waiting.”

And that’s that. Lebanon is once again announcing that it is open for business. The timing of the ad is significant, aired as it was a week after the nomination of Michel Aoun as Lebanon’s president, a move that ended the country’s 30-month political impasse amid a level of jubilation not seen since the nomination of Bashir Gemayel for the same job 34 years ago.

Mr Aoun, like his newly elected US counterpart, is an unshakeable demagogue, and the former army commander has wasted no time in promising to roll up his sleeves and put things right. First on his to-do list is a pledge to fix Lebanon’s chronic electricity shortage, a problem that has blighted the country for four decades. The mood in Lebanon is upbeat and many sound-thinking Lebanese to whom I have spoken believe Mr Aoun can solve the power problem and do much more to boot.

Mr Aoun and senior members of his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have also spent years wooing potential benefactors, both at home and abroad, but it is unclear if there is any relationship between the FPM and the Demco Group, of which Demco Properties is part, and which accounts for at least 50 per cent of Lebanon’s annual steel sales.

But if I were a gambling man I would wager that the ad was inspired by Mr Aoun’s nomination rather than that of Saad Hariri who, as the next prime minister, will soon form a government.

New optimism aside, the reality is that our fictitious New York-based Lebanese tycoon is still being asked to give up on one of the most vibrant cities on Earth and take a chance on a nation whose political stability is still fragile, whose economy is at best sleepy and whose infrastructure is only slightly better than that of Rwanda.

I called the ad “insulting” because I’m one of those who left Lebanon in 2014, moving my family to the UK after living in Beirut for 22 years and I’m not convinced I’m ready to “walk” side by side with Lebanon any time soon. I gave Lebanon a chance, moving there from the UK just after the war at the end of 1991 at the age of 26. Back then the idea was that we would grow together, Lebanon and I.

And I wasn’t alone. Fifteen years of conflict had displaced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and they returned with similar ambitions.

I stuck it out because I had less to lose but most went back when they found they were unable to command the same salaries they were used to or work within the same framework of corporate governance as they did in their adopted countries.

Demco would argue it was just doing its bit (and buying ad space on CNN during coverage of the presidential election is certainly one way of standing up and being counted), but I’m still not sure I’m convinced.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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