x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Lebanese are tough but they also need a plan B, C and D

The area surrounding the port of Beirut now hums to the chit-chat of creative entrepreneurs and the well-heeled, the port itself though is unsure as to what the immediate future holds.

The port area of Beirut, for so long a dilapidated area on the edge of the gleaming new downtown, has been embraced by a clutch of leading local designers, including Johnny Farah, Karen Chekerdjian and Rabih Keyrouz, all of whom have set up boutiques in streets that were once home to shipping agents, barbers and coffee vendors.

That was a year ago. The area now boasts Lux, a new restaurant cafe opened by Mr Farah, who, for the time being at least, is better known for his coveted leather goods than his delicious egg-plant pasta.

The venture is yet further testament to the enduring energy, flair and stamina of Lebanon's private sector.

But if the area surrounding the port of Beirut now hums to the chit-chat of creative entrepreneurs and the well-heeled, the port itself, with its acres of containers and straining derricks, faces an uncertain near-term future, especially when it comes to trade with next-door Syria.

Beirut is a major trans-shipment point for goods heading to Syria, Jordan, Iraq and beyond, with the road to Damascus being the only overland access to these countries.

But with Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, smarting from international sanctions for his refusal to stop the killing of opposition activists, there is a fear that Beirut will be forced to ignore the sanctions so as not to incur the wrath of its more powerful neighbour.

The Lebanese government may be unashamedly pro-Syrian, but it knows that the public is divided.

Half of Lebanon believes the Assad regime must go, either for religious (there is intense hatred for Syria's Shia regime among Lebanon's Sunni population) or obvious humanitarian reasons, while the other half, especially many Christians, fear an Islamist tsunami will sweep the region and undermine their existence should Mr Al Assad's iron grip be broken.

Lebanon's Shia population backs Mr Al Assad to the hilt because of his unwavering support for Hizbollah and the resistance movement.

If Lebanon does back its one-time occupier and becomes what the media have already started calling Syria's "backyard" or "economic lungs", political tensions in the country will worsen and an already fragile economy will weaken further.

If Beirut follows the Arab League's lead on sanctions, Damascus might close its border in retaliation, effectively closing Lebanon's only overland trade route.

No nervousness about a possibly impending crisis was in evidence at the soft opening of Lux on Monday. But Lebanon's private sector is nonetheless bracing for yet another period of uncertainty.

"When you start doing business in Lebanon you factor into your mindset that things can go wrong," says Mazen Hajjar, the owner of 961, Lebanon's first micro brewery and an entrepreneur trying to put the country on the international beer map with his craft ales. "You expect war. You expect a blockade. You expect a dysfunctional government that offers no support, so you have not only a plan B but a plan C and D."

MrHajjar's attitude is based on more than bravado. Since 1975, Lebanese business people have become masters of crisis management.

Icelandic volcanoes, or simply leaves on the track, might bring business to a halt elsewhere, but the Lebanese are cut from a more resilient cloth.

"Right now there is no panic," Mr Hajjar said. "We are ploughing ahead doing our thing. The one good thing about the [Syrian] situation is that it has forced me to look at other markets. In the region there is stress, but in Lebanon we're fine. The day we go into business, we expect Armageddon."

And Armageddon, or at least rumours of Armageddon, are never far away.

On Wednesday, the Hizbollah secretary general, remembering the death of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala in 680, warned his followers of what he called the regional "conspiracy" and declared that the "resistance in Lebanon, with its weapons and mujahedin, God willing, will continue to exist".

So those who are waiting for a miraculous shift from the zero-sum game that is Lebanese politics had better not hold their breaths. In the two decades since the end of the civil war, no government has succeeded in balancing the realities of Lebanon's regional cap-doffing with the basic needs of the people.

This makes the private sector all the more remarkable for its ability to get things done in a country with no track record of government support for business and one that is currently hurtling headlong into a dangerous unknown.

It is because of this resilience that Mr Farah has cheerfully opened Lux at the same time that we are being told that the tourist market has contracted 25 per cent in the past year.

It is because of this optimism that shares in the property giant Soliderecould jump 10 per cent after Najib Mikati, the prime minister, paid Lebanon's share of the cost of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the court trying those accused of the 2005 murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri), a move that threatened to bring down the government.

"If we wait for the right time to do anything, nothing would happen," Mr Hajjar says with a shrug.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut

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