x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lebanon can learn from one woman in south-west England

The irony is that for a country that is so dexterous with money, Lebanon actually does very little to encourage prosperity for the common good.

Lebanon, it seems, will have to wait for another two years before it can enjoy uninterrupted electricity supply. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP
Lebanon, it seems, will have to wait for another two years before it can enjoy uninterrupted electricity supply. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP

The other evening I was at a dinner party where I met a former British officer who is helping to train the Lebanese army. I asked him how he rated our soldiers.

"They are absolutely super guys", he said with the typical can-do enthusiasm that Sandhurst has been instilling for generations. "Really professional and better than most people give them credit for. But it's all give and take. You guys are natural businessmen. What we can teach you about soldiering, you can teach us about business. You know it like no other nation. This, your charm and your love of life, is what makes you shine."

So why aren't we the Singapore of the Middle East, a nation run by bon viveurs with Excel sheets?

The irony is that for a country that is so dexterous with money, we actually do very little to encourage prosperity for the common good and everything to ensure that interests - political and financial - are protected … and to hell with everything else.

The current civil marriage furore is a case in point and, dare I say it, a uniquely Lebanese affair. Opposed by the religious authorities on moral grounds, the battle is really over protecting a very plump cash cow. All Lebanon's religious institutions derive much of their income from religious ceremonies - marriage, divorce, funerals, baptisms and the like. Allowing Lebanese to marry in the eyes of the state and thus be subject to a civil marriage law is a red line.

The grand mufti was so agitated that he issued a mini fatwa, accusing Muslim officials who backed civil marriage, even as an option, of apostasy. Few took him seriously but it was enough to convince the former prime minister Saad Hariri, who has been in self-imposed exile in Paris for nearly two years, to give a one-on-one interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on the matter.

Would that he cared as much about the economy, which remains in a tailspin. Local businesses continue to fold; the top five Lebanese banks barely broke even last year, while activity on the comatose Beirut Stock Exchange in January dropped by 50 per cent year-on-year, with only a measly US$15 million (Dh55m) - what the London Stock Exchange can do in one minute - in shares traded in the whole month.

The government is also under pressure from the unions to raise the salary scale, something the central bank has warned will cause both inflation and unemployment to rise.

They said we'd never "do a Greece". Never say never.

The prognosis of our more chronic ailments is equally bleak. The energy ministry announced last week that the country would have to wait two more years before it could enjoy 24-hour electricity.

In the meantime, the government is paying a fuel import bill that represents 10 per cent of GDP and makes annual transfers to Electricité du Liban that are equivalent to 4 per cent of GDP. Oh, and let's not forget the $360m the government has agreed to pay a Turkish firm to lease three generator ships to make up the shortfall until 2015.

And for those who believe that we will soon be pumping the revenues from our own natural oil and gas into the state coffers, think again.

Citigroup analysts predicted that "divisive politics" and "traditional institutional bickering" would mean that it would be 2020 at the earliest before we can start extracting our natural oil and gas resources.

So last week, it was heartening to hear Lebanese customs announce that exports of Lebanese wine to the United Kingdom rose 33 per cent, all as a result of a $150,000 a year generic marketing campaign, devised by a one-woman PR operation that is run from a small office in Bath in south-west England.

Maybe the government could also do with a few cool-headed foreigners to take care of business as well.

 

Michael Karam is a writer based in Beirut