x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Lebanon’s charm still a draw for expat workforce

So far so good, but the government isn’t making it easy to coax expat money at a time when the brain drain is at an all-time high and people at home are feeling the pinch with escalating inflation and a contracting job market.

To woo expat customers, Byblos Bank, one of Lebanon’s 14 so-called Alpha Banks (those with deposits of over US$2 billion), has produced a surprisingly uncheesy TV ad, designed to tug at the heartstrings and convince some of the millions of homesick Lebanese living abroad to buy a bolthole back in the old country.

The 1.39 minute clip is lush and slick and it makes a decent stab at breaking down my heavily buttressed walls of cynicism. It depicts the, albeit sometimes predictable, charm of daily life in our tiny, troubled nation, drawing on, among other things, grandma’s cooking, family dining, finding a plumber on a Sunday (who knew that was such a big-ticket item?), eating manoushe after clubbing; Lebanese cab drivers’ charming habit of touting for trade by honking their horn at all and sundry and even the bizarre ritual of slapping the back of a young man’s neck after a haircut.

At one point the earnest narrator posits: “No other country looks like your country”. I’m not sure if he means that Lebanon is particularly unique or that we all have an unconditional attachment to our nation, no matter which one it is. Either way, the bank is doing what it has to do. The local housing market is decidedly sluggish with a huge stock of unsold properties in Beirut and its environs, a large part of which were originally destined for Arab investors. That boat sailed long ago, and despite what local analysts would have you believe, there are now discounts of up to 30 per cent for cash buyers. But cash buyers are holding fire for the moment, so it is understandable that banks, especially those holding debt, are keen to reignite the market.

So far so good, but the government isn’t making it easy to coax expat money at a time when the brain drain is at an all-time high and people at home are feeling the pinch with escalating inflation and a contracting job market. Meanwhile, figures released by Banque du Liban show that expatriate remittances are at a periodic high, totalling $7.62bn in 2016, an increase of 1.8 per cent from the previous year. As one wag pointed out, it would be equally easy (and probably more honest) to make a film about why we should all get out of Lebanon for good. Let’s face it, nothing works; there is no real law and order, corruption is through the roof and, if doctors and environmentalists are to be believed, so are the rates of cancer, due owing to what can only be described as systemic state-sponsored environmental vandalism.

And yet as the film pleasingly points out, there is a lot of inherent good to be found in Lebanon. I have always argued that the country has the potential to be a vibrant and prosperous boutique economy to rival Singapore and Hong Kong. It has a hard working, highly educated, multi-lingual, outward-looking population that in the best possible way has aped the habits and styles of the West and, blending them with the spirit of the Levant, has fashioned a captivating culture with which the rest of the world is apparently entirely at home.

There are those who believe that the real power in Lebanon rests with the banks. It’s hardly the stuff of conspiracy theory. For thousands of years those with the money have wielded the power and in Lebanon the banks hold assets worth over $500bn, roughly 350 per cent of GDP. The sector has high liquidity and solid capital adequacy, and as such plays a key role in keeping the economy afloat, not least by funding the roughly $70bn public debt (from which it is happy to reap annual interest of around $5bn). The sector could do more to force the state to get a grip on its economic obligations, but then again roughly 30 per cent of the ownership of Lebanon’s banks is drawn from the political class, so there’s a massive conflict of interest. Plus ca change.

In the meantime, you can get favourable rates on a second home.

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

business@thenational.ae

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