x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

My draft plan to get Lebanon's economy back on its feet

We Lebanese still do not have a government and no one seems to particularly care.

Tourists visit Pigeons Rock in the Rawcheh area of Beirut. Boosting tourism is one of the keys to a prosperous Lebanon. Bilal Hussein / AP Photo
Tourists visit Pigeons Rock in the Rawcheh area of Beirut. Boosting tourism is one of the keys to a prosperous Lebanon. Bilal Hussein / AP Photo
We Lebanese still don't have a government and no one seems to particularly care. In fact, as long as there are enough civil servants - I use "civil" and "servant" advisedly - to stamp enough official documents to get things done, it is debatable whether we actually need one.

Democracy may be arguably the Rolls-Royce of political processes but some countries' systems simply have too many potholes for such a dreamy vehicle. The Egyptians appear to have thrashed theirs to bits while we bought ours second-hand off the French and it's given us nothing but trouble ever since. But is a decent system really what the Lebanese crave? We might take our voting seriously but deep down we all know we are electing a bunch of self-serving knaves.

No, the Lebanese are much more pragmatic. Create a viable economy with sustainable employment and the chance of legitimate self-advancement in which everyone has a thick wedge of money in their back pocket or purse; give them access to education, health care, electricity, water and roads and you could put an orang-utan in the Grand Serail and no one would care. It's really that simple but no one appears to have twigged.

The sight of the army moving on an incompetent Egyptian president would have pleased those Lebanese who hold on to the, albeit quixotic, dream of a benign dictator seizing power, suppressing our most destructive sectarian instincts and realising our true potential. It wouldn't be difficult. A group of bored MBA students over coffee on a rainy afternoon could draft a plan to get Lebanon on its feet.

So given that the military and photogenic generals (not you Michel Aoun) in particular are the flavour of the week, I wondered what I would do if I made a move on the presidential palace. Leaving security matters, foreign relations and the war on corruption to Mrs Karam (by now Brigadier Karam), I would roll up my sleeves and begin sorting out the economy.

First off, I would enshrine in the constitution that any revenues from natural resources - and I don't mean illegal quarrying - be used to create a social welfare fund like Norway's. That is after I have boosted foreign currency reserves, serviced our whopping national debt and invested in infrastructure - roads, water and electricity - with a view to eventual privatisation.

Our blinkered banks meanwhile would hold fewer bonds and have to rethink their relationship with the government. In short they would have to start behaving like banks, offering more corporate lending and fixed income products.

Then I would draft a holistic master plan for tourism. I would promote niche sectors such as heritage, religion, wine and eco-tourism. There would also have to be an open skies policy to allow for greater competition and make Lebanon a more affordable destination. The modern traveller demands a minimum level of environmental awareness, so after Mrs K has reformed the prison sector, I would make all white-collar criminals - trust me, we expect a lot - clean up the country.

I'd rush through a law for urban and rural planning (we could copy Denmark's - it's probably on the internet somewhere) so that not every square metre of land would be eligible for a building permit and I could allocate zones for agriculture and light industry. It would ensure that a six-storey apartment or mixed-use development doesn't get built in a mountain village. Oh yes, I would also give everyone a deadline to finish any construction or face demolition, so there would be no more half-built concrete blocks ruining the newly pristine landscape.

I would also limit the number of university places so as to place a premium on degrees, encourage apprenticeships and open more vocational schools and design academies so we can create something approaching a skilled workforce; in other words, fewer out of work engineers; more skilled plumbers, electricians, carpenters, builders and other artisans.

I would also get the trains to run on time ... if we had any.


Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer