x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Political infighting over oil and gas illustrates Lebanese’s electoral folly

The political battles in Lebanon over its unexplored oil and gas assets demonstrate how the electorate is to blame for the dire state of governance.

The Lebanese political class have been at one another’s throats with greater gusto than usual to secure a slice of any revenues from 1.9 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that supposedly lie under the eastern Mediterranean.

I say “any” revenues because no one actually knows if it is commercially viable to pump these mouthwatering resources to the surface. But that’s a detail the politicians are happy to gloss over for the time being.

Speaking at one of his regular press conferences last week, Michel Aoun, the leader of the Christian pro-Syrian regime Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), was at pains to point out that Lebanon’s “natural resources should be used for development [and not] for certain persons nor for sects”. He adds a throwaway line: “Let everyone know that our land is our identity. It’s not a product for sale.”

To be fair to the retired general, he has to dress up his rhetoric in such jingoistic nonsense because he is fighting a rearguard action on behalf of his son-in-law, the energy minister Gebran Bassil.

The minister wants the details of the newly-drafted drilling contracts approved by the cabinet as soon as possible, just in case he doesn’t retain the energy portfolio in a new cabinet.

The FPM is desperate to take credit for securing the nation’s wealth, even if it turns out to be the illusion of wealth.

Its ally Hizbollah, whose image of martial purity has been tarnished because of its participation in the Syrian civil war and other political gaffes stretching back to its attempted coup in 2008, also needs a powerful vehicle to burnish its patriotic credentials.

Last week, Hizbollah announced that protecting Lebanon’s oil and gasfields, which abut those of Israel, fell within its Resistance remit.

Mr Aoun and Hizbollah are essentially conveying the same message to different constituents, but while they dream of an uncertain future, the country has to deal with the uncertain present.

And the fact remains that the absence of a government, the traditional neglect of rural areas and unchecked sectarian fighting in some of Lebanon’s remoter regions is beginning to take its toll.

The oil and gas issue is nothing more than a cruel smokescreen.

Indeed, last week, as Mr Aoun promised to protect money Lebanon doesn’t even have, and Hizbollah pledged to defend oilfields the country hasn’t even explored, Lebanon welcomed back the 18 survivors of a doomed attempt to reach Australia by boat.

It was an ill-fated venture in which more than 30 desperate Lebanese migrants perished in the seas off Indonesia on September 27.

Most of them hailed from the poverty-wracked northern district of Akkar where thousands of Syrians have sought refuge from the 30-month Syrian conflict.

The Lebanese were divided in their sympathy. Many understood the sense of despair felt by many of those involved and were quick to blame the government for its failure to make life bearable for rural communities.

Others were shocked that we now have Lebanese, and not just desperate North Africans trying to reach Italy or Spain, who have been pulled out of strange seas and hauled on to remote beaches. Lebanese boat people? Surely not?

But as much as the state’s dereliction of duty is plain for all to see, at some point the Lebanese must be accountable for their actions.

They live in a society that claims to be democratic but they squander their precious vote either by blindly voting for their sect’s candidate or by eschewing democratic ideals and plumping for the candidate who will pay them the most on election day.

The victims of the Indonesian boat tragedy are victims of their own choices. If there is a neglectful state, it is one they created. If they had woken up to this reality, they would have never voted in such a bunch of charlatans in the first place.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut