x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Take a taxi if you want to gauge the mood in Beirut

For a quick insight on the state of the nation in Lebanon, simply hail a cab.

So there I was in a taxi the other day. It’s the usual routine. Driver detects my accented Arabic; asks where I’m from, what do I do and then on hearing I’m a journalist asks what I predict for Lebanon and the region.

It’s a cliché but taxi drivers really can be a useful, albeit crude, economic barometer. Days earlier, another one told me about how he drove a Kuwaiti man around Lebanon for three months during five consecutive summers.

“Same guy. Same routine,” he told me. “My brother drove the wife and the kids, but he always wanted me and we followed the same schedule every time,” he said with a knowing smile. “Now nothing,” he said wiping his hands. “All gone. They were great days and the money kept us afloat for the rest of the year.”

My most recent debate with one of Beirut’s finest centred on the seemingly unstoppable influx of Syrian refugees. “We have 1.5 million,” he said, “and they’re the ones who are registered.” I knew what was coming next. “I mean Lebanon is only 4 million people. That’s nearly half the country.”

He wasn’t finished. “We don’t have enough electricity, water, roads and jobs at the best of times, now look at us. If a Lebanese charges $1 the Syrian will charge 50 cents. That’s how it is. They are everywhere. They’re even driving taxis. You hear of brothers who operate in shifts. They don’t stop. They want money at any cost.”

The Syrian presence is indeed palpable. The government’s decision not to create camps (no doubt remembering the flood of Palestinians in 1948 and 1970) may on reflection have been unwise. The Syrians have been absorbed into the general community, creating social tensions and an economic imbalance.

And without people noticing it, Lebanon is undergoing a gradual but fundamental metamorphosis from a high-performance service industry to one that now values cheap labour at the expense of efficiency. Fast food businesses have set the early pace by hiring mouthwateringly cheap Syrian labour. A Lebanese delivery man with whom I shared an elevator spoke wistfully of the days when emphasis was placed on getting the orders right and delivered on time. “Now,” he shrugged, “no one cares as long as the staff is cheap.”

The analysts would concur. Explaining its downgrade of Lebanon’s rating from B to B-, Standard and Poor’s cited “a slow but steady deterioration in Lebanon’s macroeconomic fundamentals since the start of the Syrian crisis in early 2011”. GDP growth has fallen to 1.5 per cent (from a high around 8 per cent four years ago) and unemployment is rising.

The Phoenicia, Beirut’s most glamorous hotel, has jus shed 30 per cent of its staff and those sectors that are working such as construction are no doubt already hiring the cheapest labour they can find, once again pushing Lebanese labour out of the market.

“Even without the Syrian refugees, the Lebanese economy needed to create six times the amount of jobs it previously did to absorb new entrants to the labour market,” a recent World Bank report on the human impact of the Syrian civil war cited.

So when the population increases by nearly 40 per cent, you would imagine the government would wake up. If we had a government, that is. But we don’t and it hasn’t. Then you might think that the press might highlight this lack of action, but it really doesn’t seem that interested.

During the whole of October, Beirut’s English language Daily Star did not once call on the state to address the economic and social problems that threaten to consume the country. Meanwhile, in the Arabic press the main economic debate seems to focus on what we are going to do with the revenues from natural oil and gas that we may not even have.

Robert Watkins, the UN’s resident coordinator to Lebanon, said that the Lebanese government “must continue to take the strong leadership position it has” on the issue of Syrian refugees and show the world “it has a vision and a strategy”.

It has? I know at least one taxi driver who’d like to hear about it.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beurut