x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The darling of the travel press that flatters to deceive

There is a frisson of fear amid Lebanese entrepreneurs' optimism. They know that business can disappear in an instant.

Hospitality industry representatives have been pouring into Beirut this week for the annual HORECA trade fair ahead of what they hope will be another record year. Lebanon's property developers have also banked on stability as their equity hardens into concrete supports for the gleaming residential towers that dot the capital. In fact, the entire Lebanese business community is looking up into the sunlight and offering a silent prayer that the azure skies above Beirut will not be marked by Israeli jets any time soon. Amid the optimism is a frisson of fear, one that will become more intense as the summer season approaches. Lebanese know that business can disappear in an instant. War may be an occupational hazard in this neck of the woods but nerves were jangled by accusations that Syria had been supplying Hizbollah with Scud missiles. It is unlikely that Hizbollah would ever want Scuds in the first place. They are cumbersome, hard to hide, expensive and not very reliable. Nonetheless, the minute hand on the regional doomsday clock has once again crept forward. Four years ago, Lebanon received a nasty shock when Israel went to war with Hizbollah. A border incident started a brutal month-long conflict in which 1,200 Lebanese died and 1 million people were displaced. The financial cost was an estimated US$5 billion (Dh18.36bn), or 20 per cent of GDP at the time, and incalculable losses to the image of a resurgent nation, flush from what the West had excitedly dubbed "The Cedar Revolution" a year earlier. It didn't stop Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbollah, declaring the outcome a "divine victory" over his old adversary. The private sector scratched its head and thought, if that was a victory, it did not want to be a around for a defeat. The typical Lebanese businessman can recognise injustice like the next man but he also knows that his tiny country can only rebuild itself so many times. He knows, as history has proven, that although war and forced emigration cannot dent that famous Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit, conflict after conflict simply is not fun. And yet, therein is the essential paradox, for Lebanon's entrepreneurs carry the state. Whether they live in Lebanon or are part of the sizeable Lebanese diaspora, they are the nation's economic engine. And yet they are the first to suffer when politics loses its head. The consensus among those whose job it is to predict such things is that the "big one" - the final showdown between Hizbollah and Israel - is inevitable and that only one will be left standing. The consensus is also that in the process, this time Israel will not be so "gentle" with the "rest" of Lebanon. In 2006, "gentle" meant restricting its obliteration to great areas of southern Lebanon; the southern suburbs of Beirut; the main runway at Beirut-Rafik Hariri International Airport; all of Lebanon's major bridges, including a new structure that spanned the Mdeirj pass overlooking the Bekaa Valley; and half a dozen dairy factories in the Bekaa region that the Israelis claimed were weapons caches. It is impossible to know whether the Israelis genuinely got it wrong, or deliberately took out Lebanon's leading milk companies. The point is that no one really cared. Israel has made it very clear on numerous occasions that if Hizbollah is not controlled, it will hold the Lebanese government accountable. The fear is that another war will be more expansive, targeting infrastructure such as Lebanon's creaking national grid and water supplies, as well as roads and the newly rebuilt bridges. It is also entirely possible that, in a fit of pique, the symbols of modern Lebanon will also be targets. These include the terminal building at Rafik Hariri International Airport, spared in 2006, and of course the big one, the Beirut Central District (BCD) or the downtown, an area that sits perilously close to the Port of Beirut. It is a scenario that really doesn't bear thinking about. The brainchild of the assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the BCD was rebuilt from the rubble of the 1975-90 civil war and turned into a modern urban showpiece, an area popular with Gulf Arabs wanting to escape the searing summer heat of their own countries. Late last year, the Souks, a 100,000 square metre shopping mall that had been stalled for a decade because of a political squabble between Mr Hariri and the Beirut municipality, finally opened for business. Its aim is to be the retail centre of a country that has set out its stall for tourists. It doesn't compare to Dubai's emporiums but for a country that is selling itself as a retail cornucopia, the Souks and the nearby Le Gray hotel, which also opened last year, are crucial to Beirut's bid to become a boutique destination. Certainly, the new BCD has its detractors. Some were offended by the fact that Mr Hariri founded and had a sizeable shareholding in Solidere, the company responsible for the rebuilding. Sadly, if the BCD does take a hit, spite will blind many to the serious, long-term implications that will surely plunge Lebanon into economic meltdown and perhaps even civil conflict. But what choices do the Lebanese have to avoid such a scenario? They have none. The government cannot control Hizbollah and it is not as if a delegation of Lebanon's finest entrepreneurs can go to Mr Nasrallah and argue their case. For now, Lebanon is the darling of the international travel press, the favourite "alternative" destination, a priceless cocktail of danger, intrigue and high-octane glamour. But the grubby truth shows it as a country sitting on a time bomb, a strategic asset in a bigger regional game. Perhaps the pay-off for so much entrepreneurial talent from such a small country was just such a curse. I hope I am wrong. Michael Karam is a freelance PR and media consultant based in Beirut business@thenational.ae