Shattered glass

A new book about Lebanon argues the country represents the many challenges facing the Middle East. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie says the reality is more complicated.

A Mirror of The Arab World: Lebanon in Con?ict
Sandra Mackey 
W.W. Norton & Co

There is something about the map of the Middle East that invites redrawing, and in the past year a number of contemporary artists have depicted its parts, shifting and malleable. Anawana Haloba, a Zambian artist, turned states into tabletops in The Road Map, at last year's Sharjah Biennial while Oraib Toukan, a Jordanian artist of Palestinian descent, put The New(er) Middle East on a wall as a jigsaw puzzle with curvy, fictitious states orbiting Israel and Palestine. At Art Dubai last month, Marwan Rechmaoui, from Lebanon, carved the 22 countries of the Arab League out of tough black rubber and affixed them to a wall at Madinat Arena, each one pulled slightly apart from its neighbours.

These works allude not only to the artificial nature of national boundaries in the Arab world, but to the crass pronouncements of policymakers bent on drawing the region's contours anew.

Sandra Mackey's new book, A Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, also tries to redraw this map, but the results are less than encouraging. Mackey is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia, and the author of five previous books on the Middle East. Her latest work attempts to pull the various threads of her research together in one tome, with Lebanon as the knot that, once untangled, will explain everything that ails the Arab world. But on Mackey's map, the Arab world is composed of only 11 states – she deletes North Africa and, for reasons unknown, Yemen – and her interpretation flattens the region's complexities into crude simplifications.

A Mirror of the Arab World is aimed at Western readers who are afraid that the Middle East is going to erupt and arrive violently on their doorsteps. "The primary purpose of this book is to help the nonspecialist reader learn how to think about the Arab world as it confronts the West with a range of challenges," writes Mackey, "from political and social instability in a region vital to the global economy to the security of people living within the borders of Western nations."

Mackey proposes Lebanon as a handy cheat sheet because, she argues, to know Lebanon is to know the Arabs. But instead of using Lebanon as an object of study through which, to use her words, "cultural accommodation" may be reached, she employs it to portray the Arab world as threatening and baffling.

For Mackey Lebanon matters because it is both unique and typical. She argues that it is distinct from the rest of the Arab world (westernised, sophisticated, partly Christian) yet possesses all the elements that make the Arab world a nasty place (tribalism, corruption, militant Islam). But no country can be both unique and typical, and Lebanon is neither.

Why does Lebanon matter? The short answer is that Lebanon is the most likely site for confrontations between the United States and Iran, and between Syria and Israel. A small and weak but relatively open and marginally democratic state, it is used by regional and international powerbrokers alike as a convenient release valve for pressures mounting elsewhere. But rather than analyse the situation, Mackey resorts to typical representations of Lebanon as confounding.

In this, Mackey falls into the first trap Lebanon lays down for all who deign to explain it. She dives into the country's cataclysmic existential crisis, which is never ending, all-consuming and explains very little. Lebanon may, most optimistically, be a test case for a radical democracy based on agonistic pluralism, but Mackey finds it only an explosive crucible of mixed-up identities based on tribe, clan and kin.

With spectacle and elegy in the same register, Mackey's treatment of Lebanon builds on an existing body of knowledge – previous books, countless journalistic accounts – that constitutes Lebanon in the popular imagination as a paradise wrecked and reborn vengeful. A Mirror of the Arab World races through the twists and turns of Lebanon's history from Mar Maroun's fourth century trek from Antioch to Mount Lebanon through the Maronite conversion to Roman Catholicism, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French Mandate, the independence era, the go-go days and nights of Beirut's golden age, the civil war that wrecked the state and ravaged the country from 1975 through 1990 and the politicisation of Lebanon's Shiite community with the advent of the charismatic cleric Musa Sadr.

She skips over the reconstruction era and careers through a few breathless pages about the assassination of the former Prime Minster Rafik Hariri, the war with Israel in 2006 and the fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in 2007 before the book stalls and ends.

Her first mention of Hariri comes on page 176, of Hassan Nasrallah on page 234, and her command of the two most galvanising figures in recent Lebanese politics is weak. Solidere gets a single sentence. The shift in Hizbollah's orientation vis-à-vis the Lebanese state is absent. The United Nations tribunal investigating Hariri's death and the wave of assassinations that followed is nowhere. Mackey doesn't mention Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni or any of the other figures who have been blown to bits since 2005.

Each chapter opens with a snapshot from the Arab world – an orientalist postcard, if you will. One chapter opens in the Nejd, another on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, another in Amman, another still in Bahrain. These freeze-frames are Mackey's effort to tie Lebanon's issues to those of the wider Arab world. But they are jarring and discombobulating, inducing a temporal chaos into the narrative while trafficking in stereotypes and clichés.

Mackey depicts the Palestinian refugee who lives in a barren box furnished with "a cheap sofa, some worn chairs, an occasional table holding a box of tissues and a vase of plastic flowers". She speaks of the Egyptian peasant who "lives in a village of small, mean, mud-brick houses centred around the mosque and the coffee shop", where two men play "musical instruments of age-old design" and listen to "the professional storyteller" who recites adventures "as told and retold without variation for a thousand years". Who are these men? What are their stories? Mackey renders stock characters living in a strange, thinly drawn world that is foreign, obscure and exotic.

A Mirror of the Arab World relies heavily on other, better books such as David Fromkin's sprightly classic, A Peace to End All Peace. And in some instances, she merely parrots information from flawed works such as Kamal Dib's Warlords and Merchants: The Lebanese Business and Political Establishment, which famously named no names, shied away from Hariri and the controversial story of the real-estate empire Solidere and was aptly characterised by the Lebanese journalist Michael Karam as "toothless".

Mackey's previous books – such as The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation and The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein – have all been gently criticised for their lack of insight and intimate experience. So it is worth noting how badly Mackey fumbles the facts. She considers Lebanon's ministry of power and water two agencies, not one. She writes that Hariri was killed by 30 kilograms of explosives – a bump compared to the Hariri blast, which shattered windows in Beirut neighbourhoods from Raouche to Mar Mikhael. The UN fact-finding mission determined the blast to be 1,000 kilograms – and that figure has been recycled in virtually every press account since.

Worse, she gets the date of the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad's death wrong by two years. He died on June 10, 2000, not June 10, 2002 – and Mackey misses the drama of the date, just two weeks after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, which robbed him of a vital political bargaining chip.

She also gives Assad's son, Syria's current president, the name Bashir rather than Bashar. Similar, true. But to gauge the difference try this: Find a small street in Beirut with a large concentration of Lebanese Forces Stencils. Find a young man born around 1983 named Bashir (the popularity of the name surged in the wake of the Christian warlord and president-elect Bashir Gemayel's assassination in 1982). Call him Bashar and see what happens. You might want to duck.

Mackey may have taken the title of her book from a 1993 interview with the Lebanese novelist and journalist Elias Khoury, which ran in the now-defunct Beirut Review. Khoury discussed "Lebanon's role as a mirror for the Arab world", but his mirror was more of a projection, a platform or a laboratory.

"What is not done in the Arab world is done here as an experiment to find out how it could be done in the Arab world," he said. "The main role of Lebanon today is to be a place where all the democratic forces in the Arab world can congregate, debate, and plan the future of the Arab world. This is the real meaning of this country, if we want to give it any meaning."

In a few lines Khoury offers a more compelling argument than the one Mackey strains to make. Because Lebanon is a country of minorities – that cracked mosaic, that tattered patchwork – one must listen to the positions articulated on the margins to understand not only Lebanon's problems, but also the critical engagements with those problems – made by artists, writers, thinkers, filmmakers and the young, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed – that seek to analyse, interpret, and, in the process, change the conditions that shape their lives.

But Mackey seems to have gathered no voices, no stories of lived experience. And she ignored what makes Lebanon not unique or typical but at the very least special: the country's dynamic intellectual energy. She missed out on the laboratory where the meaning of Lebanon is made and tested on a daily basis. Had she grasped that process, she might have found a line of inquiry tethering experiments in Lebanon to experiences in the Arab world, where artists such as Haloba, Toukan and Rechmaoui are making their own maps, holding up their own mirrors and angling for ways to determine their own fate.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National

Company Profile

Name: Direct Debit System
Started: Sept 2017
Based: UAE with a subsidiary in the UK
Industry: FinTech
Funding: Undisclosed
Investors: Elaine Jones
Number of employees: 8

Shipping and banking

The sixth sanctions package will also see European insurers banned from covering Russian shipping, more individuals added to the EU's sanctions list and Russia's Sberbank cut off from international payments system Swift.

Apple's Lockdown Mode at a glance

At launch, Lockdown Mode will include the following protections:

Messages: Most attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled

Web browsing: Certain complex web technologies, like just-in-time JavaScript compilation, are disabled unless the user excludes a trusted site from Lockdown Mode

Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request

Connectivity: Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when an iPhone is locked

Configurations: Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management while Lockdown Mode is on

Fight card


Siyovush Gulmamadov (TJK) v Rey Nacionales (PHI)


Alexandru Chitoran (ROM) v Hussein Fakhir Abed (SYR)

Catch 74kg

Tohir Zhuraev (TJK) v Omar Hussein (JOR)

Strawweight (Female)

Weronika Zygmunt (POL) v Seo Ye-dam (KOR)


Kaan Ofli (TUR) v Walid Laidi (ALG)


Leandro Martins (BRA) v Abdulla Al Bousheiri (KUW)


Ahmad Labban (LEB) v Sofiane Benchohra (ALG)


Jaures Dea (CAM) v Nawras Abzakh (JOR)


Mohammed Yahya (UAE) v Glen Ranillo (PHI)


Alan Omer (GER) v Aidan Aguilera (AUS)


Mounir Lazzez (TUN) Sasha Palatnikov (HKG)

Featherweight title bout

Romando Dy (PHI) v Lee Do-gyeom (KOR)

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

Book Details

Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women
Editors: Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Daniel Majchrowicz, Sunil Sharma
Publisher: Indiana University Press; 532 pages


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In the box: MacBook Air, 30W/35W dual-port/70w power adapter, USB-C-to-MagSafe cable, 2 Apple stickers

Price: From Dh4,599

Fire and Fury
By Michael Wolff,
Henry Holt

Tightening the screw on rogue recruiters

The UAE overhauled the procedure to recruit housemaids and domestic workers with a law in 2017 to protect low-income labour from being exploited.

 Only recruitment companies authorised by the government are permitted as part of Tadbeer, a network of labour ministry-regulated centres.

A contract must be drawn up for domestic workers, the wages and job offer clearly stating the nature of work.

The contract stating the wages, work entailed and accommodation must be sent to the employee in their home country before they depart for the UAE.

The contract will be signed by the employer and employee when the domestic worker arrives in the UAE.

Only recruitment agencies registered with the ministry can undertake recruitment and employment applications for domestic workers.

Penalties for illegal recruitment in the UAE include fines of up to Dh100,000 and imprisonment

But agents not authorised by the government sidestep the law by illegally getting women into the country on visit visas.

How to help

Send “thenational” to the following numbers or call the hotline on: 0502955999
2289 – Dh10
2252 – Dh 50
6025 – Dh20
6027 – Dh 100
6026 – Dh 200

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan
Directed by: RS Prasanna
Starring: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar

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Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

Martin Sabbagh profile

Job: CEO JCDecaux Middle East

In the role: Since January 2015

Lives: In the UAE

Background: M&A, investment banking

Studied: Corporate finance


Developer: SCE Studio Cambridge
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Console: PlayStation, PlayStation 4 and 5
Rating: 3.5/5

Company Profile

Company name: Namara
Started: June 2022
Founder: Mohammed Alnamara
Based: Dubai
Sector: Microfinance
Current number of staff: 16
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Family offices

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Company name: Hoopla
Date started: March 2023
Founder: Jacqueline Perrottet
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 10
Investment stage: Pre-seed
Investment required: $500,000


Name: Rain Management

Year started: 2017

Based: Bahrain

Employees: 100-120

Amount raised: $2.5m from BitMex Ventures and Blockwater. Another $6m raised from MEVP, Coinbase, Vision Ventures, CMT, Jimco and DIFC Fintech Fund

Company Profile

Company name: Cargoz
Date started: January 2022
Founders: Premlal Pullisserry and Lijo Antony
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 30
Investment stage: Seed

Directed: Smeep Kang
Produced: Soham Rockstar Entertainment; SKE Production
Cast: Rishi Kapoor, Jimmy Sheirgill, Sunny Singh, Omkar Kapoor, Rajesh Sharma
Rating: Two out of five stars 

Most polluted cities in the Middle East

1. Baghdad, Iraq
2. Manama, Bahrain
3. Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
4. Kuwait City, Kuwait
5. Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
6. Ash Shihaniyah, Qatar
7. Abu Dhabi, UAE
8. Cairo, Egypt
9. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
10. Dubai, UAE

Source: 2022 World Air Quality Report


1. Chad
2. Iraq
3. Pakistan
4. Bahrain
5. Bangladesh
6. Burkina Faso
7. Kuwait
8. India
9. Egypt
10. Tajikistan

Source: 2022 World Air Quality Report

The Arts Edit

A guide to arts and culture, from a Middle Eastern perspective

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