Don’t blame it all on the Syrians

At last week’s “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” conference in Brussels, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, called his country a “time bomb” and admitted that the tiny nation’s luck had been stretched by hosting nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. It was a rare moment of honesty from a Lebanese politician, but the truth was the only avenue open to him. When the Syrian exodus began in March 2011, Lebanon’s GDP growth stood at 8 per cent. Six years later it hovers at 1 per cent. The loss to the country has been around US$20 billion. The assessment was a no-brainer.

Indeed Mr Hariri laid it on with a brush. He went on to point out that 30 per cent of the population currently lives in poverty, while unemployment stands at 20 per cent (that figure rises to 30 per cent among young adults). He reminded everyone that Lebanon’s infrastructure was already on its knees and that the debt and budget deficit ratios had increased. If we are being honest the latter were in dire straits before Syria kicked off, but when you are passing round the begging bowl every little bit helps.

Mr Hariri then had a proposal for the international community to stop the social and economic erosion in what is arguably the Middle East’s most enigmatic country. He called for a “two pillar” strategy to spur job creation with a “large-scale capital investment programme”, primarily to improve infrastructure as well as a specific increase in relief funding to the tune of US$10,000 to $12,000 per refugee over a period of five to seven years – compared to the current $1,000 to $1,200 per year – and the provision of educational opportunities for the Syrian diaspora.

Without it, he predicted increased social tensions and further emigration among the Lebanese. If he could get what he wanted, Mr Hariri promised Lebanon would enter what he hoped would be an “era of growth, stabilisation and development” where both Lebanese and Syrians would jointly contribute to one vibrant economy.

It is a nice idea. Indeed, two days later at the same conference, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson called Lebanon a “moral example” to the world, but the truth is that Lebanon was a basket case long before its population shot up by nearly 50 per cent and any foreign investment will merely act as an elastic bandage over the country’s chronic woes. As for accepting the Syrians as long-term guests and partners in nation-building – if indeed that were what he meant – that is a path fraught with hurdles. Lebanon is the sectarian ­nation par excellence, and for 2 million Syrians read 2 million Sunnis. Their presence has already stirred up tensions, especially among the Shia, who before the Syrian conflict “enjoyed” a precarious sectarian balance with the Sunnis.

Mr Hariri was also a bit cheeky asking the international community to stump up for infrastructure– read water and electricity – when the state has made little effort to address the problem for the past 25 years. The chronic – the adjective appears to be cropping up a lot – electricity shortage has been Lebanon’s biggest post-war scandal and the unexpected influx from Syria has, not surprisingly, worsened a situation of Lebanon’s own making.

Should any money come Lebanon’s way – the $6bn for 2017 and another $3.7bn for 2018 pledged by the conference is destined for critical humanitarian programmes – the state will have had a battle on its hands to either nationalise or legitimately privatise the nation’s power supply. That would need a conference by itself.

But it’s not just about power and water. If again, the truth be told, even during the days of 8 per cent growth the economy was founded on a short-term, “make hay while the sun shines” mentality, mainly from tourism, real estate construction and a banking sector more used to lending to the government than its customers.

Yes, Lebanon has a massive problem and yes, credit where credit is due, Lebanon’s inherent compassion and devastating civil war that still lingers in the recent memory has spared it from erupting into a sectarian hellhole. But let’s not blame it all on the Syrians.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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