Dysfunctional Lebanon limps towards a new year

It was not a great year for Lebanon or its leadership. But then, Michael Karam cannot recall any government accomplishments in decades aside from Rafik Hariri's.

Lebanon has had a difficult year. AFP
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Beirut traffic is the worst I have seen it in 20 years. During the rush hour downtown on Tuesday, it took me 45 minutes to go 250 metres.

Tourism, normally a big earner for the economy, has suffered a shock this year - a dip of 40 per cent across the board by most accounts - but there is clearly a late rush to put a bit of shine on the year's woeful figures, with Beirut hotels - and presumably car rental people - reporting excellent business.

But all in all, it was not a great year. I would struggle to think of a standout moment for Lebanese business or the economy in general, but if pressed, I would have to cite the arrival of faster internet, which arguably meant more to fans of YouTube and other online video streaming services than to anyone else.

As recently as September, internet users had to wait for videos to "buffer" before they would play. Now most clips can be watched in real time except during rare periods of high activity, when the old gremlins reappear.

I say "faster" because we have not yet matched the rest of the world, but something had to be done. In February, it was discovered that Lebanon had the world's slowest uploads (0.10 megabits per second) and the second slowest downloads (0.47mb/sec) of the 185 countries listed by Speedtest.net.

Yes, that's about it really.

But Najib Mikati, the prime minister, should not be too worried by my admittedly subjective assessment of his 1-year-old government, which came to power in a bloodless coup. The simple truth is that I cannot think of a single Lebanese government, with the exception of those headed by Rafik Hariri in the 1990s, that actually did anything useful in the 20 years since the end of the civil war. And to be fair, considering that back then Beirut looked like Dresden in 1945, it was hard for Hariri not to do anything.

Still, in the past five years annual GDP growth has averaged about 3.5 per cent, fuelled by tourism, construction and that pillar of the Lebanese economy the remittance transfer. The Beirut skyline changes by the month as a property boom - or is it a bubble? - throws up new luxury apartments that are apparently all sold off-plan.

But much of the important stuff has not been touched. Most Lebanese still do not have 24-hour electricity. There is no state education to speak of and the nation's health service hangs by a thread. Yet private education and health care are considered the best in the region. It is a case of entrepreneurial energy let down, not only by public-sector incompetence, but also by political agendas that will destroy or compromise any business initiative in the name of naked power.

No wonder that in Mercerhuman resource consulting's end-of-year annual survey on the quality of living in cities around the world, Beirut was ranked 170th out of 221 cities for overall global living standards (it ranked 16th of 25 in the Middle East and North Africa).

So what do we expect next year? Apart from biting the bullet and embarking on a huge privatisation plan, we could also follow Dubai's lead and, instead of censoring films with what is clearly a medieval vigour, try to sell Beirut to the world's film-makers as a place actually to make movies. The potential benefits of such an initiative are obvious as long as the subject matter does not tap into the darker side of Beirut's reputation.

Tom Cruise went to Dubai for the world premiere of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, much of which was shot in the emirate. This is what he told the world: "Many people have asked us about travelling here and what it was like. People are very interested to come here and shoot." Pure guff, but at the same time pure gold dust.

The Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons visited the southern Lebanese city of Sidon this year to do research for an environmental documentary charting the world's biggest garbage dumps, one of which sits on the city's outskirts. I guess that's about all we deserve for now.

Happy New Year to you all.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut

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