Times are pretty grim, so grim in fact that Rachel Nuwer writing recently for the BBC online, wonders if western civilisation is on the brink: “No civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end.”
And why shouldn’t it be? Rome ended. The Ottoman Empire ended and the British Empire ended. The US, which has only been a global player for a relatively short period, could end up being a historical footnote.
The nations of the Middle East have never really had time to take root. The GCC states are newcomers; so are Jordan and Syria despite their ancient names.
And despite our wealth of history, stretching back to almost the dawn of time, Lebanon, we must remember, has only been a country since 1943. Before that the French ran the show for 20 years and before that the Ottomans called the shots for 402 years. Go back further and we were run by the Arabs, the Persians, the Romans and the Greeks all the way back to the Phoenicians. Lebanon, the republic that today covers 10,452 square kilometres with Beirut as its capital, is a baby
And a vulnerable one at that: earlier this summer, the Carnegie Middle East centre questioned economists about the health of Lebanon’s economy, asking if we were careering headfirst towards bankruptcy. The most optimistic scenario had the central bank, due to its sizeable foreign currency reserves, giving us two years to get ourselves sorted. It’s not long given that “getting sorted” is something we’re not particularly good at.
And yet the conventional wisdom is that Lebanon defies regular norms and is in fact in better shape than we think. We will tell you that, yes we should have “done” an Argentina or a Greece or a Spain or whichever country happened to be the current poster child for national basket case. They will use, as an example of our resilience, the “fact” that property prices never drop in Lebanon; that the central bank knows what it’s doing and the economy may not make sense, but we shouldn’t even try to understand it because we’ll all muddle through in the end. That’s all well and good but I’m sure the Romans said the same thing about their empire in 410. Then the Visigoths came calling.
The fact is that remittances, one of the vertebrae in the spine of the economy, are declining, the deficit is increasing; there is little activity in the business sector and much of what does come in doesn’t get put back into the state, being a by-product of the corruption and neglect that has served us so well in the past. Yes, tourism has been resuscitated but to nothing like the pre-2011 levels and the banking sector is solid but, honestly, apart from buying and selling things, and exporting human capital, the only other thing we do really well is cook.
The latest buzz is that we will be saved by lucrative construction contracts when peace comes to Syria. If that’s our medium-term economic strategy, it speaks volumes about how the Lebanese, with their fabled trading instincts, are always on the look out for turning the fast buck instead of developing a long-term economic roadmap for prosperity. In the 27 years since the end of the civil war only the late Rafik Hariri, with his build-it-and-they-will-come Horizon 2000 project, was able to deliver a solid strategy for national growth. Looking back, it was a truly heady time to be alive. But Hariri was a blip, an aberration. We wont see his like again any time soon.
Last week I wrote that I described Lebanon as a “state of mind” to a visitor who was disgusted by the environmental destruction, in the hope that she would look beyond the eyesores if she wanted to capture what Lebanon, warts and all, was about. But the phrase is valid in a larger sense because whether we like it or not Lebanon is a construct, a nation built on the most fragile foundations, a country whose rhythm has changed with the shifting of the region’s fortunes.
Indeed, we have never been one thing for any decent length of time. Our raw economic flair is wrapped up in the DNA of the people of the region who today are called Lebanese. They were Syrian before and goodness knows what before that. It is this, rather than national identity, that dictates our economic energy.
And there is no solution, whether we have two or two hundred years. Things, we are told, will always pick up when we have a new president; when Iran makes a deal with the US; when the elections are over, when the Saudi kings visit, or one of ours ‘leaders” meets the Saudi king. Our fortunes are so wrapped up in the deal and intrigue that people have forgotten that prosperity also comes with planning and hard work.
This summer I visited a beach in Sidon where archaeologists from the American University of Beirut had uncovered a Phoenician settlement. The head of the dig told me that it was difficult to get students interested in history of the Canaanite period because there were so few precious and beautiful artefacts to be found.
“They prefer the later Hellenistic and Roman,” she explained.
“More Phoenician wealth has been found in their trading outposts across the Mediterranean than here in Lebanon. They all knew that if they wanted to make it, they had to get on a boat and leave.”
No change there then.