Lebanon lurches into 2016 after its annus horribilis

Given the nation's potential, Michael Karam is saddened by its problems.

Powered by automated translation

The year ended with the London wedding of a friend whose family are old and respected Damascene merchants.

The Syrian economy is, as you can imagine, not in the rudest of health but, like their Lebanese cousins, the Syrian business class has a resilience honed by centuries of conflict and uncertainty and the father of the groom shuttles between Beirut and Damascus, where he lives and works close to the fighting. He is possessed of admirable phlegm as well as a dapper morning coat.

After the ceremony, the guests – mostly London and Paris-based Syrians and Lebanese – were driven to a reception in Park Lane. “Where were people spending Christmas?” we all inquired? Those bound for Beirut rolled their eyes. “The politics. The rubbish. The chaos. No one is making any money … but still, better than Syria.”

We nodded sagely. “Who were we flying? MEA?” All agreed the service on Lebanon’s national carrier, even in Business Class, had slipped, but we preferred it to British Airways, which, it was decided, was not flexible enough when it came to excess baggage.

“Had we heard?” (We hadn’t.) Apparently easyJet, the UK no-frills, budget carrier, was happy to fly to Beirut but MEA had objected to the competition. We all agreed there needed to be cheaper flights. Would anyone fly easyJet? No one was sure.

At dinner, I sat next to an Englishman who was married to the groom’s cousin. He confessed that he had fallen in love with Lebanon, recognised that it had a underutilised pool of young, computer-savvy talent, and wanted to open an IT business in Beirut. “The problem is the cost and speed of the internet makes it impossible to do so,” he said. “Last time I was in Lebanon, I spent nearly US$150 on the internet in two weeks, half what I spend in a year in the UK. Internet has become a human right as far as I’m concerned and countries that fall short cannot expect to woo international investors. Did you know that it affects property prices, even in certain areas of Central London?”

Being the good guest, I turned to the gentleman sitting on my left, another Englishman, but this one worked in oil. “You guys have missed a trick,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s stillborn attempts to tender the drilling and exploration rights for the estimated 865 billion barrels of oil and 96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas we might be able to exploit. “No one will touch Lebanon until you elect a new president and erase that idea that politicians are divvying up the proceeds among themselves.

“In any case the price of oil has dipped so dramatically, no one’s in much of a hurry at the moment. The oil companies can afford to sit aback and see what happens with the Israelis and the Cypriots.”

And so it went on. As I write this, I am reminded that it has been six years since I wrote my first column for these pages. Back then, Lebanon’s capricious economy had been doing rather well. Although by the summer there were signs that it was once again about to unravel, we had two humungous years of prosperity. This was founded largely on Gulf Arab investment, mainly in real estate and tourism, which in turn had been fuelled by soaring oil prices at a time when much of the world was licking its wounds after the 2008 recession.

By June of the following year, we had come seriously undone. I noted on these pages: “Lebanon is going to economic hell in a very big handbasket. The country is entering its fifth calendar month without a government and the prime minister designate, Negib Mikati, doesn’t look like forming one any time soon.”

Sound familiar? In John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, the hero Harry Pendle describes the eponymous Central American state, to his wife, in this way: “It’s not a country; it’s a casino”. Ditto Lebanon. If it were a “proper country” we’d get such things as forming cabinets and choosing a president done on time. Mr Mikati came and went and now the unfortunate, but decent, Tamam Salam is holding the precarious fort as yet another political impasse has frozen any economic activity.

And so Lebanon’s annus horribilis grinds to an end, dragging its wretched carcass into 2016 and sending its umpteenth batch of handbaskets in the direction of hell. It’s sad, really, given our potential. My two English dining companions would no doubt agree.

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