Lebanon’s 2013 – not a good vintage

For Lebanon, 2014 will surely be better. The country had a disastrous 2013, for sure.

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You can’t really sugar-coat it – 2013 was an unparalleled disaster for Lebanon, a year in which our frailties and weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed.

It began as it meant to carry on – with the stench of desperation as the ministry of tourism tried to win back some of the lost business from 2012, another annus horribilis, by launching a wildly optimistic 50-day tourism bonanza.

The campaign was spearheaded by a brace of bizarre TV ads, one of which depicted the country as a something akin to a socialist command economy with a soldier, a construction worker, a fitness instructor and a pair of elderly fruit sellers at a fun fair, while the other, shot on a Middle East Airlines plane, entertained us with a cabaret performed by the cabin crew backlit with graphics lifted from the opening credits of Charlie’s Angels.

At the same time, and bear in mind this was the month in which we wanted Gulf Arabs to come and hang out and smoke shisha, parliament passed a law that banned smoking in bars, restaurants, offices and the like.

Given that this threatened to demolish business in an already wintry economy, it was hardly surprising that many establishments simply ignored, and are still ignoring, the smoking ban.

On March 22, the prime minister Najib Miqati finally threw in the towel, declaring “my conscience compels me to take this decision to pave the way for the formation of ‘salvation Cabinet’ ”.

It took him long enough. In a little under two years, Mr Miqati’s unashamedly pro-Syrian government not only propelled country to the brink of civil war, its breathtaking incompetence also decimated a robust economy. Growth fell from around 8 to 1.5 per cent; inflation doubled to 6 per cent and the cabinet overspent US$11 billion. Bravo!

The much-respected Tamam Salam was nominated as Lebanon’s 69th prime minister but nine months on he is still struggling to form a cabinet, let alone bring about any kind of salvation.

By May, tourist figures were down 15 per cent.

Then Hizbollah announced that it had joined the Syrian civil war on the side of the government and thousands of Syrians flooded into Lebanon, prompting one waggish taxi driver to point out that now we had all the visitors we needed.

If there was any light at the end of the economic tunnel, it was the mouthwatering promise of billions of dollars from our supposed reserves of natural gas and oil. The caretaker energy minister, Gebran Bassil, even produced A Nation’s Dream, an illustrated booklet that depicted the baby-faced minister as a father taking his son on a whistle-stop tour across a new, more affluent, happier and greener Lebanon, explaining how we would spend the handsome revenues that would soon spew into the nation’s coffers.

By August, the tourism industry was in so much trouble that five major global charities suggested Lebanon’s struggling hotels house Syrian exiles, providing “very good opportunities, for both Lebanese owners and refugees”. One month later, Beirut ranked 20th out of 25 of the world’s best cities in Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Go figure.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Transparency Association reported that corruption in Lebanon was at an all time high, with more than 60 per cent of business owners admitting that bribery was a fact of life. No change there then.

On November 22, Lebanon celebrated its 70th birthday. A week earlier, a source at the UNHCR confirmed that the number of registered Syrian refugees had reached 1 million “with at least another million not on our books”.

And last week, London’s Evening Standard reported that Mr Miqati, whose net worth is said to be in the region of US$3 billion, wanted to build a two-level basement under a twin property the caretaker prime minister owns in Chelsea.

It will house a 15-metre swimming pool, a cinema, a wine cellar, and staff quarters.

Local residents are not happy and Mr Miqati’s scheme needs planning permission. But the way things are going, the work, if it gets the green light will probably be long completed before he can officially step down.

Happy holidays.

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance reporter