Michael Karam: US-based Lebanese businesses will overcome Trump

Does Trump spell the end for the Lebanses business owners living in the US? No, says Michael Karam. It will take much more than him to dampen their spirit.

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I’ll say one thing for the new and divisive US president, Donald Trump: he doesn’t waste any time. In his first week in office he signed about 20 different executive actions. He tore down the healthcare law; renegotiated trade deals and, in what was without doubt his most inflammatory act to date, barred refugees and citizens from seven terror-prone countries from entering the US. The ban extended to those citizens who have dual nationalities but were nonetheless born in those countries.

Lebanon wasn’t flagged but Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen were. The Lebanese, however, especially those from the business community who willed Trump to victory, must surely realise they have been very short-sighted in their support. It was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and the enemy this time around was the Democratic candidate, the scandal-plagued Hillary Clinton.

Many Lebanese and Syrians looked to Mr Trump as a welcome antidote to Mrs Clinton, who they saw as continuing a pro-Israeli policy. The Donald, on the other hand, they reasoned, was simply looking to make America great again and this signalled a more isolationist, less interfering policy. Now it seems that the relationship between the Washington and Tel Aviv is likely to reach unparalleled levels of intimacy, especially if the US embassy is relocated to Jerusalem. After that, all bets are off.

The Lebanese have fallen for unconventional and unpredictable demagogues before (president Michel Aoun being the prime example); they lapped up the “Crooked Hillary” conspiracy theories and above all they felt they could trust a businessman whose hands were not soiled by international politics. He was a dealmaker, and they thought they understood his world. After all, the Lebanese are the last people to blame someone for wanting to turn a profit.

They also may have breathed a sigh of relief at having dodged this particular bullet, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be extra scrutiny at US borders – especially for Lebanese Muslims or those Christians with Arab names. And there is always the chance that Lebanon will be added to the list, especially if tensions with Iran escalate and Hizbollah comes into the Trump crosshairs. Many will fear that with heightened tensions over the Muslim terror threat and a sense of alienation in a country they call home, the current climate may signal the end for many Lebanese who live, work and own businesses in the US and who, crucially, send back remittances to Lebanon.

What will happen in huge Arab communities such as those in Dearborn, Michigan, which is also home to Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians and Somalis? How many of those, like my sister-in-law, voted for Mr Trump because they saw Hillary as a Zionist pawn and now feel very silly? And now what of the Syrian Christians, in many cases the backbone of what is left of the Syrian economy? They will feel cheated by the man they embraced as a natural ally of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was helping the Assad regime fight ISIS.

But in this spontaneous era of extreme vetting, it won't hurt to end with a bit of levity. On Saturday, for no particular reason other than a burst of childhood nostalgia, I was leafing through a copy of Asterix the Gladiator in which there appears the wonderful Ekonomikrisis, the rotund and oily Phoenician trader who serves as the supreme symbol of the Roman Empire's free market. Ekonomikrisis, in fine Lebanese tradition, is both chairman and chief executive of his seaborne trading company, sailing, literally and metaphorically, close to the wind and possessed with a sense of spin that was millennia ahead of its time (Who else but an early Lebanese would shamelessly call the rowers on his galley his "partners"?).

Like Ekonomikrisis and the real Phoenicians, the Lebanese have been trading across oceans for millennia. It will take a lot more than a jumped-up construction mogul to dampen our spirit.

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

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