Now Lebanon wants to trade passports for investment

Lebanon wants its expatriate community to return home and invest – in return for a passport. But are there any opportunities for them?

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The Lebanese government is getting desperate and cynical. At the fourth Lebanon Diaspora Energy Conference, held in Beirut last week, the message from the state to the estimated eight million people of Lebanese descent living outside the country was unashamedly loud and clear: come back and invest in the mother country and we’ll consider giving you citizenship.

The expatriate community already sends home about US$7.5 billion in remittances (17 per cent of GDP) every year. And if we are being honest, the reason why our sons and daughters go to work abroad is that there are very few genuine job opportunities at home, especially for the highly educated Lebanese doctors, engineers and financiers who want to get on in life.

There is a theory that the political class quietly encourages the brain drain. It gets rid of all the smart people who might question Lebanon’s crippling sectarianism, a system that ensures a few families hold power for generations, but who in the meantime are happy to send money home and hailed for creating a reputation for hard work and family values wherever they go. It’s a win-win situation.

Indeed, of my 21 first cousins, more than half live and work abroad. Their grown-up children still have a connection to Lebanon and enjoy returning to visit family and no doubt eat proper Lebanese food, but even if they might like the idea of coming back to live in Lebanon, the jobs and salaries remain firmly outside. A few returned after the 1975-90 civil war – during that time, they, like many Lebanese, were forced to seek work abroad, most notably in the US, Canada, Australia, and Africa. They planned on picking up where they left off, but eventually returned to their adopted countries, disillusioned.

And now, Lebanon needs all the financial help it can get. This recent plea for more money comes a little more than a month after Saad Hariri, the prime minister, asked the international community, at an international conference on Syrian refugees in late March, to help Lebanon cope with the more-than 1.5 million displaced Syrians by providing funds to spur job creation, improve infrastructure and increase relief funding and educational opportunities for the Syrian diaspora. A week later, Mr Hariri, again reaching out to foreign donors, proposed a more specific seven-year plan to raise low-interest loans of between $10bn and $12bn from the international community to rehabilitate his country’s infrastructure, in particular electricity, water and roads.

There is a feeling, however, that the international community has given up on Lebanon. In 2001, 2002 and 2007, Lebanon, begging bowl in hand, went to Paris, where the international community lent a sympathetic ear. On the first two occasions, it was the influence of the late former prime minister Rafik Hariri that managed to secure roughly $5bn and it was international support for a wounded Lebanon after the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel that secured a further $7.6bn in 2007. But it appears the appetite for helping a country that has consistently demonstrated that it has been unable to get its house in order and implement the fiscal reforms asked of it, has waned.

Meanwhile, after years of wrangling and frustrating delays that have scared off most blue-chip groups, the government has announced the final list of companies that can bid in the first round of licensing for oil and gas exploration, which is slated to begin in September. Those companies that are still in the game, notably companies from Russia, Iran, Qatar and a Lebanese consortium, are presumably prepared to deal with Lebanese politics, red tape and the fact that some of the demarcated oilfields are in maritime territory disputed with Israel. Bottom line, there are many hurdles to overcome before oil and gas revenues pump into the nation’s coffers.

So now the political class is turning to the very people who fled Lebanon for a better life. Kind of ironic isn’t it? And as a measure of how desperate things have become, the state, in saying it is prepared to offer citizenship to third and second generation expatriates, is willing to risk the ire of the many thousands of Lebanese women married to foreigners who can’t pass on their nationality to their children, and the humiliation of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians born in Lebanon since 1948, who also cannot take Lebanese citizenship because it might disrupt the sectarian status quo.

My feeling is that the conference attendees will think like my cousins. They will enjoy the food, get the chance to speak a bit of Arabic and make tearful pledges to visit every year. But are they really going to put their money in a country that is, for the time being at least, an unregulated economic basket-case, to all intents and purposes run by an Iranian-backed militia, in return for a passport that they’ll probably never use? I doubt it?

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

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