Politicians stand idly by while Lebanese potential is wasted

Lebanon's criticism of Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen does little to progress its own economic prospects, writes Michael Karam.

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A day after I read about Hassan Nasrallah’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, I came across a feature in Friday’s London Evening Standard about the amount of money from the GCC that is finding its way to London. The article reminded us of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority’s 16 per cent share in Gatwick Airport; its 9.9 per cent share in Thames Water; its ownership of the Lanesborough hotel and 42 Marriotts.

Other Abu Dhabi investors are also busy developing mega-properties and opening high-end restaurants in the capital. And let’s not forget Qatar: the country owns major stakes in Canary Wharf Group, the Shard and chunks of Knightsbridge, including Harrods.

The number of Arabian Gulf visitors to the UK is also growing. According to the website VisitBritain.org, in 2013 the number of GCC visitors rose by 10 per cent. OK, that was two years ago, but given the abundant retail opportunities, and the popularity of Harry Potter and Manchester City, I will assume this figure hasn’t dipped. The Arabs have always loved London. It is quite possibly the greatest city on Earth.

The same praise could never have been heaped on Beirut, even if the Lebanese capital has at times spectacularly punched above its weight. Today, however, is not one of those times and with a looming tourist season, a period during which the Lebanese hospitality sector would normally expect to make serious hay, the chances of an invasion of well-heeled GCC holidaymakers are not only looking slim, but becoming a thing of the past.

For a few good years, from 2008 to 2011, Beirut was the bling-fuelled epicentre of Arab fun. But by 2012, the proximity of the Syrian civil war, a handful of security incidents and the very real danger of being kidnapped scared almost everyone off. And it now seems Lebanon’s traditionally solid relations with the GCC may be strained even further after Mr Nasrallah’s speech in which the leader of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militant Shia party, lashed out against what it saw as Saudi Arabia’s regional adventurism.

Given that he lives in a very glass house, Mr Nasrallah should not throw stones. His party is predicated on conflict and has made no bones about sending its young men to Syria to fight – and die – alongside the Syrian army in that country’s civil war. If only Mr Nasrallah took time off from fighting everything and everyone and recalled Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign motto “it’s the economy, stupid” he might realise that he is in danger of taking Lebanon to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Quite what the Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam must think when he sees the head of a political party inflict yet another body blow to the country’s already ragged economy every time he opens his mouth is anyone’s guess.

The Saudis, meanwhile, were understandably irritated by Mr Nasrallah’s hypocrisy and have expelled a number of Lebanese expats as a reminder of the GCC’s importance to the Lebanese economy. The region employs 300,000 Lebanese expats with a wage bill said to total US$6 billion, more than 10 per cent of Lebanon’s GDP.

The Lebanese private sector is understandably nervous. Mohammad Choucair, the head of the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, was at pains to point out last week that “certain parties” should be wary, for obvious reasons, of alienating the Gulf countries.

What’s my point? Well, I guess it would be that the world is moving on. Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai, the Chinese … they are all investing in what analysts like to call “long-term value creators” and it upsets me that Lebanon, a country with huge potential is still being run by a political class that has absolutely zero interest in advancing any initiative for economic growth or long-term prosperity. And what do we do with any decent economic strategists such as Bassel Fleihan or Mohamad Chatah? We murder them.

It’s all rather sad really.

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

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