The competitive art of social climbing in an austere Lebanon

According to a consumer confidence index from Byblos Bank, the national belt of Lebanon is the tightest it has been for four years, nearly 100 points off its all-time high after the May 2008 Doha agreement, which stopped what would have been a civil war.

The Lebanese woman, always the more formidable of the sexes, has elevated looking good into a black art. Cynthia Karam / Reuters
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The other day the Lebanese agent of a very famous Swiss watchmaker confessed to me that business had been rather sluggish over the past six months.

His woes were compounded, he admitted, by losing about 2,000 sales, nearly double his average turnover, to a vibrant grey market - watches with dubious provenance that are brought into the country tax-free, a practice he claims is "protected".

"What can I say," he asked, slumping back in his leather swivel chair. "You try and play it straight but this is Lebanon, and to make matters worse, the economy is in a hole. We are just praying for a good summer season with the tourists. The Lebanese certainly aren't spending."

In fact, according to the recently released consumer confidence index from Byblos Bank, the national belt is the tightest it has been for four years, nearly 100 points off its all-time high after the May 2008 Doha agreement, which stopped what would have been a sudden and dramatic slide into civil war.

It's been downhill ever since. The latest blunder to point the graph downward was the state's spectacularly incompetent handling of the minimum wage salary adjustment at the end of last year. Further negative factors, the report says, are an increase in the cost of living and deterioration in the level of basic services such as roads, water, electricity and telecommunications. Meanwhile, Lebanon's much-vaunted property boom is also showing a slowdown with the number of property transactions narrowing by 3.39 per cent on the first quarter of last year.

All this, I am sure you can imagine, is very tiresome for those soi-disant, glamorous and carefree Lebanese for whom being seen wearing the right gear is essential. It can also bring out the worst in us. "If I told you some of the requests we get, you wouldn't believe me," the agent said. "Customers, in some cases friends, will come into the shop and say, 'I have a party tonight, can I borrow a watch?' Can you believe that? We are not a rental company."

Tough times indeed but you don't have to wade too far into the murky waters of psychoanalysis to identify the Lebanese obsession with conspicuous consumption.

When times are good, it can be a charming national trait but, all too often, one catches an unhealthy, not to mention unpleasant, whiff of desperation.

Life for many in Beirut is a parade. To pitch the right demographic posture, men will struggle with an eye-catching Cohiba cigar in one hand, an oversized watch on the other, while wearing a polo shirt with a logo that can be spotted from space. Neither do we do, nor do we get, understated.

But it is the Lebanese woman, always the more formidable of the sexes, who has elevated looking good into a black art.

"You feel it when you walk into a room or a restaurant," said a wealthy friend who, to her credit, spends her spare time climbing mountains rather than the creaky rungs of the social ladder. "The other women will scan you like a bar code, ruthlessly checking out everything you wear or carry. So no, I'm not shocked many will throw dignity to the wind and try to borrow a watch. The pressure can be horrible."

Nadim Mehanna, one of Lebanon's leading motoring journalists, told me eight years ago that if you didn't drive a German 4x4 - a BMW, VW or a Porsche - you were, and I quote, "garbage". Now the roads are full of them. A local car importer despaired at the Lebanese obsession with buying second-hand to fit in.

"Anyone with 12K can buy a first generation [BMW] X5. Instantly … they feel part of the gang. Even [Porsche] Cayennes are becoming two-a-penny. Now you look to Range Rover or a [Porsche] Panamera to set yourself apart. But the bottom line is that the best-selling new car in Lebanon is a Kia Picanto. This is where we are. This is the reality."

Michael Karam is the associate editor-in-chief of Executive, a Lebanese regional business magazine

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