Wild West economy a factor in keeping Lebanon mediocre

Travel on Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon's national carrier, is as close as you can get to a living metaphor for what it means to be Lebanese. The slogan "you're home before you arrive" could have been coined for the 67-year-old company, writes Michael Karam.

A Middle East Airlines (MEA) Airbus A-320 sits on the tarmac at Beirut International Airport 25 June 2001. The Lebanese national carrier's director general, Mohammad Hout, held a press conference in which he declared that he was determined to lay off 1,200 of the 3,500 MEA employees as syndicate members carried on with their sit-in in protest against the layoffs. AFP PHOTO / Joseph BARRAK
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Travel on Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon's national carrier, is as close as you can get to a living metaphor for what it means to be Lebanese. The slogan "you're home before you arrive" could have been coined for the 67-year-old company.

During the civil war, when long-term health concerns were clearly not as much of an issue as they are now, the inside of MEA Boeings often resembled a cocktail party. Smoking was almost obligatory and, as an American friend once joked, "You asked for a Panadol and they'd bring it to you [with a] glass of Black Label to wash it down". It captured all the eccentricity, vibrancy and joie de vivre of the country and its people.

Now of course, things have changed. Smoking is forbidden and the drinks are poured with more care as the accountants monitor the bottom line with greater scrutiny. There is, however, still that strong feeling of familiarity among the passengers, and the hard-core among them still clap when the plane lands, especially at Beirut.

There must have been an even louder round of applause on Monday when the MEA flight from Paris hit the runway. Three hours into the journey, a middle-aged man became what one might euphemistically call "tired and emotional" and began haranguing other passengers. The pilot threatened to land the plane in Cyprus and hand matters over to the local police, but in the end the flight made it to Beirut. The fracas might have gone unnoticed a decade ago, but within 24 hours, the 15-minute episode was all over the internet like a rash.

It was a shameful incident, but one that I felt was apt, given the mediocrity and stalemate that have gripped the country in recent months. If the MEA experience is a metaphor for Lebanon, tired and emotional is a good way to sum us up right now.

The government might claim that the country is chugging along and that, all things considered - the "regional situation" offers powerful absolution from getting anything done - Lebanon is holding the fort quite admirably. Sure, the days of 6 per cent and 7 per cent growth have gone with the carcass of the March 14 revolution, but we are getting by with a projected 2.7 per cent growth for this year, mostly on the fallout from the civil conflict in Syria. But that does not factor in inflation, and living off the scraps by offering a haven for the Syrian bourgeoisie is hardly a blueprint for an economy.

Then again, the government of Najib Mikati - recently listed at 377 on the Forbes list of the world's richest men with a net worth of US$3 billion (Dh11bn) - has never demonstrated that it cares about the economy. It was the same story with the previous administration led by Saad Hariri - listed at 764 on Forbes's list with $1.7bn - and for every government since the end of the civil war, for that matter.

Today, the Beirut Stock Exchange is in a coma, with a lower average daily turnover than the Palestinian Authority. Buildings are falling down at an alarming rate and the government is facing embarrassing questions over how rotting meat found its way on to our plates. The Lebanese can put up with most things but woe betide anyone who messes with what they eat.

The US department of commerce, in its 2012 Country Commercial Guide for Lebanon, nailed it when, despite recognising the country's free-market economy - which could be a euphemism for a Wild West town - highlighted those issues that continue to hold us, and foreign investors, back.

They include "red tape and corruption, arbitrary licensing decisions, complex customs procedures, archaic legislation, an ineffectual judicial system, high taxes and fees, flexible interpretation of laws and weak enforcement of intellectual property rights".

The reality is that Lebanon is nothing but an unregulated bazaar in which the customer had better count his fingers after shaking hands. And you wonder why we get tired and emotional.

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

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