Why Lebanon's time-zone troubles are no laughing matter

Foreign allies and investors will fail to see the funny side to this latest misstep

Lebanese man Mohamed Al Arab shows the different times on his watch and mobile phone in Beirut after a controversial government decision to postpone Daylight Saving Time. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Sunday’s news that Lebanon’s residents woke up in two different time zones led to jokes about “Muslim time” and “Christian time” but it also exemplified some of the problems facing the state.

The government announced that the usual start of Daylight Saving Time would be delayed until April 21. Although no reason was given for the announcement, a leaked video of senior officials discussing the move published by a Lebanese media outlet suggested that postponing the time change until the end of Ramadan would allow Muslims to break their fast an hour earlier.

Thankfully, the move was reversed yesterday but the fact that such an important announcement was made with no independent oversight points to the ad hoc nature of decision making in Lebanon and the weakness of its institutions. Justice Minister Henri Khoury’s condemnation of the decision laid bare this internal turmoil.

Salah Nasab, a Lebanese street vendor who also sells and repairs clocks, sits next to two clocks that show different times in the southern port city of Sidon on Monday. AP

In a country with as diverse a population as Lebanon’s, this near-unilateral decision quickly led to disarray as some communities, ministries, schools and religious institutions refused to comply, instead putting their watches and schedules forward one hour as usual. That the decision was made despite concerns about its possible effect on essential infrastructure such as flight times is worrying.

The result was that work meetings, medical appointments and transport schedules were to run on two separate times. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s mobile networks were telling customers to change their phone’s clock back manually if they wanted to abide by Lebanese government time.

The postponement of the time change could have led to sectarian tensions rising, with the government appearing to try and curry favour with some of the country’s biggest religious communities but exasperating many other citizens in the process.

It is not unknown for countries to make unilateral decisions to change their time standards. Turkey, for example, stopped turning its clocks back in 2016. But the situation that unfolded over the weekend in Lebanon is the first in which residents living in a single time zone were to operate on two different times. One satirical graphic trending online depicted the country partitioned into more than a dozen time zones, depending on which community had a majority in that area.

However, the fact that such confusion over something so important took place in a country going through one of the worst economic crises in modern history is no laughing matter. One Twitter post shared on Sunday showed two Lebanese women talking about the daylight-saving move, saying: “What does it matter what time you eat if you can’t afford to eat?”

Lebanon’s multiple time zones would have matched the myriad currency exchange rates that its people have to try and navigate every day.

Sadly, every such misstep in Lebanon – no matter how quickly they are rectified – risks generating more passivity from potential donors, whose funding and input will be necessary to try to salvage the economy. Many would-be allies among the international community are watching carefully to see signs of political and institutional reform in Lebanon before committing to help. Being unable to tell the time will hardly reassure them.

Published: March 28, 2023, 3:00 AM