The other week I had a bit of what I’d call a minor life wobble, one that prompted a desperate SOS to my 900 or so “friends” on Facebook. The problem, and I admit it was of an entirely First World nature, was that I had lost my favourite drinks coaster, an embroidered circular mat that used to be gifted, in pleasing packs of three, to first-class passengers on Middle East Airlines in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

My parents worked for MEA all their working lives and so these things were absolutely everywhere during my childhood, but 30 years on there was only one left and now even that had mysteriously disappeared. I dug out some wooden coasters someone had given us, but they simply wouldn’t do. Would social media come to the rescue?

It did. Within half an hour, I received a message from a family friend, the daughter of a colleague of my late father. She said she had a few knocking around and that she would happily pop them in an envelope and post them. Well, that was easy.

But there were other mes­sages, from people telling me that these coasters were an integral part of their childhood, “blasts from the past” and so on. A friend in Minnesota even felt compelled to post a photo of one he still uses. So apparently it wasn’t just me. There must be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, still in circulation, protecting tabletops across the diaspora from Freetown to Fremantle.

Fittingly, I also received a message from Makram Alamuddin, the son of Najib Alamuddin, the former MEA chairman under whose watch the mats were introduced. He told me they were originally made by a handicrafts centre in Baakline, the Alamuddin clan’s hometown in the Chouf Mountains. Mr Alamuddin Senior is also famed for banning the practice of serving coffee to visitors at MEA offices as he claimed, quite rightly, that the whole rigmarole wasted time.

But the “Flying Sheikh” was more than just a bean counter. Between 1952 and 1978, he took the newly created airline and fashioned it into a brand that captured the panache and elegance of the newly created Lebanon. MEA was the pre-eminent Arab airline; the envy of the region and, in many ways, benchmark for the high standards set by today’s state-of-the-art GCC carriers.

He was a visionary, a man who would not accept that a Lebanese company had no choice but to be underpinned by the same consensus that defined how the nation was run. He clamped down on favours and sinecures and imposed a culture efficiency and advancement. It was heady stuff and way ahead of its time.

More than one Facebook post bemoaned how a certain elegance had disappeared, to be fair not just from Middle East Airlines, but from air travel in general. This I can vouch for, having just flown to Dublin on something called Ryanair. OK, my return ticket from London Gatwick cost me less than a peak time day return from Brighton to London, but it was nonetheless very basic (you never know how much you need a seat pocket until it’s not there). It made easyJet – which I thought was as “budget” as it got – feel like Cathay Pacific.

But even the major airlines have been packing them in for years. There are now budget economy fares for travellers who either want to travel light; don’t mind foregoing air miles or who are prepared to buy a non-refundable, non-flexible ticket. Meanwhile, Airbus has been busy adding an extra seat to its A380, by making slimmer armrests. Who knew?

Which brings me back to MEA, a company for which any decent branding expert would love to roll up their sleeves and get to work mining the archives to position it as a regional pioneer with a huge legacy. The ultimate boutique airline even. Then again, you could argue that MEA is a hugely profitable company, so why constantly hark back to a golden age that has disappeared and has little relevance to modern air travel?

If he’s lucky, today’s business traveller gets a little bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, socks and an eye mask. MEA gave away beautiful, hand-made intricately designed coasters. I’m trying to figure out when and why things changed.

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

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The Beirut bourse has been stirring amid rumours that Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement, will next week be nominated as Lebanon’s new president with Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, widely expected to be asked to then form a government.

Mr Hariri is the son of the late former prime minister Rafi Hariri and was himself prime minister from 2009 to 2011, when he was ousted in what was tantamount to a bloodless coup orchestrated by Hizbollah, Mr Aoun’s most powerful ally. With this in mind, Mr Hariri’s support for Mr Aoun might seen strange, but Lebanon is a strange country, and the Saudi-born billionaire has defended his decision by putting the country first, arguing that it is imperative to “kick-start the economy”.

The Lebanese have been patiently waiting for a resolution to the 29-month political impasse in the naive hope that the nomination of a new president will restore confidence, spur consumption and encourage investment. I say naive, but there has been precedent. The nomination of Hariri Senior in 1992 stabilised a Lebanese pound that was hurtling out of control and set in motion the reconstruction process, while in 2008 the nomination of president Michel Suleiman forced the warring March 8 and March 14 blocs to put aside their differences and the country flourished, albeit for only two years. But Lebanon’s brand glowed and Beirut, with its stamina-fuelled nightlife and beautiful people, was the erstwhile darling of the international media.

But the goalposts have irrevocably moved since the so-called Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, which forced Lebanon to absorb at least 1.5 million refugees (some analysts put the figure at closer to 2 million). Lebanon is not the same country and may never be the same country again and one has to wonder if simply having a functioning state is enough to thaw a deep-frozen economy.

The good times used to rely on foreign money spent in hotels, restaurants and shops as well on bricks and mortar. Only two weeks ago the Beirut press ran stories that local property developers were confident of an upswing once a president was in place. But it remains to be seen if the Arab tourist will ever come back to Lebanon in the same numbers. With nearly 2 million extra people, no significant improvement in the infrastructure, a capital with a chronic rubbish crisis and a fear of kidnapping, the lure of other, less problematic, destinations might still make them stay away.

Mr Hariri, if he does end up heading a government, has to demonstrate his claim that he prioritises the creation of a sustainable economy, a promise that can be traced back to 2005 and the birth of the March 14 movement after his father’s murder. Those of us who backed him then accepted that both his government, and that of Fouad Siniora before him, were never really given a chance to implement a meaningful economic road map.

Now he must take a page from his late father’s book. In the early ‘90s, Hariri Senior announced Horizon 2000, a project that outlined the rejuvenation of Lebanon after the 15-year civil war. It fell short of its deadline, but not by much. It was one of the only long-term initiatives and not surprisingly it was a businessman-turned- politician and not a warlord who created it.

One of Mr Hariri’s first tasks therefore should be the creation of an economic task force to focus on, in no particular order, improving infrastructure, seeking out new sources of energy — solar power can no longer be ignored as an option — more efficient ways of getting rid of waste; and identifying and supporting key sectors with greater support from a banking sector that has become fat and lazy by lending to the state instead of supporting local businesses.

Lebanon’s economic woes could be solved by an average MBA student over a rainy afternoon. But the disconnect between the political class and the needs of the population for a minimum standard of living in a country that, even after everything, still has a lot going for it, needs to be resolved.

The world has moved on since 2011, so if Mr Hariri genuinely wants to improve the economy he must understand that the old formula of making hay while the sun shines is no longer sustainable.

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

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The Beirut bourse has been stirring amid rumours that Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement, will next week be nominated as Lebanon’s new president with Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, widely expected to be asked to then form a government.

Mr Hariri is the son of the late former prime minister Rafi Hariri and was himself prime minister from 2009 to 2011, when he was ousted in what was tantamount to a bloodless coup orchestrated by Hizbollah, Mr Aoun’s most powerful ally. With this in mind, Mr Hariri’s support for Mr Aoun might seen strange, but Lebanon is a strange country, and the Saudi-born billionaire has defended his decision by putting the country first, arguing that it is imperative to “kick-start the economy”.

The Lebanese have been patiently waiting for a resolution to the 29-month political impasse in the naive hope that the nomination of a new president will restore confidence, spur consumption and encourage investment. I say naive, but there has been precedent. The nomination of Hariri Senior in 1992 stabilised a Lebanese pound that was hurtling out of control and set in motion the reconstruction process, while in 2008 the nomination of president Michel Suleiman forced the warring March 8 and March 14 blocs to put aside their differences and the country flourished, albeit for only two years. But Lebanon’s brand glowed and Beirut, with its stamina-fuelled nightlife and beautiful people, was the erstwhile darling of the international media.

But the goalposts have irrevocably moved since the so-called Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, which forced Lebanon to absorb at least 1.5 million refugees (some analysts put the figure at closer to 2 million). Lebanon is not the same country and may never be the same country again and one has to wonder if simply having a functioning state is enough to thaw a deep-frozen economy.

The good times used to rely on foreign money spent in hotels, restaurants and shops as well on bricks and mortar. Only two weeks ago the Beirut press ran stories that local property developers were confident of an upswing once a president was in place. But it remains to be seen if the Arab tourist will ever come back to Lebanon in the same numbers. With nearly 2 million extra people, no significant improvement in the infrastructure, a capital with a chronic rubbish crisis and a fear of kidnapping, the lure of other, less problematic, destinations might still make them stay away.

Mr Hariri, if he does end up heading a government, has to demonstrate his claim that he prioritises the creation of a sustainable economy, a promise that can be traced back to 2005 and the birth of the March 14 movement after his father’s murder. Those of us who backed him then accepted that both his government, and that of Fouad Siniora before him, were never really given a chance to implement a meaningful economic road map.

Now he must take a page from his late father’s book. In the early ‘90s, Hariri Senior announced Horizon 2000, a project that outlined the rejuvenation of Lebanon after the 15-year civil war. It fell short of its deadline, but not by much. It was one of the only long-term initiatives and not surprisingly it was a businessman-turned- politician and not a warlord who created it.

One of Mr Hariri’s first tasks therefore should be the creation of an economic task force to focus on, in no particular order, improving infrastructure, seeking out new sources of energy — solar power can no longer be ignored as an option — more efficient ways of getting rid of waste; and identifying and supporting key sectors with greater support from a banking sector that has become fat and lazy by lending to the state instead of supporting local businesses.

Lebanon’s economic woes could be solved by an average MBA student over a rainy afternoon. But the disconnect between the political class and the needs of the population for a minimum standard of living in a country that, even after everything, still has a lot going for it, needs to be resolved.

The world has moved on since 2011, so if Mr Hariri genuinely wants to improve the economy he must understand that the old formula of making hay while the sun shines is no longer sustainable.

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

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The problem with the US Republican party’s presidential candidate Donald Trump is not Mr Trump per se; the fault lies with his millions of supporters who are convinced he can turn their lives around. He promised he would and they are apparently taking that to the bank. I heard someone say the other day that Mr Trump is “the wrong answer to the right question”. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but over 8,000 kilometres away at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, the embattled Lebanese public is saddled with a beast of a similar kidney.

Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and one of two politicians vying for the presidency in a bid to end a two-year political crisis that has contributed to Lebanon’s economic malaise, is also seen as a maverick who can overturn the status quo. His supporters, like Mr Trump’s, are mainly Christian (but only because Lebanon is sectarian and Mr Aoun, like all presidential hopefuls, is a Maronite) and want to see an end to the corrupt politics that has been the stock in trade of either feudal political families or the ageing warlords who made fortunes during the 1975-90 civil war. In other words they want change. Lebanon needs it, but perhaps Mr Aoun isn’t the most suitable agent to effect it.

Unlike the average Trump supporter, Aounists tend to be professionals – doctors, engineers and the like – who threw their lot in with the retired army commander when he returned from 15 years of exile in Paris in 2005 after the so-called Cedar Revolution, when he offered a secular and transparent alternative to a tranche of the Christian electorate.

But both men have, in their own way, exploited the very people who may (in the case of Mr Aoun it is looking increasingly likely) give them their respective presidencies. Mr Trump has lied; made outrageous promises on which he surely cannot deliver on and has styled himself as the man to resuscitate the US economy and create jobs. For his part, Mr Aoun has been less flamboyant – he is after all 83 – but he has reneged on his pledge to be a politician for all Lebanese and allied the FPM with many of the pro-Syrian parties, most notably Hizbollah, that he opposed in exile.

That was pretty shameless, but it is his phoney commitment to make the economy a priority and end corruption that sticks in the craw. Mr Aoun, along with his allies in Hizbollah, have perpetuated the current political crisis, a two-year hiatus, during which time Mr Aoun claimed to be fighting for Christian rights, but which only succeeded in stalling all but the most basic political activity; and this at a time when Lebanon found itself shouldering the biggest burden in the worst refugee crisis the world can remember, with nearly 2 million Syrians currently domiciled in the country. The FPM may talk a good fight, but in reality it has thrived on conflict and obstructionism.

Mr Aoun also has a funny understanding of transparency. His son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is the president of the FPM and the current foreign minister. Before that the baby-faced Mr Bassil held two other key ministerial posts, energy and telecoms. Adored by the party faithful because he is, at 46, relatively young and seen as a modern technocrat, he has nonetheless attracted allegations of corruption amid revelations of unexplained sudden wealth. The other son-in-law is a senior army commander, who was pushed by Mr Aoun to be head of the army. No conflict of interest there then.

Sunday was the 26th anniversary of the day Mr Aoun, then a wartime interim prime minister, fled the presidential palace for France as the Syrian army advanced. At a rally in downtown Beirut, he pledged to make Lebanon “safe and prosperous” should he be returned to the scene of the most notorious incident of his political career, this time as the real deal.

Like my friend said: right question, wrong answer.

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

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So there I was sitting on a Lebanese friend’s terrace on Friday night when the conversation turns to the subject of solar energy, something we Lebanese should really be embracing for a million reasons – well, three obvious reasons, really: it’s clean; it’s cheap and it’s efficient, in a land that boasts over 320 days of sunshine.

But we are woefully inefficient and wildly corrupt. Readers familiar with day-to-day life in Lebanon will also know that a quarter of a century after the civil war ended, there is nowhere in the country that enjoys 24-hour electricity and in some rural areas the ration is as little as eight hours a day.

My host makes up for her shortfall in government electricity by cranking up a massive Chinese diesel generator. But on this particular evening, the local power station clearly couldn’t decide if it was giving us power or not and so we kept alternating between light and darkness, with the generator unable to decide what to do.

One of the guests then revealed with a certain smugness that he was using a cleaner, more efficient and vastly cheaper power solution that involved nothing more than sticking a few solar panels on the roof of his garage. These charged a couple of hefty batteries neatly housed in a purpose-built compartment with enough power to run his home during a power cut, all for the princely sum of roughly US$10,000, which he was paying over 10 years at zero interest, courtesy of a programme initiated by the central bank in partnership with Electricité du Liban, the national power company.

This was surely too good to be true; but according to an excellent report in Executive magazine from December 2015, $450 million had at the time been invested in renewable energy since 2009, with a tenfold increase in the number of companies providing solar power over the same period. It gets better. There is even a Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, part of the ministry of energy and water, which was formed back in the boom days of 2009. The LCEC in turn created the National Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action Plan, which between 2012 and 2015, financed, with the help of the central bank loans, more than $350m worth of sustainable energy projects. Last year, about 20 megawatts of a solar power system were installed across the country, and by the end of this year that number is expected to treble.

At $10,000 a pop for an average domestic installation, it works out at less than $100 a month per household. Before I moved back to the UK, I was paying about $200 a month to a private electricity supplier to supplement the state’s shortfall, and this was in Beirut, which gets between 18 and 20 hours of power a day. In the mountains it’s a different story. Like my host, I also use a noisy 5 kVA Chinese generator that runs on diesel and that would probably be banned in most countries. In all, my generator costs me more than $300 a month.

So quite why the state is still trying to play catch-up and build more outdated power stations to satisfy Lebanon’s growing demand for power is anyone’s guess. Municipality-led solar power initiatives must surely be the way forward – so why is the whole country not going bonkers over the idea? Why are we not seeing the offer advertised on TV and on the gazillions of billboards that have become a national eyesore.

Could it be that the government is keeping it low-key so as to not anger the so-called electricity mafia, the grey market that the former energy minister Elie Hobeika tried to shut down in the ‘90s, but which has come back as a powerful lobby, one that makes an estimated $150 million from selling unregulated electricity, delivered more often than not with dodgy equipment and equally cowboy methods.

Well, I have a name and a phone number. What do I have to lose?

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

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I am being driven through the Marche region of Italy (pronounced “Marshay”). Sitting on the Adriatic – on a clear day one can apparently see the nearest Croatian islands – I’m told Le Marche has been called the poor man’s Tuscany, but that’s neither here nor there. Because anywhere that a stereotypically hot-blooded people – corrupt, loud and unstable – like the Italians, the Greeks, the Turks or even the Lebanese are often perceived, can respect their environment, their laws and their building codes, gets my vote.

It is hard to explain just how frustrating it is to see a country that gave the world the concept of the Mafia and which is still tarred with the brush of corruption and the buffoonery of Silvio Berlusconi, can do this.

In fact, all I could think of was that the Lebanese should be forced to drive around areas like the nearby Conero Riviera and the Conero National Park to see what their country could still look like if they hadn’t blown it.

I’m with Magda, an Italian of Egyptian ancestry. She works in PR between Paris, Verona and Beirut. Magda has a handful of Lebanese clients, probably because she is in the midst of a massive love affair with Lebanon. The back shelf of her car is festooned with the red and white cedar flag and she wears a cedar pendant bought in Baalbek. “What can I say?” she says. “Beautiful country; beautiful people.”

Magda and I discuss the recurrence of Beirut’s apparently chronic rubbish crisis. She tells me, because of course she knows this nugget of trivia, that the Lebanese capital is now the second most polluted city in the world, behind Accra. “But don’t be fooled by Italy,” Magda warns. “Go to Sicily and you will see how much work is still needed. It is all to do with education.” Then a sudden change of tack. “But you know what? For tomato, we Italians say pomodoro. You say banadoura. We are the same.” Magda is clearly a glass half-full person.

But we probably really are similar. Italy is, after all, where the Mediterranean temperament begins to take on the patina of northern European order. Starched Milan is a universe away from chaotic Palermo. Rome lies somewhere in the middle of the temperament table and Ancona, Marche’s “capital”, lies to the east and the petrol stations around here offer a useful evolutionary table for the gradual East-West metamorphosis.

In Beirut you pull in to a tromba and half a dozen attendants will descend on you. They will fill you up, wipe, scrap, squeegee, check your water and offer to bring you any refreshment you want … in the hope of some baksheesh. In the higher latitudes, it’s all self-service but in Italy you have a choice: you can fill your tank yourself or pay a wee bit more to have a callow youth at the neighbouring pump do the honours and wipe the bugs off the windscreen.

Some of this might go some way to explain why we Lebanese love the Italians. Italy is our second biggest trading partner. We import, an admittedly modest $1.65 billion of Italian produce, mostly white goods, ceramics and agricultural machinery, including, let us not forget, the ubiquitous small blue motors that power the water pumps in almost every house in the country. Italy has also stood with Lebanon in its time of need, contributing to the country’s reconstruction process and economic rehabilitation since the 1982 Israeli invasion.

“A good friend of mine was a diplomat in Beirut during the war,” a businessman told me at a dinner on Saturday night. “He said at one point the wall in his office was blown out, but he still went to work. He loved it like no other posting.”

At the same dinner, I got talking to a journalist from La Repubblica who lives in Palermo. “We Sicilians are very different,” she shrugged. “It is chaotic. Yes, we don’t care about the environment as much as we should and we build everywhere and there is too much traffic. What can we do? We are descended from the Arabs.”

Ouch.

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

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I am being driven through the Marche region of Italy (pronounced “Marshay”). Sitting on the Adriatic – on a clear day one can apparently see the nearest Croatian islands – I’m told Le Marche has been called the poor man’s Tuscany, but that’s neither here nor there. Because anywhere that a stereotypically hot-blooded people – corrupt, loud and unstable – like the Italians, the Greeks, the Turks or even the Lebanese are often perceived, can respect their environment, their laws and their building codes, gets my vote.

It is hard to explain just how frustrating it is to see a country that gave the world the concept of the Mafia and which is still tarred with the brush of corruption and the buffoonery of Silvio Berlusconi, can do this.

In fact, all I could think of was that the Lebanese should be forced to drive around areas like the nearby Conero Riviera and the Conero National Park to see what their country could still look like if they hadn’t blown it.

I’m with Magda, an Italian of Egyptian ancestry. She works in PR between Paris, Verona and Beirut. Magda has a handful of Lebanese clients, probably because she is in the midst of a massive love affair with Lebanon. The back shelf of her car is festooned with the red and white cedar flag and she wears a cedar pendant bought in Baalbek. “What can I say?” she says. “Beautiful country; beautiful people.”

Magda and I discuss the recurrence of Beirut’s apparently chronic rubbish crisis. She tells me, because of course she knows this nugget of trivia, that the Lebanese capital is now the second most polluted city in the world, behind Accra. “But don’t be fooled by Italy,” Magda warns. “Go to Sicily and you will see how much work is still needed. It is all to do with education.” Then a sudden change of tack. “But you know what? For tomato, we Italians say pomodoro. You say banadoura. We are the same.” Magda is clearly a glass half-full person.

But we probably really are similar. Italy is, after all, where the Mediterranean temperament begins to take on the patina of northern European order. Starched Milan is a universe away from chaotic Palermo. Rome lies somewhere in the middle of the temperament table and Ancona, Marche’s “capital”, lies to the east and the petrol stations around here offer a useful evolutionary table for the gradual East-West metamorphosis.

In Beirut you pull in to a tromba and half a dozen attendants will descend on you. They will fill you up, wipe, scrap, squeegee, check your water and offer to bring you any refreshment you want … in the hope of some baksheesh. In the higher latitudes, it’s all self-service but in Italy you have a choice: you can fill your tank yourself or pay a wee bit more to have a callow youth at the neighbouring pump do the honours and wipe the bugs off the windscreen.

Some of this might go some way to explain why we Lebanese love the Italians. Italy is our second biggest trading partner. We import, an admittedly modest $1.65 billion of Italian produce, mostly white goods, ceramics and agricultural machinery, including, let us not forget, the ubiquitous small blue motors that power the water pumps in almost every house in the country. Italy has also stood with Lebanon in its time of need, contributing to the country’s reconstruction process and economic rehabilitation since the 1982 Israeli invasion.

“A good friend of mine was a diplomat in Beirut during the war,” a businessman told me at a dinner on Saturday night. “He said at one point the wall in his office was blown out, but he still went to work. He loved it like no other posting.”

At the same dinner, I got talking to a journalist from La Repubblica who lives in Palermo. “We Sicilians are very different,” she shrugged. “It is chaotic. Yes, we don’t care about the environment as much as we should and we build everywhere and there is too much traffic. What can we do? We are descended from the Arabs.”

Ouch.

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

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So despite landing in New York and losing, and then having to hunt for, my suitcase and then being on the fringes of last week’s “bomb attack” in Manhattan (it exploded two blocks away), I did make it to the North America Lebanese Diaspora Energy Conference. There I moderated a panel discussion on “Branding Lebanon: Buy Lebanon and Lebanese Cuisine”.

LDE promotes entrepreneurship in Lebanon and the support was certainly there. The line-up of expatriate participants – academics, financiers, entrepreneurs, designers and so on – represented all that is good about the Lebanese migrant tradition. They were the embodiment of integration, education, family values, hard work and, most importantly, success. They were by and large what the Americans might call heavy hitters, and if they were going to make the effort to show up, they wouldn’t be pulling their punches.

The overarching message was loud and clear: Lebanon has huge potential with talented human capital, something we’ve known since the Phoenicians ruled the trading world. But, as ever with Lebanon, there was an elephant in the room and that it didn’t matter how many exciting recommendations were put forward to plot a road map for sustained prosperity, the absence of a stable political, economic and social environment ensured they would be ignored.

The first panel of the second day, “Investment, Diversification and Economic Growth”, promised to be meaty, for in the title lay all the essential economic requirements for Lebanon. Moderated by the impressive Marc Malek, managing partner of the Conquest Capital Group, it was ably supported by among others, the equally influential Naim Abou Jaoude, chairman of New York Life Investment Management International and garnished with the caustic wit of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, guru statistician author of The Black Swan, who called for more diversity in the workforce. Mr Taleb wanted to see more vocational schools, more entrepreneurship and less of an obsession with a college degree just for the sake of it, reminding the assembled audience that most of the great tech entrepreneurs – Gates, Jobs and Ellison – were college dropouts.

“Your kids will have a better chance of a job even if they may not get invited to dinner as often as they’d like,” he said. It was half-joking, but he highlighted the grinding insecurity that afflicts all Lebanese who equate education with social standing as much as its role in equipping people with tools for life.

But like most discussions on how to make Lebanon punch above its weight, it ran into the wall of reality. Mr Malek reminded the assembled government guests, including foreign minister Gebran Bassil, that all this talk was hypothetical until Lebanon developed the infrastructure to service a modern business environment, and by that he meant simply having enough bandwidth to conduct a decent Skype call.

My panel’s discussion on how to exploit brand Lebanon pointed out the potential and the pitfalls of changing public perception of Lebanon as a country where bad things happen, to Lebanon, the boutique nation with exquisitely boutique products and designers. But were we Mediterranean or Arab? In other words should we sacrifice identity for commercial safety? How could we make people fall in love with us through our cuisine and who owned hummus? Well that was always going to come up, wasn’t it? I remember wondering why no one had brought up the Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran. It was surely only a matter of time.

And there he was, in one of the closing speeches by Lena Diab, a Canadian politician of Lebanese descent, who quoted from Gibran’s “You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon” presumably to generate a sense of longing for the home country among the attendees and celebrate the migrant diaspora experience: “They are victorious wherever they go and loved and respected wherever they settle,” she concluded to massive applause.

What Ms Diab failed to mention, or perhaps didn’t realise, is that Gibran goes on to describe “your” Lebanon as a country of “bragging, lying and stupidity” and of “deceit, cheating and hypocrisy”.

And therein lies our curse.

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

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There were only one or two bags left on the carousel at JFK, none of which belonged, as far as I could tell, to the three remaining passengers, one of which was me. “That’s all folks. Nothing left,” the burly baggage handler shouted. Three sets of shoulders slumped in unison. “You wanna see that guy in the hi-viz vest. He’ll tell you what you gotta do.”

The day had started quite well. I was happy to be flying business and that was what probably made me decide, against my better judgment, to check in my carry-on with my laptop. What could go wrong? It’s not as if I was transiting through Abuja, or even worse, Rome. I wanted to be unencumbered in the duty free area. Maybe I might even buy a new shirt for the conference I was attending. I could see my wife’s eyebrows arching at the thought.

As it was, a lengthy phone call put paid to a trip to Thomas Pink and it was straight on to the aircraft. The eight hours whizzed by and I remember thinking it literally was the only way to fly. I do remember also thinking, however, that it was all going too smoothly.

A Mr Sweeny, from Staten Island, was in front of me at the British Airways lost luggage desk at John F Kennedy. The clerk had clearly seen it all before and was a picture of calm as the irate passenger worked himself up into rage and frustration. “I just don’t believe it,” he said through gritted teeth, the veins on his head bulging.

“Who’s next?” A kindly woman motioned me to a desk. “Take a seat. I’ll need your baggage stub.” She entered details into a computer. “Michael Ramzi?” I nodded.

“OK, here’s what happens: I’m gonna take down your details and we’ll try to find your bag. In the meantime, I’m gonna give you some money.”

Ten minutes later and details given, she emerged from a back room with an envelope. “Here’s a credit card. It’s got $200. Get what you need. When we find your bag, we’ll send it to your hotel.”

Good deal. If the bag arrived that evening or even in the morning I’d go to Brooks Bros and treat myself to a shirt or even better, put the money towards a new trench coat. I was in New York, after all.

I went to dinner and got back to my hotel at 11pm. “Any news of my bag?” The clerk shook his head but assured me it would be sent straight up to my room when it arrived. I had a wash pack from the flight so no big worries there and so it was with only the mere hint of anxiety that I went to bed.

The next morning I logged on to the BA website and entered my code. My bag was still listed as “missing”. The clerk at the call centre assured me it should “normally” be found that day. Not having a laptop was by now beginning to bite. There are only so many emails you can reply to on an iPhone.

Time to spend the credit card on necessities – shirts (not Brooks Bros) underwear, socks etc. Should I buy a new blazer? Suppose the bag arrived. I decided to wait on that until just before the conference.

“I’m sorry sir,” the Gap sales “associate” said with ruthless nonchalance. “The card has not been authorised”. Try again please. She sighed. “Still not authorised sir. You got another card?”

On the phone to a BA representative, my smile was beginning to fade, especially after I was told to keep my receipts. “And give them to whom?” I wondered. To be fair he was quite apologetic but advised me I would have to take it up with BA at JFK. Could I have a number? He was sorry but he didn’t have one.

That was Friday. On Sunday, there was still no joy. Oh, and a bomb exploded two blocks from my hotel last night. The conference went well, even if I was I the only panellist without a jacket – they were very sympathetic. I wrote this on a grubby computer at the empty business centre at my hotel and I’m heading back to London later today with a small backpack full of dirty laundry and a toothbrush. I have no idea where my bag and laptop are. But if you’re interested, I’ll tell you what happens.

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

business@thenational.ae

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‘Where in Copenhagen can you park like that?” The fearsome hi-viz-clad female traffic warden barked at my friend who was picking me up from the airport in the Danish capital. The normal, well-oiled machine that is Danish traffic had been thrown a curve ball by the unannounced building works at the airport entrance and my friend, while technically infringing the traffic law, had only pulled over momentarily to get her bearings.

But apparently that’s enough to incur the wrath of authority in this neck of the woods. A card outlining how the temporary traffic flow worked was thrust through the passenger window and we were sent on our way with a warning.

I tried my best to mollify the situation by explaining to my friend that the incident should be seen as an example of why Danish society is so envied. “Take Lebanon for example,” I said cheerily. “The government is only now trying to implement a plan to introduce proper pavements and a public transport system. Imagine.”

And it’s true; we are. Just last week, parliament’s Public Works Committee unveiled a complex “road map” aimed at improving infrastructure for public transport services to tackle the horrendous traffic that plagues much of Beirut and its suburbs.

The head of the committee said they were working with the World Bank to adopt something called the Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. A random trawl of the internet told me that BRT was … wait for it …”a city-based, high-speed bus transit system in which buses travel on dedicated routes”. Amazing. A regular bus service in other words?

But there was more: “BRT is already widely implemented in both the developed and developing worlds and research shows that [it] can reduce travel time by millions of hours for commuters worldwide”, which I guess is think tank speak for “less cars on the road eases traffic”. Who knew?

Which is on the face of it all well and good, but getting the Lebanese, the most non-collegiate of people to abandon their cars and go to work together is going to be a big ask and says a lot about how dysfunctional we are as a nation. In fact, I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another country in which the use of public transport is so scorned upon as it is in Lebanon.

Many western tourists are, quite rightly, flabbergasted by the lack of decent public transport, especially in such a small country with relatively few main arterial roads and freeways and this must surely be a factor as to why Lebanon has not been able to attract more western tourists than it does.

At a dinner about 10 years ago, I admitted to sometimes taking the bus from my home in the east Beirut district of Achrafieh to my bank on Hamra street in the west of the city. More than anything, I explained, I avoided the nightmare of finding a place to park on a busy Saturday.

My confession was initially met with laughter but when my fellow guests realised I meant it, there was a moment’s silence, before one brave soul piped up and said “Good for you. I mean why not?” There followed similar murmurs of agreement but you knew they’d rather be hacked to death by a hate mob than ride a bus themselves.

Anyway, moving on. Other promises in this latest initiative include a pledge to enforce traffic violations, which would indeed bring in much-needed revenues into the state coffers and hopefully reduce the needless death and destruction that is on our roads daily. Also on the agenda is getting rid of illegal taxis and the widening of roads and the pavements.

The last bit reminded me of a conversation I had with a cab driver a few years ago. For as we all know, it is a truth universally acknowledged that taxi drivers are fonts of wisdom and this chap was no exception when he pointed out that no matter how wide the roads were in Beirut there would always be only enough space for one car. “The rest is taken up with double or even triple parking,” he said, motioning with his cigarette to the rows of cars illegally parked, in plain view of the cops who were, as Beirut cops tend to do, standing around, drinking coffee and smoking.

Meanwhile, in Denmark it is not uncommon for government ministers to cycle to work. We can but live in hope.

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

business@thenational.ae

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