In its annual assessment of nations at the end of last year – yes, I know that was nine months ago, but bear with me – Brand Finance, the London independent brand valuation and strategy consultancy, calculated (heaven knows how) that Lebanon’s “brand value” was up 1 per cent to US$21.7 billion. Who knew?
I found the full report online but couldn’t make head or tail of the methodology (something probably more to do with the way my brain is wired than anything else), even though Brand Finance clearly explained that each ranking was determined “by reference to performance on dozens of data points across three key ‘pillars’: goods and services, investment and society. These were then divided into ‘sub-pillars’: tourism, market, governance and people and skills … [Which] are further subdivided into individual metrics.” It was all too much for someone who left school without maths at O Level.
What I did understand was that from the 100 countries surveyed, Lebanon came in at 83, above Cyprus but below Panama, which told me absolutely nothing, because even if I take this nugget of information to the outer limits of my imagination, Cyprus still trumps Lebanon across the board: political stability, tourism, environment, GDP per capita, you name it.
Ask Joe Public on the streets of any major capital to tell you what they know about Cyprus and they will probably mumble something about beaches and sun and the Greek side and Turkish side. Ask them about Lebanon and they’ll probably mention the war; bearded men with guns or bombs and other bad stuff.
Therefore, as far as I could tell, on a practical level, the report was an exercise in futility and told us absolutely nothing. Typical think tank guff. The truth is that Lebanon hangs by a thread and is not so much a country as a freewheeling marketplace, selling everything from the above-board such as banking services, tourism and construction, to the not so above-board, but it’s best not go there.
Sticking with my analogy, the market thrives, again, not so much because of the good work done by the regulatory authorities – the government – but by the efforts of the trading community itself, which to all intents and purposes has to self-regulate. But one of the Lebanese private sector’s strongest and most effective backers is the country’s vast diaspora, reckoned to be made up of anywhere between 4 million and 14 million people, pumping an estimated $7.5bn, 15 per cent of GNP in remittances into the country each year.
The amount has slid a bit in recent years, and this despite more and more Lebanese leaving to seek better opportunities abroad. It is a concern that will furrow the collective brow of the organisers of the upcoming North America Lebanese Diaspora Energy Conference (LDE) due to take place in New York on September 16 and 17, and where I will be moderating a panel discussion on “Branding Lebanon: Buy Lebanon & Lebanese Cuisine”.
The gathering of expatriate heavy hitters aims to promote entrepreneurship back home. This is all well and good (and let’s face it, someone has to do it) and the hope is that all the good intentions that will come out of New York, what the conference describes as the “policy recommendations with indicators of achievement for measurable implementation in Lebanon”, will get the best possible shot at being implemented.
The diaspora is what keeps Lebanon’s massive heart beating. I would wager that almost every Lebanese household has a family member working abroad. And yet the pull that this tiny strip of land has on its sons and daughters overseas is proof surely that the country punches above its weight. This is Lebanon’s brand.
In the meantime we deserve better and the events like the LDE conference are essential in supporting entrepreneurship and growth, consolidating bilateral economic ties and keeping the diaspora in touch with what may (or may not) be happening back home.
I’ll tell you how it goes.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter