Two Lebanons: one steeped in harsh reality and the other political fantasy

No doubt buoyed by his victory in the recent Beirut municipal elections, the former Lebanese prime minister and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri last week took to the podium at the annual Arab Economic Forum in Beirut to outline his party’s economic policy. It was an exercise in stating the obvious.

In fact so much so that Mr Hariri, whose business empire encompasses construction, banking, telecoms and media, now appears to have branched out into hot air, praising Lebanon’s “potential” and reminding those present that the country had achieved economic success in the past. Really? Who knew?

He went on to bemoan Lebanon’s 30-year electricity shortage, urging the private sector to work with the state to find a solution, forgetting that, as leader of the country, he never made it the cornerstone of his term in office. He then highlighted the mobile telecom sector, the privatisation of which he correctly said would reduce tariffs and increase efficiency. But again, nothing new there.

He also called for universal health care – all very doable if the will were there – before straying into the land of fantasy with a pledge that his party was studying the feasibility of a comprehensive public transport system that included a network of water taxis linking Lebanon’s major cities.

Those of us who have been reporting on Lebanon over the years will have yawned and at the same time felt insulted. For there are two Lebanons: the folklore and the reality, and as long as the two remain separated by the gulf of denial, Lebanon will never advance.

But let’s be honest. What was Mr Hariri going to do? Tell the truth and admit that Lebanon is drowning? Of course not. He spoke of the 8 per cent growth in Lebanon’s 2009-10 heyday, a growth built on tourism, real estate, retail and banking, the first three of which were part of the make-hay-while-the-sun-shines ethos that has driven the private sector for decades.

It was not part of any serious government strategy or road map for prosperity – and it all fell apart in 2011 when the Syrian civil war kicked in and the Arab tourists were scared away; the housing market dried up and the banking sector came under scrutiny like never before.

Lebanon is not geared up for anything else. Foreign investment? Forget it. The direct (and indirect) cost of doing business is simply too high – the government cannot guarantee security; there is too much red tape; too much corruption and no meaningful tax breaks – despite an impressive and willing pool of human capital.

Indeed, one has to look at the shambolic attempt to tender the rights to drill for the potentially lucrative natural gas and oil deposits that apparently lie off the coast and under the ground to see what happens when foreign companies try to deal with the state. The process was so swathed in political bickering and sectarian self-interest that the bidders all but lost their appetite. The Israelis and the Cypriots seemed pussycats by comparison. That is the reality of Lebanon.

As is the nearly year-long rubbish crisis, which has still not been resolved. In the same week that Mr Hariri trotted out where we could be, Nabil Jisr, the head of Lebanon’s council for development and reconstruction, announced that the landfill south of Beirut that first prompted the emergency in July of last year, would close permanently, while work on the two sites earmarked for the new landfills has not yet started. In the meantime, Mr Jisr admitted, the waste would be dumped in nearby “parking lots”. Classy.

I flew into Beirut last week after experiencing the sterile and ordered sci-fi efficiency of Tokyo. As I queued up at passport control, I could smell the stench of rubbish that had permeated the airport building. It followed me to the wonderful duty-free shop, through customs and out into the street, where my driver told me that he lives with it every day.

Memo to Mr Hariri. Fix the rubbish crisis transparently and efficiently and the rest will fall into place. If it can’t be done, then there is no point in pointing out what we could do because it simply won’t happen.

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

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