Business

Emerging Markets

Out of control— Beirut

Preface

This week all across the Middle East people are celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan with the Eid al-Fitr holidays. Lebanon is no different.

Lebanon, Middle East, Ramadan

21 September 2009

This week all across the Middle East people are celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan with the Eid al-Fitr holidays. Lebanon is no different. Following the exceptional surge of visiting expatriates and tourists this summer (officials claim there will be two million by the end of the year) hotels are once again booked out. One important detail is clouding the celebrations though: we don’t have a government in Lebanon.

Ever since its parliamentary victory in June, Saad Hariri’s liberal and pro-western bloc has been unable to pick a government. The former Cabinet is acting as a powerless interim while endless discussions are taking place between the majority and the opposition. The crisis was so bad that Hariri, the chosen future prime minister, abruptly quit the negotiation table. He was, however, recalled last week by Lebanon’s president. And so here he goes for a fresh round of talks, with the same old foes – Hezbollah and its Christian ally, the mercurial General Michel Aoun.

No results are expected before the Qataris step in as mediators – as they have offered to do so – most probably after the Eid celebrations and the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week.

The funny thing is that the majority of Lebanese have lost interest, refusing to follow the shameful soap opera played out by their politicians – again. Last year, the country spent more than six months without a president and before that almost a year without an active parliament. So the current stalemate is hardly a shock.

Besides, with all the activity going on in the private sector, you wonder whether Lebanon really needs a government to function. Businessmen are busy planning Formula 1 racetracks, boutique wineries overlooking the sea and golf courses up in the Cedars. In Beirut, the Four Seasons, the Hilton, and the trendy Gray hotel are all poised to open in the coming months. Louis Vuitton has also announced it will be setting up shop.

And for all its shortcomings – power cuts, impossible traffic and an overcrowded airport – Lebanon apparently attracted more visitors this summer than Dubai.

Yet the allure of Lebanon should not overshadow the absence of real security for its citizens. Earlier this month, a Madoff-style scheme led by one of Hezbollah’s benefactors confirmed the general lawlessness in the country. And while Hariri resigned in Beirut, rockets were fired from south Lebanon into Israel for the third time this year. War could be just around the corner if anyone chooses to rock the boat.

And so, we have learnt to factor into our daily lives a risky future. “Unpredictable Lebanon? The mere fact you assume it’s unpredictable makes it predictable,” says Mazen Hajjar, an entrepreneur who started a boutique brewery in the midst of the war with Israel in 2006. “You build contingencies into your operations, which somehow make it easier to deal with a crisis than if a bomb went off on the London underground, for example. Your horizons are wide open if you know how to be creative.” With this frame of mind, no wonder most Lebanese are not too concerned about getting a new government.

Monocle 24

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