I STILL retain wonderful memories of Lebanon as it once was. Dubbed ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’ during the early 1970s, it was the most glamorous and exhilarating country in the region attracting visitors from all over the world.
Like many of my Emirati compatriots, I was seduced. I constructed two five-star hotels and an amusement park in Beirut primarily to provide the Lebanese with employment.
Indeed, since 2001 I have invested more in Lebanon than any other single investor. Whenever I visited Lebanon during the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s tenure, he would always get in touch with me to discuss business and other topics.
Over the years we cemented a friendly relationship based on mutual trust and respect. I still miss him. I can only conclude with a heavy heart that ‘my Lebanon’ has disappeared into the mists of time.
The difference between Lebanon during its glory days and now is stark as the country heads towards potential economic collapse. On Monday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri spoke at an Emirati-Lebanese investment forum sponsored by the UAE Economy Ministry and the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, designed to boost economic cooperation between the historic allies.
I had high hopes for tangible outcomes of this important forum, but unfortunately it was a disappointment. Firstly, no solid investment opportunities were presented. There was no mention of reforms to enhance security and stability for the Lebanese let alone foreign investors who need to be assured their capital and employees are secure.
Secondly, Steps to address the plummeting economic situation, lack of good governance, and the chaos which reigns within the political arena were absent from all discussions. Surely the high-level Lebanese delegates and especially the Prime Minister should have made the effort to meet with both current and potential investors on a one-to-one basis in order to understand their concerns and provide them with assurances. The elephant in the room was Hezbollah whose name was whispered rather than being trumpeted loudly.
There is no escaping the fact that Lebanon is controlled by a terrorist organization. Its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is the ultimate decision-maker; the nicely-suited, slick-talking ministers and heads of parties operate as a front for democracy, a respectable façade.
They are fearful of incurring his displeasure. During an interview with CNBC in September, Mr Hariri admitted he was impotent when it comes to curbing Hezbollah’s actions and declared the group, found by a Special Tribunal as responsible for the murder of his father, “a regional problem, rather than a Lebanese problem”.
Real leadership requires courage. Where are the Lebanese heroes? Where are the men of principle prepared to openly reject Hezbollah’s vice-like grip over their children’s destiny in the service of Iran.
The writing is on the wall and unless that Iranian claw is severed, there is no hope for Lebanon’s rise. The country’s downward spiral began in 1975 when the tiny nation erupted into a sectarian civil war that endured for 15 long years during which Iran’s poisonous proxy militia Hezbollah was born under the guise of being a Lebanese Islamic resistance movement.
The Lebanese subsequently suffered a Syrian occupation and a war with Israel triggered by Hezbollah’s reckless cross-border seizure of Israeli officers. Six million Lebanese citizens have endured a rollercoaster of catastrophes for decades.
They and their forefathers have been embroiled in more confl icts than any other, their homeland mercilessly used as a proxy battlefield, abused by holders of Lebanese passports serving Iran’s expansionist agenda and for decades the country has been plagued with poor governance.
Although on paper the country is governed under a framework of confessionalism which in theory permits politicians from various sects a say in how Lebanon is managed, let us not be wilfully naïve.
Hezbollah has the weapons and it is Hezbollah that calls the shots in partnership with its political allies; Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.
I will not pull punches. Lebanon is wilting under a de facto Iranian occupation which is stifl ing economic growth and opportunity. The Iran factor has naturally made the country’s traditional allies in the Gulf wary of coming to the country’s aid in a meaningful fashion because they fear such aid will end up in Hezbollah’s war chest. Now it appears the Lebanese are at the end of their tether. Thousands have recently taken to the squares and blocked streets angered at the fast eroding value of their currency, the shortage of dollars as well as gasoline, water and medicines.
Accusations of police brutality in response are rife. Reports indicate that members of the press have been arrested for allegedly ‘attacking’ government officials. RIP to press freedoms which were formerly inviolable in Lebanon. Let us be honest, the government deserves such criticisms. It goes into a state of paralysis when it is time to elect a new president and leaves the country without a budget for months, if not years.
Almost all the heads of parties are protected by private militias with many more interested in feathering their own nests than working on behalf of the people. Bribery, corruption and nepotism permeate the upper political echelons as well as society at large. On Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2018’ Lebanon ranked 138th on an index of 180 nations. The government debt, equivalent to 151 percent of GDP, is mounting to unsustainable levels. Some $1.5 billion is due to be repaid to creditors next month.
Earlier this year ratings agencies downgraded the country’s credit rating to negative. According to Reuters, fund managers are eschewing a $2 billion Eurobond on sale later this month. Aberdeen Standard’s portfolio manager was quoted saying, “I wouldn’t touch it with a very large stick. It looks like they are getting closer and closer to an implosion”.
During the tenure of the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, Lebanon experienced 8 percent growth and was considered one of the most attractive destinations in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly investors are fl eeing with their capital. Sad to say, Lebanon’s reputation of being the leading centre of educational excellence within the Arab World has diminished. School and universities have lost their competitive edge in comparison to those in the United Arab Emirates and other GCC member states.
Lebanon’s graduates, unable to find suitable job openings at home, are turning to Gulf States or Western nations for employment. The brightest and best have a reasonable chance of being hired but due to the sliding standard of education in Lebanon, a substantial number turn out to be unemployable in their chosen field. The Lebanese are a stoic people.
They have survived a series of painful episodes over the past 44 turbulent years but as long as the criminal Hassan Nasrallah remains in charge behind the curtain, there is no end in sight. Hezbollah and its Iranian masters are the problem, one that only the Lebanese with help from their allies can ultimately solve. I can only pray that they find a way and soon.
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor UAE Businessman