Gold or glitter?

luxury cars Beirut rich poor divide

out on show

After visiting Beirut, a reader wrote to me remarking on the incongruity of price tags and of the predominant luxury vehicles in town. Given that the evidence of a recent conflict lingers on in a whiff of tension, a whir of helicopters, bullet holes and third world utilities, the lavish lifestyle on display does indeed seem out of place.

A number of factors contribute to the striking proximity of prosperity and privation in Lebanon. I will cover the main points – feel free to add those I may have missed out.

First and foremost, Lebanon receives a considerable inflow of money from the huge diaspora (several times larger than the current population) either via  their holiday spending, their local investments like holiday homes, or in the form of remittances. The contribution of remittances to the general economy is one of the world’s highest.

Second, money flows in from the rich Gulf states, also in the form of holiday spending and sumptuous second homes. The semi-westernised Lebanon is enjoyed as a liberal holiday destination by Muslim neighbours the way Amsterdam is by European tourists. Until ten years ago, the threat of more war had kept property cheap which brought in key investments by risk-takers who set the tone for the rampant modernisation to come.

Gulf spending money Beirut

Gulf spending money

Third, the Lebanese have long been a people of trade, and make the most of leverage between international markets using their two advantages of business skills and a broad contact base abroad. A high proportion of Lebanese are involved in some form of international business operations, be it foreign-brand franchises, import (both low-cost products and luxury), or export. The emigrants of the late 1970s and 80s and their offspring have had time to launch many a successful business in their adopted countries. The Lebanese are born networkers who make little difference between business and social ties. Their close ties to their motherland is also a motivating factor to invest here and provide a business opportunity for their friends and family.

In addition, importing cheap maids to do the housework and babysitting for a pittance also allows both parents to work, making for more spending money for consumer goods. However, at the same time it directs wages away from the working class, whose buying power drops creating a bigger wealth gap. Same story for importing low-cost construction labour.

Obviously the majority of Lebanese do not live in the lap of luxury and the capital is only representative of the rest of the country if you get out of Solidere-ville and wander the back streets of Basta or the suburbs (east as well as south). Wages are low for most and lag behind the increasing cost of living because the latter is boosted by foreign buying power. 1,000 USD a month is considered a decent wage even for a university graduate, while 2,000 USD leaves them feeling flush. But there are a great deal of nouveaux riches in Lebanon who get well-paying jobs by connections (wasta) not by qualifications. Some of these well-paying positions are bolstered by aquifers of corruption and political bias.

third-world utilities Beirut Lebanon

third-world utilities

Even then, many of Beirut’s glitterati are not as rich as they appear. A luxury car in other countries would indicate that the driver has a high income, a decent home, and a garage to keep it safe. Not in Lebanon. Here one might drive a Jag but park on the street and live in a family home, unable to afford the maintenance let alone a garage. Often their brash brand names, the type which are spurned by the jet set of minimalist Paris, are all they possess. They are happy to invest most of their salary in clothes or parties and rely on parents or credit for the big things in life. It’s all about appearances. Scratch deeper and behind the showiest set of wheels you may find, as my banker friends tell me, the deepest debt. Lebanon may be a nation of bankers, but they are spenders, not savers.

7 Responses to “Gold or glitter?”

  1. Jimmy says:

    True and False , I think your point of view is biaised : Not all lebanese are party-addicted and show offs , actually the most educated of them work and have families and do save money. If the country’s infrastructure is so poor it’s because we have burglars for politicians and lebanese are very ego centred , they do not believe in common share and benefit.

    Kisses from France
    By the way I love it when foreigners point their view on my country , Keep up the good work Georgia (your second family name looks lebanese).

    • Yes, I do focus on a certain category of society here; clearly not all Lebanese are show-offs, far from it. But those are the ones you notice when visiting Beirut as a tourist because… well because they are showing off and choosing to make themselves very visible. That was the context I started out with. Notice that I am not even talking about the rest of Lebanon, only certain elements in the capital. You are right, infrastructure issues are a whole other problem. Thanks for your ideas Jimmy.

  2. Charbel says:

    Hey Georgia, I’m sorry to point it out – and I honestly hope my assumptions are wrong – but it seems to me that the tone of your posts has changed lately; I really miss reading pieces like the one about Tripoli, or Souk el Ahad, when you used to portray all the aspects, positive and negative alike about parts of our culture.

    It feels to me like all I’m reading these days is your regretful reckoning of the number of Hummers in Beirut. I know I can stop checking your posts if I don’t like them, but that would be a shame; 1. Because I really loved your bright observations and distinctive point of views, and 2. Because blogs are not books to be put down, and I frankly think that there should be a kind of interaction between the blogger and the readers, so please excuse my comments but it would be really sad if you’ve lost the pleasure in discovering the fusion of the good and the bad, the civilized and the ridiculous, the real and the fake that constitutes our (just like every other) society.

    • Hi Charbel,
      Thanks for your observations and feedback. One of the reasons people are so fascinated by this country is the striking contrast all around and I think it’s interesting to dig below the surface and find out why it exists. But don’t fret, I am just as much in love with Lebanon as when I arrived. Hope you continue to enjoy reading.

      • Charbel says:

        I’m really glad to hear you’re still enjoying your stay in here, and I will always take pleasure in reading your blog (as long as it doesn’t serve as a dish out Lebanon journal).
        But that’s exactly what I’m saying; it’s the contrast highlight of the country that I can’t find in your posts anymore, you’re just inspecting the negative aspect of things and forgetting about the positive side. I may seem like a patriotic Lebanese guy longing for the praise of foreigners, and believe me, I’m not; I just miss your old observations and pondering.

  3. Kevin A says:

    Thanks for this article.. I am now in Beirut, visiting for 5 days, originally from California. I was just surprised at the number of BMWs, high end Porsches, Jaguars, Audis etc. in Downtown Beirut. When researching economic statistics about Beirut it really did not support such a pervasive display of wealth. Your information explains some of this. This does seem to be somewhat limited to the downtown area though.

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