However derelict and forsaken a scene one may come across in Beirut, it never looks completely forlorn. Even this gutted church, roofless and full of bullet holes, is far from a mere ruin. The inborn resilience of the Lebanese has kept them rising from the ashes time after time. This is well illustrated by a poster ad which hangs on the wall in the office of my local mukhtar. It is an old Middle East Airlines advertisement which reads: Beyrouth : Elle est mille fois morte, mille fois revécue. It is dated 1982, one of the worst years of the civil war.
Though the Lebanese still blame the state for everything they cannot change or do not wish to, they have a fantastic impetus for rebuilding from scratch, whether it means adapting to a new country or launching yet another start-up.
In Lebanon there is no such thing as over-regulation to smother this ambitious, enterprising spirit. In fact there is only one sector in Lebanese economy which is highly regulated. While banks around the world were disproving the too-big-to-fail assumption, Bank Audi, Byblos Bank and co didn’t turn a hair as their war-proof lending rules proved their worth.
Banks here are obliged to keep 30% of capital in cash and conditions for obtaining credit are particularly stringent, designed to hold up under civil war and the likes. So rather than being sucked under by the financial crisis they actually performed very well in 2008 and 2009.
The global recession did have an indirect impact on Lebanon due to the downturn affecting expats in the countries where they have settled. As the millions of Lebanese across the world – and particularly in the American superpower – suffered, remittances sent back home dropped slightly last year, after soaring by 24% in 2008. This is still better than the rest of the MENA region, where remittances fell sharply in both years. Remittances account for over a fifth of Lebanon’s GDP.
Ironically, at the end of the day the main corollary of the recession may be that expats become convinced that Lebanon is a safer place for their money than the west, particularly as the relative calm brought about after the Doha agreement begins to feel like the norm. As the worldwide press rushes to identify who benefited from the banks’ demise, it’s funny to think that in Lebanon, the beneficiaries are the banks themselves. At home and abroad, the Lebanese have cast-iron faith in their country’s ability to pull through come what may, and, putting their money where their mouth is, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.