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  Read the rest of this entry »

Green without the spin

Electricité du Liban sign building rationing

Electricité du Liban sign rationed

As penance for my ungreen survival methods, I spent a day at the Renewable Energy Trade Fair and Beirut Energy Forum at the Metropolitan Hotel on 30 September 2010.

So much ink has been spilled over green energy across the western world that terms like low-carbon technology, fuel substitution and energy efficiency are wielded like weapons to divide and conquer multinational companies and reluctant governments alike. In Europe, green has grown from an eco-geek passion to a powerful monster able to stir into action the region’s biggest legislative bodies and set a new orientation for the economy.

But in Lebanon, green is barely on the radar. That means it hasn’t even reached the fad level yet. No, it isn’t even a bit cool to separate your trash into three bins, put them in your 4×4, spend an hour in traffic to cover a couple of hundred meters, and drop them off at a recycling point. Recycling trash is for the impoverished here, and  Read the rest of this entry »

Mille fois morte, mille fois revécue

church beirut

bringing ruins to life

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.   Read the rest of this entry »

Curb-crawling competition

private public transport

While France fights tooth and nail to maintain its state-run monopolies, begrudgingly shuffling into line with EU directives on free markets with a decade’s delay, the Lebanese, where possible, take matters into their own hands when it comes to creating healthy competition. The transport system, if it can be called such, is a prime example. The small number of buses run by the main operator are kept on the ball by a bigger number of vehicles run by any old chap who buys a minivan and sticks a number on his windscreen and runs the same routes – but more frequently – for the same flat fee, 1,000 LL per trip whatever the distance. So the locals have created private public transport. That is to say, you still get the crowded grubby experience, but it actually works. The minibus drivers crawl the curbs with the door open, honking and slowing just enough to lip-read  Read the rest of this entry »

Peacetime bedlam

men at work in the dark

One thing that hits you in Beirut is the constant commotion. The air is always laden with shouting, drilling, generator chugging, car alarms, sirens, wedding fireworks and screeching brakes. Drivers voluntarily add to the noise by leaning on their horns at random but frequent occasions. The result is a healthy din. All this type of noise means peace and prosperity. Making noise means you are alive. When there is peace, the Lebanese build on Sundays, on bank holidays, they build in the dark, huge beams lighting up multi-storey buildings after the swift nightfall. Cranes mushroom across the city overnight adding storey after storey of luxury apartments and office blocks.

In sharp contrast, at times of fighting all is quiet save for the dry staccato of machine guns and the more substantial thud of RPGs. Unless the gun battles are on your doorstep, this is often quieter than an average day of peacetime cacophony. In May 2008, when Hizbollah fought for,  Read the rest of this entry »