Lebanon: About the country

29 April 2017

It was a very long flight from Shanghai to Beirut with stop overs in Abu Dhabi and Doha. Nevertheless, all was fine since I was too busy reading up on my host country: Lebanon. Although small,  it is an interesting country. Due to her geographical location, it is a melting pot of various religions, culture and history. She is the remnant of what was once the “Switzerland of the East” with her capital Beirut being the “Paris of the Middle East.” (see the two photos below). Mentioned in my Kuwait entry, if it weren’t for the wars and unrest, Kuwait would never have replaced Lebanon as the banking hub. Seaport+free economic foreign exchange+solid gold backed currency+ great banking laws = potentials for Lebanon to regain her former glory- it just takes time.

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The visa process was surprisingly easy. For those who qualify for a visa on arrival, it’s free. Show them your passport, copies of your hotel reservation and the entry card. I was more than glad to finally touch down in Lebanon and to have the opportunity to speak French (a shame that I never had the chance to learn Arabic). Early morning and despite the fatigue, the freshness of Beirut made me excited for the days to come.  I’d like to use this entry to blabber on about Lebanon from various social, economical and historical angles. Information were taken mostly from research papers and from chats with Khaled (the owner of the tour operator and our amazing driver).

For anyone wishing to go on tours  and have your own driver, look no further- Contact Khaled http://www.lebanontrip.com/contact.html

History of Lebanon

Due to her geographical location, the country is rich and diverse in history, culture, religion and ethnicity. Many empires left their mark be it the Assyrians, Persians, Greek, Romans etc. Home to the Phoenicians and Canaanites, Lebanon saw 1000 years of stable growth and extensive trade thanks to the settlement’s maritime culture. These were the same people who set up impressive colonies in the region such as Carthage in modern day Tunisia. A fter 200 years of Persian rule, Alexandre the Great attacked and burned Tyre, a prominent Phoenician city. Throw in the Muslim Turks, Crusades and then the Ottaman Rule from 1516 to 1918 and we now enter into modern history.

Lebanon came under French rule in 1920 and gained Independence in 1943. 5 years later, Lebanon supported neighbouring Arab countries in the way against Israel. This was the first Arab-Israeli War. The second happened in 1967 and the third in 1973. For all of these three wars, Lebanon took part not in invasion but by supporting Arab countries with weapons, manpower and logistics. In between these wars, 1958 saw an insurrection started by the Muslims who wanted to make Lebanon a member of the United Arab Republic.  In 1982, attacks on Israel led to an Israeli invasion which prompted the dispatchment of American, French, Italian and British troops being deployed to Beirut. Civil war continued from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in major devastation in the economy (it cut the national output by half), huge destruction of infrastructure across various sectors and the loss of human lives.

2005 marked another turbulent year. The assassination of the former PM and talks of a Syrian involvement led to the Cedar Revolution. One year later, a military group called Hezbollah (Shia group who harassed Israeli presence after Israeli invasion in the South of the country) launched rocket attacks into Israeli territory, Israel responded by firing back targets and a ground invasion in Southern Lebanon which became the 2006 Lebanon War. Another conflict broke out in 2007 between the Army and a Sunni Islamist Group and up until 2008, protests occurred due to disagreements in veto power, power-sharing and government. 2008 saw another conflict involving the Hezbollah and Amal forces then tension rose again in 2011.

Due to the Jasmine Revoluton or Arab Spring around 2011/2012, where Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Syria saw major civil struggle and protests,  the locals also protested against poverty and corruption + other social issues. Now, despite lingering tensions, things appeared relatively peaceful. No doubt, the Syrian Civil War carries with it other potential problems and discontentments.

Our driver Khaled lived through many of the civil wars that took place in his country. He was kind enough to share with us his experiences.

“Let me tell you about the war. I was 11 years old. I remember the first day the school bus came and they brought us home. It was April 13th 1975.  Daily life was not easy. For the first two to three years, all the infrastructure were gone. There was no gas, water, electricity- nothing. Beirut was divided into two parts. You can’t cross from one part to the other. You find ways to get by with daily life such as using gas, carry water in containers etc. This was the daily task for me after the end of school. Land phones and the wires that were supposed to be underground were out in the open so often they were cut which caused further trouble for us.”

Looking back at Lebanon’s modern history and conflicts, I felt even more grateful that I was able to make the trip and visit this fascinating country. It was surreal to be able to walk the streets that used to be battered and cross ones that used to be the marks of death. The locals are friendly and I do like their positivity. Lebanon does appear peaceful (for now).

political-map-of-Lebanon

Religion

Religiously diverse, Lebanon is largely a Christian country since Christanity was introduced around the time when the country was ruled by the Roman Empire (64BC). Islam was introduced with the Muslim Conquest in the 7th Century and since then, there has been a mix of both Christians and Muslims. It is not possible for religious groups to co-exist peacefully and Mt Liban was no stranger to feuds between the Maronites and the Druze. So who are they? The Maronites emerged in the late 4th Century – early 5th Century. Established by a Hermit whose monastic tradition focused on monothesim, the Maronites was unique in a way that unlike most other Christian communities who swore allegiance to Constantinople, contacts was made with the Roman Catholic Church and allegiance was pledged to the Roman Pope. The Druze emerged around the 11th century from Shia Islam. They don’t always see eye to eye and killings has occurred in the past  such as the death of 10,000 Christians in 1860.

800px-Lebanon_religious_groups_distribution
Shi’a: Southern Beirut, the Beqaa Valley, and Southern Lebanon.  Sunni: Tripoli, Western Beirut, Southern coast of Lebanon and Northern Lebanon. Maronite: Eastern Beirut and the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Currently, there are 54% of Muslims (half being Shia and half being Sunni), 40% Christians, 5.6% Druze and a small percentage of other religious groups. There used to be almost 50%-50% Christians and Muslim. High immigration rates of Christians and higher birth rate of Muslims resulted in the decline of Christian numbers. It is set to decline in the future.

One of the most interesting thing about Lebanon’s goverance is their unwritten National Pact of 1943. Since it is so diverse, the President must be Maronite Christian, the speakers of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, the PM a Sunni Muslim and Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy PM be Greek Orthodox.

Economy and all that

767px-Lebanon_Export_Treemap

If it weren’t for war and unrest, Kuwait would not have the chance to replace Lebanon. In 1950’s, the country had the second highest level of GDP and developed into a banking hub and trading center. Before decades of turmoil, Lebanon was the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Life back then and cetainly in many other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc was quite pleasant and sophiscated but wars changed the whole situation. However, Lebanon’s laissez-faire model continues til today. Like Iran, conversion rate is fixed in Lebanon at 1 USD=1500 L and both the local currency and USD can be used. Fully convertible with no restrictions and little intervention in foreign trade, other countries can certainly pause and learn from Lebanon (cough cough CHINA!)

Banking in Lebanon are renowned for security and as the backbone of the local economy, it often performs better than IMF’s own predictions.Why do many people make deposit in Lebanon? High interest rates even more than those in Europe and the States.

You would think that Lebanon being in the Middle East would be a somewhat dry country yet unlike Egypt’s deserts or Yemen’s arid conditions which meant that the country need to import 90% of all products, Lebanon has one of the highest fertile land in the area. This is rather comforting news since the situation would be even more devastating if climate wise, Lebanon is like Yemen: non sustainable and heavily reliant on export. Contributing to 5.9% of the country’s GDP, 12% of the total workforce are in agriculture.

Lebanon is making a come back.

Other interesting information

  • Healthcare is around 7.3% of the total GDP. Many prefer private over public due to bed supplies and facilities.
  • There has been no official census snce 1932 so while many debate over the population of Lebanon, official numbers rest at around 6 million.
  • Has high public debt.
  • Has the most liberal of environment for media. If you watch Reuters or Al Jazeera reports on Syria/ Iraq, often reports are done from Beirut.
  • Beirut is quite cosmopolitan and since it is the capital, it is the focal point of the development for the country.
  • Lebanon’s economy is primarily servie-oriented with banking as the back bone and tourism accounting for 10% of the country’s GDP. Political instability greatly affects these two fragile industries.
  • Although it is not part of the constitution, the tradition that Lebanon has kept since her independence is something that many countries can learn from. The leadership and power of the government is diverse in that they have a Christian President and different branches of Muslim leaders as speakers of parliament.  In the past when you have 50:50 Christian/Muslim, power remained at 50:50. In 2017,  that ratio is down to 30:70 (Muslim numbers are increasing due to migration and childbirth) yet the power still remains at 50:50. It is likely that in the future, this will go down to 10:90 yet the power will always remain at 50:50. FAIR.
  • Elections are held every 4 years. The country was left once with no President.  Next election is in June 2017 (fingers crossed- no unrest).
  • Security in the Arab world will affect Lebanon’s economy and political situation. The Syrian crisis and ongoing unrest does not accelerate the speed of recovery for Lebanon. Time is needed. Come to think of it, given the very nature of greed, even if the Arab world is at peace with one another, there will no doubt be unrest since as long as there is one god, there will be killing under his name and be it money, territory or anything else, humans are bound to clash through violence.

Photos: Taken from the Internet