Politics over people

Even if they dont really care, the Lebanese government allow did children from Ivory Coast finish their exams (Photo: Sam Tarling)

When people are preoccupied with your own business they hardly give much thought to those that have left for greener and more lucrative pastures. Governments on the other hand have a responsibility that extends to all their citizens, both inside and outside the country.  So with Lebanon attempting and failing to form a cabinet for months, it seems evident that the government has shirked its responsibility to it citizens abroad who left because of such behavior in the first place.

In late March alarm bells should have started going off in the halls of government after the Lebanese embassy in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, announced that it began to receive messages from “invisible commandos,” warning the Lebanese not to interfere in the country’s political affairs. In fact, the government was already aware of the problem having sent a message to Lebanese expats living in the country over 4 months previous to the announcement telling them to “at least send the women and children,” according the to a government source close to the proceedings who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “But because 4 months passed without major incidents they sent them back.”

On April fools day, the Lebanese ambassador Ali al-Ajami attended the “swearing in” ceremony of Laurent Gbagbo, the controversial Ivory Coast president who refused to step down after he was defeated in an election by the internationally recognized Alassane Ouattara, now president of the country. Tensions in Ivory Coast had been running high since December 2 when Ouattara was declared president after a second round of voting was completed.

At the time, the Lebanese government was unapologetic about having attended the ceremony as Caretaker Foreign Minister Ali Shami stated that there was “no mistake,” and that the ceremony was “within protocol” in an interview with Hezbollah’s Manar TV on April 2. According the to the government source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, the protocol was apparently to attend the mock swearing in ceremony and sent a letter to Ouattara stating that the gesture was purely to “protect the interests of the Lebanese” and not an affront to Ouattara. It does not seem to have worked.

Almost immediately reports emerged that pro-Ouattara forces were targeting the Lebanese in Abidjian putting those interests into serious question. “All of a sudden things flared up quickly and we could not respond fast enough,” said the source who disputed widespread claims that Lebanese were being targeted mentioning that the only incident was a man who had been shot in the neck by a “stray bullet.”

“In principle there are no problems [with Ouattara], quite the opposite, he was understanding and welcomed the idea and they are insisting on the presence of the Lebanese,” he said. “There are over 80,000 Lebanese in the Ivory Coast, they are a pillar of the economy there, so it is not in the interest of anybody that they be harmed.”

Lebanon to date has no national policy for evacuating its citizens in such emergencies. In principle, a request for evacuation needs to be sent to the cabinet by the foreign ministry where it is voted on and action is taken. Of course, when the situation became an emergency, there was no cabinet to make a decision. As a result, a series of ad hoc measures were taken to attempt to bandage up the situation.

“You are in a country where municipalities don’t pick up their garbage and there is no electricity so how do you expect them to have an evacuation policy or proper international relations,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut

Thus instead of going to a cabinet which refuses to sit in the same room together to solve the evertday problems of the Lebanese, the request for an evacuation was sent to the Higher Council for Defense (HCD)—a council for national defense that can be called upon by the president or one third of its members and made up of the president, the prime minister, and ministers of defense, foreign affairs, finance, economics and trade, transport, and the commander of the army. The HCD met for the first time on April 5 while the Lebanese in Abidjain were still holed up in their homes trying to avoid the violence and many without power and water for days as violence flarred between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces.

In the meantime an operations room was requested to be setup in the airport of Abidjan by the Ambassador by Minister Shami, but it was apparently put to little use. “Even though Abidjan airport has not been shut down, flights to Beirut are impossible because the airport road is unsafe as snipers are spread across nearby buildings and they are targeting passing cars,” Ambassador Ajami said to the Al-Mustaqbal newspaper owned by the caretaker prime minister on April 3.

According to the government source, the HCD eventually sent a delegation first to Accra, Ghana, to setup a logistics “headquarters,” to evacuate the Lebanese expats in Ivory Coast. There the delegation ran into even more problems as French forces controlling the airport and pounding pro-Gbagbo locations across the city made it “very complicated,” to get permission to land in Abidjan. After they had received permission they ran into even more problems related to the lack of a national evacuation policy when they found that planes that had arranged to be sent by the national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) would not have insurance cover. Planes were then chartered and the insurance issue eventually resolved. The first plane touched down in Abidjian on April 9, over a week after the intense fighting in the Ivory Coast had begun. Gbabbo was captured by pro-Ouattara and French forces on April 11, meaning official relief from Lebanon only lasted two whole days.

Even during this post-conflict period the different regional and local influences on the lack of a cohesive Lebanese evacuation policy were evident as Iranian airplanes began to fly out evacuees along with MEA who announced on April 14 that 7,401 Lebanese expatriates since the start of the conflict on board a total of 17 flights. A total of 3,172 passengers had to pay for their own flights and with the rest being covered by the “Lebanese government,” which also owns the airline; thus in essence it will need to pay itself back at some point.

“MEA is not a private company, it is owned by tax payers,” quipped Nasib Ghobril, head of economic research and analysis at Byblos bank. MEA also stated that it would operate two flights a day from Abidjan airport to bring back the remaining Lebanese evacuees.

“You cannot talk about an electoral law to allow expat to vote and go through all of those arguments and not protect them when they are abroad,” said Karim Makdisi, associate director of the Issam Fares institute for Public Policy, a Beirut-based policy think tank. “There should be a policy and there is no coherent policy.”

The government source said that as a result of the debacle a request has been sent to the defunct cabinet requesting that a national plan for evacuations be devised and a special allocated budget be allocated to fund such activities. “There were money issues during the rental and approval of planes,” they said without elaborating. “The Lebanese government is going to have to pay for it.”

As Executive went to press, Lebanese expats from Ivory Coast were still arriving from Ivory Coast. But they were not the only ones. On March 19 Hezbollah’s Iran-backed secretary general Hassan Nasrallah made a speech voicing his support for the mainly Shiite Bahriani opposition and criticizing the Saudi-lead troops for entering the country to help. By the end of the month the Bahraini interior minister was accusing the protestors of being liked to Hezbollah. “We cannot remain silent as concerns accusations about training (regime opponents),” the party said in a statement. “The accusations are aimed at undermining the peaceful demonstrations of the oppressed people.”

By early April Lebanese expats, most of which were reportedly of the Shitte faith, were being sent back from the Gulf Cooperation Council in as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates which had also sent troops to help the security forces of Bahrain’s embattled Sunni king.

“The Bahraini government is scared as is the GCC who believe that there is an Iranian conspiracy against them whether their fears are genuine or not,” said Khashan. “Hassan Nasrallah is a rational calculator and he doesn’t want the Lebanese to be harmed but perhaps it was a slip of the tongue. ”

Lebanese politics naturally came into play once again as the current Saudi-backed Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri criticized Nasrallah for his statements and threw his political weight behind Bahrain’s decisions to suppress the pro-democracy protests and allow foreign troops to enter its territory as a sovereign state.

“Before anything else, (Lebanese expatriates) respect the laws of host states and they do not interfere into these states’ domestic affairs under any circumstance,” Hariri told Bahrian’s King Khalifah over the phone according to a statement issue by his media office.

“This is a structural indication that foreign policy is not based on a national understanding or political culture of protecting citizens,” says Makdisi. “If you are a state that is unwilling or unable to protect its people and then uses citizens abroad for political purposes then all this discourse of national entities and democratization is non-sensical. The proof is in the pudding.

As a result of both the ongoing crises in the GCC and Ivory Coast coupled with uprisings in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have peaked fears that repatriation to Lebanon will swell of citizens coming back to the country. That has led many to fear that there will be extra demand on the already inadequate number of jobs in the country. Jad Chaaban, acting president of the Lebanese Economics Association believes that technically it will take a year to ascertain if this happens and puts the maximum number of people coming back at some 100,000.

“I am very worried about it and we are taking measures,” said Neamat Frem, president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists and of Indevco, one of Lebanon’s largest industrial employers. “We stopped hiring to make space for returnees,” he says in reference to his company’s operations in Egypt. “This is why we have to work very hard to help them stay where they are. Keeping expatriates’ jobs abroad must be part of our foreign policy and decision-making process. It is a big factor of our economy.”

Officially the unemployment rate stands at 9.2 percent. However, that rate is from 2007 and is based on an International Labor Organization standard which means if someone has worked a regular job for more than one hour a week they are assumed to be employed. Moreover, the country’s last comprehensive labor survey was conducted in 1970, meaning current statistics are based on household survey’s and not a census which is the international standard. Byblos’s Ghobril adds that many companies do not tell the government how many employees they have to avoid paying taxes and social security on them further skewing the figure. “It’s a political decision,” said Chaaban in relation to the official methodology for calculating unemployment in order to lower it.

“I don’t know how they calculate these figures, they do not reflect the reality of the market,” said economist and advisor to the Parliamentary Budget Committee Ghazi Wazni who and puts the figure at around 15 percent with youth unemployment at around 25 percent.

Because the Lebanese economy relies heavily on remittances which made up a total of 22.4 percent of GDP last year according to the World Bank (including compensation of employees from abroad.) If this figure begins to fall the country could see the various effects of the repatriation crisis hitting this essential element of the economy could be hit hard. “Assuming that things do not stabilize and this is long term process, the Lebanese will lose their income, and the remittance swill not be sent back home or be substantially reduced.” says Chaaban.

The ramifications of that happening are far from certain as there is little consensus on where this money is going and if it will have a large effect on job creation. Wazni says that most remittances go to deposits in the banking sector and real estate so there decrease would have much effect on the economy anyhow. The former accounts for around only 20,000 jobs in the country and the latter is not a productive sector nor does it create many jobs in construction because most workers in the industry are foreign laborers from neighboring Syria. Chaaban on the other hand, says that most remittances go to consumption, a direct contributor to GDP. So if remittances fall, and consumption goes down, so does GDP, not to mention the domino effects that will have. “A big part of the remittance funds schooling and I expect that more people will join the public schools,” he said. “The same thing happened after the July war. A lot of people lost their businesses and had to send their children to public schools.”

One day they will leave as well (Photo: Sam Tarling)

As for jobs, there is little hope that Lebanon’s economy can produce anymore in the near future. According to a study conducted by the European Commission last year, 15,000 jobs need to be created every year to absorb new market entrants. Wazni belives that figure lies even higher between 30,000 and 35,000 jobs. “The problem is government policy; the question of employment is not a priority for the government,” he says. In addition to the lack of a national evacuation policy the country also does not have a national labor policy.

What makes matters even worse is, despite the fact that recent growth has been more or less “jobless” according to statements made by Lebanon’s finance minister, the age of relying on that growth to make official figures like Debt-to-GDP look better or create some knock-on effects in the job market looks like it is coming to a close. According to statistics released last month by the International Monetary Fund, Lebanon’s estimated GDP growth predicted to drop from 7.5 percent last year to 2.5 percent this year with inflation trending upwards at 6.5 percent for the year.

“When there was political instability [in Lebanon] there was an economic boom across the region and world which Lebanon benefitted from,” said Ghobril in reference to the period before the global economic downturn. “Political stability in Lebanon, economic instability elsewhere meant an increase in Lebanese investment [during the crisis]. This is the first time these two factors converging together,” he says implying that Lebanese economy will be caught in the middle.

That already seems to be happening just as the tourism season picks up with numbers already down in the first quarter. Room yields at hotels are have plunged some 50 percent in the first two months of 2011, according to Ernst and Young indicating that high-end tourists are not looking to Lebanon this year. Airport passengers and tourist numbers were also trending downwards in the first quarter.

“The entire region has been written off by Western tourists, the top spenders are going elsewhere, they have options,” said Ghobril. “Lebanese expatriates are big spenders in Lebanon. But, will they spend that much this year?” he questions pessimistically.

That could be given that some of them are already here. But whether they will stay is quite another issue. All of the experts interviewed by Executive predicted that most expatriates from the Ivory Coast will return and by the end of April the flow of those being booted out of the GCC had stemmed significantly. Moreover, even if there is increased competition from high-paying jobs in the Gulf and

“The Lebanese go to conflicting areas because job opportunities are available there, it is worth is and once you’re mobile, you stay mobile. You’re not used to living among your family anymore as a middle aged professional and if you hear a Kalashnikov you are not scared, where as a Frenchman immediately runs away,” said Chaaban.

At the time of this writing the assets of Lebanese in the Ivory Coast had not been liquidated, which was one of the principal concerns of several economists Executive spoke to. Neither had a government been formed that could have taken decisions to try and gain from many of the returning and qualified expats. And the reforms that could have provided an alternative market to countries experiencing unrest such as efficient telecommunications and electricity had yet to be implemented.

So when Lebanon’s citizens who have come for an unexpected visit leave again, it seems that those who stay behind will do so having missed another golden opportunity to change their lives and their economy. Perhaps then they may realize that their current economic and political course is untenable and change tact, or they may just make another trip to the airport just like all those who have come, and gone, before them.