One of the smallest countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has also been one of the most volatile and is still shaped by the 1975-to-1990 civil war. The political groups that fuelled the conflict retain power: in May, the first parliamentary elections in nine years saw the biggest gains go to the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that ran a violent militia during the war. Independent newcomers failed to win the number of votes that a younger generation of liberal, secular Lebanese had hoped for.
The country suffers from instability as a result of violence in neighbouring Syria. Politicians blame security threats and economic woes on the influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, yet corruption, poor infrastructure and the need to reform public finances pre-date the crisis next door. Security threats from groups linked to Isis and al-Qaeda have seen authorities improve terror-cell detection but the government struggles to maintain country-wide control.
Sectarianism makes Lebanon vulnerable to foreign influence. Its Shia political party and militant group Hezbollah has deployed fighters to Syria to support the Assad regime, which has inflamed tensions in Lebanon between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Meanwhile other factions are more open to support from the Sunni Gulf kingdoms, including Saudi Arabia, and western nations such as France, the US and the UK. An incident last year when prime minister Saad Hariri resigned while in Saudi Arabia – and then retracted his resignation – has fuelled fears that foreign powers wield undue influence.
Environmental issues are reaching disaster point. Scant waste-management policy and a dearth of public transport have caused worrying levels of pollution on land and at sea. But for all their nation’s troubles, Lebanese people are resilient. Civil society is vibrant and family ties are strong. Lebanon remains an unpredictable but alluring oddball.
Lebanon is broadly divided between a pro-western camp that welcomes financial and military backing from the US and Europe, and a more hostile pro-Iran community. This division prevents the country from forming a coherent foreign policy. Hezbollah has sold its involvement in the Syrian conflict on the grounds of protecting Lebanon from Isis and al-Qaeda affiliates but rivals accuse “the Party of God” of attracting such threats. On the southern front, Lebanon and Israel have not agreed on a permanent ceasefire since the summer 2006 war. The border between the countries is patrolled by UN forces who prevent skirmishes turning into another full-scale conflict.
Things that need fixing
Infrastructure: Water, electricity and waste-disposal systems are held together with sticky tape, sometimes literally. The power network has not been properly fixed since the end of the civil war. Internet connection speeds are glacial.
Corruption: Dealing with the authorities generally requires deploying wasta: Arabic for “intermediary” or “means”. Without an insider to secure that permit or sign that paper, even the simplest of administrative tasks becomes almost impossible.
Rubbish: Last winter, waste piled high along the country’s prized beaches after authorities failed to form sustainable waste-management policies. It was a source of embarrassment.
Food: The Lebanese combine the fruits of their fertile lands with French, Syrian, Palestinian and Armenian influences to produce one
of the world’s finest cuisines.
Music: Lebanese music runs the gamut from traditional compositions on the oud and harp-like qanun, to pop stars such as Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe, who belt out hit after fabulous hit. Add the legacy of 1970s star Fairuz and it is easy to see why parties are rarely quiet.
Creativity: Music, design, fashion and illustration blossom within (relatively) liberal social norms. From fashion designers such as Elie Saab, who hails from the coastal town of Damour, to pop-up radio stations run from Ottoman mansions, Lebanon produces a stream of creative talent.
Women’s lot still leaves much to be desired: abortion is illegal and female citizens cannot pass nationality to their children. But progress is happening: outdated legislation that acquitted rapists who married their victims was repealed last year. The number of female MPs increased by 50 per cent in May’s elections, albeit from a low base of four. More women are defying traditional expectations by building businesses or opting for freelance careers as journalists and consultants.
Tourism has revolved around Beirut and the Mediterranean coastline, causing over-development. But recent years have seen the mountain villages and Bekaa Valley develop a high-quality visitor infrastructure. This is increasing rural employment opportunities and protecting local traditions such as the production of mouneh – Lebanese preserves. There’s also a growing network of hiking trails.
The economy is dependent on service industries such as tourism and banking. But these have suffered from regional instability and Lebanese banks face threats from US sanctions aimed at crippling Hezbollah. Lebanon also has high levels of public debt – at 142 per cent of GDP it is the third highest in the world after Japan and Greece. The state continues to resort to foreign loans, while personal incomes are supported by remittances from the diaspora.
Leader’s performance Prime minister Saad Hariri is widely seen as kowtowing to Saudi Arabia, where he has citizenship and a struggling business empire. Last November he appeared on television during a trip to Riyadh to announce his resignation. The surprise move was later retracted and he was allowed to return to Lebanon. Observers saw the incident as stemming from the Gulf Kingdom’s dissatisfaction with Hariri’s inability to rein in Hezbollah. The PM is likely to face multiple political challenges in the near future as he attempts economic reforms upon which pledges of billions of dollars of foreign aid depend.
“Open burning of waste, a dangerous practice that threatens the health of nearby residents, takes place at more than 150 dumps every week. Lebanon has also failed to monitor the environmental and health impacts of the waste crisis. The country should urgently pass a national waste-management law, a draft of which has been sitting in parliament since 2012.”
Lebanon researcher, Human Rights Watch
“The main threat to stability is another war between Hezbollah and Israel, which I believe is inevitable unless there is a major regional shift. In the event of a full-scale war Lebanon will suffer damage and huge loss of life.”
Beirut-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security
“Lebanon’s problems will sit unperturbed until elites agree on how to share their proverbial pie.”
Beirut-based programme officer for the United States Institute of Peace
With a cosmopolitan capital, picturesque countryside and improving – albeit fluctuating – security, Lebanon is on the up. But the government must make economic reforms, improve infrastructure and encourage women into politics and business for the country to live up to its potential.