As this issue gets loaded into the bellies of freighters bound for the far end of the Mediterranean, Lebanon will be warming up in more ways than one. As the sun beckons potential tourists in search of a holiday with a whiff of surprise and no speed limits, the various political parties will be turning up the heat on their campaigns. On 7 June Lebanon goes to the polls and it’s anyone’s guess how the country’s various factions will behave or where the votes will fall.
For the past three decades Lebanon has been suffering from more than just the proxy battles fought by the world’s major geo-political powers, ongoing internal strife and a lack of inward investment – many sectors (both private and public) have been decimated by a crippling brain drain. Poor prospects at home and riches in the Gulf, West Africa and on the US West Coast have lured Lebanon’s brightest and most ambitious to more rewarding opportunities on distant shores.
Last spring one of the doyennes of Beirut society, Lady Yvonne Cochrane (see our interview in the Affairs section of monocle.com), told me that this brain drain was perhaps the greatest threat to the country as it left ministries to be run by unenlightened half-wits. Strong words but many Lebanese would agree – and not just in Beirut’s wealthy Christian enclaves. A year later the picture couldn’t be more different.
The collapse of the Dubai dream has seen considerable attention given to the thousands of Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis who’ve lost their construction jobs overnight and been sent packing back to the slums of Dhaka and Karachi. But there’s been less focus on the thousands of skilled Lebanese who’ve also lost their positions overseeing grand building projects, running creative agencies, managing retail ventures and keeping hotel guests happy.
Dubai’s loss has the potential to turn into a massive opportunity for Lebanon as its nationals return home to briefly nurse their wounds and figure out what to do next. For many there’s one glaring prize twinkling on the horizon – restoring the city’s hub status on the eastern Mediterranean. As Dubai’s hundreds of semi-complete mega projects get battered by the blistering sun and sand- sprinkled winds, Beirut is currently flush with talent and capital (funds in its healthy banks) to mount a comeback. For parties vying for their place in parliament this fresh crop of returning Lebanese should be the inspiration for scripting a sustainable vision for Lebanon’s role in the region and the world.
As we started production on this 23rd issue of the magazine I toured the ITB travel fair in Berlin with our editor, Andrew Tuck. In one of the halls for Middle East tourism authorities and airlines we were more than a little saddened by the poor performance of the Lebanese with their limp stand and poor sales collateral. With Lebanese running the tourism marketing for so many other countries in the region it wouldn’t take much for Lebanon to pull out the stops and give the likes of Abu Dhabi and Qatar a good thumping with a series of hooks to appeal to potential visitors around the world.
As many Europeans and North Americans are increasingly frustrated by their nannying states, a “GET LIBERAL IN LEBANON” campaign could see MEA and Air France flights rammed as tourists flock to a nation where you can drive fast, drink late, smoke wherever you want and generally do as you please – all with outstanding service at attractive prices.
In the background there’s also the more lucrative prize of taking a chunk of the private banking business from a less client-friendly Switzerland. At the start of Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Age of the Unthinkable (see his essay on page 54), he has an epiphany while visiting the de facto chief technology officer of Hezbollah and argues how the old guard is no longer equipped to deal with the barrage of fresh ideas that new political and private sector forces are launching daily. The field is wide open for a new, or at least reformed, super-regional hub for the Middle East. The choice is clear for Lebanese voters on 7 June – all they need is the dream team to deliver the vision.
We’ll be following the Lebanese elections closely, so stay tuned with The Monocle Weekly every Sunday via monocle.com and also the news and politics section of Apple iTunes. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.