Economic priorities and industry in Lebanon found way down the list

A few months ago at a conference in Beirut, Lebanon’s industry minister, Hussein Hajj Hassan, confessed that the political class, presumably of which as a Hizbollah MP he is a member, doesn’t really bother itself with economic priorities.

“[We] never had one serious discussion in the cabinet on activating the economy and helping the struggling industry in the country,” he told an audience of industrialists, adding that: “It seems that the political class does not want Lebanon to become an industrial country.”

You think? I will go further and say that, in the 10 years since Syria “withdrew” from Lebanon, almost all economic considerations have been sidelined by the battle for political domination fought between the March 8 and March 14, the alliances that still loosely define the political class. The March 14 alliance was admittedly the most economic-friendly bloc, but it never really walked the talk. And as long as the central bank had a grip on the Lebanese pound, the banking sector made money, the remittances came in and the Arab tourists showed up and spent. All was well.

Industry? Well Lebanon has no heavy industry to talk of. Most of what passes for the industrial sector is food and beverage production, furniture making, metals, plastics and a bit of pharmaceuticals. There are little or no incentives or tax breaks – hence Mr Hajj Hassan’s candour. He would also no doubt argue that since his appointment he has been unable to do much given the political stalemate in the country for the past two years. So, presumably, all irony aside, he felt it was a claim he could make.

Or could he? I haven’t met Mr Hajj Hassan, but those who know him say he is honest, humble and hard working. He also has a doctorate in molecular biophysical chemistry, so we can also assume he is a bit of a pointy-head.

But he also owes his political career to Hizbollah and this is where I find his bemoaning the state’s indifference to the economic needs of the country nation and the absence of a thriving industrial sector just a tad bit rich. He can’t have it both ways.

Because if any one party has thumbed its nose at the Lebanese economy it is Hizbollah, for reasons so often catalogued in this column I’m surprised I don’t have a pre-written paragraph on the subject that I could just paste on to the page whenever it is needed, which is quite often.

Suffice to say that whatever Hizbollah MPs and ministers might say needs to be done for Lebanon, and like all Lebanese politicians they are very good at trotting out platitudes, the party’s day-to-day activities – fighting its enemies, be they in Israel, Syria or elsewhere – has done little to create a stable environment in which we could even consider drafting a road map for prosperity.

And even as I write, Hizbollah is contributing to the sense of uncertainty that is gripping Lebanon and its economy. It doesn’t take much to spook the Lebanese, despite the cliché of Beirut being a “resilient city” that “parties till it drops” and “lives for the moment because it doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring”.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bomb planted at the headquarters of Blom Bank. But even if it wasn’t, as some Lebanese claim, a message from Hizbollah to the banking sector for co-operating with the US and closing Hizbollah bank accounts, the party’s defiance of the new sanctions implies that it will continue to fly in the face of the common good if its agenda is under threat and to hell with the rest of the country.

All this comes at a time of even greater stagnation in the retail sector just as the crucially important summer season begins. Two years of a presidential vacuum have dented consumer confidence and the threat of ISIL-inspired terror attacks through a series of hysterical SMS and WhatsApp messages has also succeeded in keeping people at home. In short, the normally gregarious Lebanese, a people whose lifeblood is refreshed by going out, are twitchy and many expats who regularly visit around this time are staying put.

I suppose Mr Hajj Hassan knows all this but it’s probably someone else’s fault. It always is.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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