Lebanon’s Economy Flounders, Delusional Views and Road Policing is all that is Required. And the Sopranos.
Recently a Hollywood movie called Beirut was banned in Lebanon for being wildly inaccurate and going overboard on clichés. All Lebanese agreed that the film was garbage. But what if Hollywood actually made a film about Lebanon now, and simply packed it with real clichés, rather than manufactured ones? A garbage crisis, which, not content on dumping two million tonnes of toxic leaches into the Mediterranean has now developed to new levels of horror with entire rivers featuring on YouTube, packed with flowing trash; and a corrupt elite using the fiasco so as to justify buying billion dollar incinerators which should resolve the crisis, but give half the country cancer at the same time with its toxic ash deposits? (Presumably, those who get cancer would be the protesters and bloggers who irk the politicians? Just an idea). An economy which has the third highest public debt to GDP ratio in the world, alarming economists and bankers that a meltdown is on the cards; political stalemate by greedy politicians who refuse to come to an agreement on a new cabinet as, most of them will not be able to cash in on an $11 billion dollar grant from Paris donors, so why create a stable environment which would sign off the money?
The truth is that such a movie would not get made as Hollywood producers would argue that no one would believe the Spinal Tap storyline even if Javier Bardem played the house speaker. All this, while Israeli F-16s buzz the rooftops of Beirut on their way to bomb Syria and Trump’s chief ally in the region, Israel, pushes the US president to consider pulling the plug on Lebanon’s US military aid? Who would buy it?
“Can’t we get some rich Saudis to kidnap the prime minister?” one Hollywood boss would shout, to scriptwriters. “Naah, we can’t do that” they might reply. “That shit actually happened.”
Lebanon’s economy is heading for choppy waters. Despite having a bulletproof central bank with a $42 billion dollar cash deposit to hold its local currency stable, or for that matter, encouraging signs that tourism numbers are on the rise, there is a general feeling that something has to give. The state has an annual debt for its own running costs which its own economy cannot possibly sustain. It borrows from the banks, which in turn take it in turns to lend each year to the state, to pay off the previous year’s debt. But the state is sinking and the debts are rising.
Foreign investment? What’s that?
It’s as though the ruling elite – a befuddled, comical group of aging warlords who struggle to see the irony of their own plundering and incompetence and how it has created the current crisis – doesn’t want progress and reform, even economically. Recent weeks have seen a barrage of editorials about ‘what Lebanon needs’ but none point the finger at these old men who have been in the parliament for decades and have no intention whatsoever of saving Lebanon – if it means sacrificing a dime from their own plundered fiefdoms.
Lebanon is literally drowning under its own weight of corruption. This is a country of opportunity. For the right price, literally, anything is possible. Corruption has become the new religion and few see how this has desecrated the quirky foundations of what was a dysfunctional, but operating state. We’re at the point now where the definition of a failed state is about to be recalibrated and the economy is about to take a huge beating. Much is written about currency devaluation but in reality, the banks would never allow this, as it would suicide for their business. Somewhere in the system, there is going to be a loser and a winner, but for sure nailing corruption and cleaning up governance were never going to be serious contenders. Foreign investment might have been a savior, but for FDI to flourish, investors need to see beacons of stability rather than the daily horror show of YouTube clips of lethal car accidents caused by no policing whatsoever on the roads, environmental calamity on a whole new scale and law and order breaking down. And then there’s Beirut international airport, a gob-smacking excremental freak show of chaos and insanity – an airport which international watchdogs say needs 90 air traffic controllers, but due to a row over Christian job quotas, is stuck with just nine – half of them old biddies wheeled in from retirement. Literally. National Geographic’s “Air Crash Investigator” is already scouting the place for its next drama-doc.
And your chicks for free
And then there’s the state-owned electricity operator which many think is the heart of the problem. This organisation doesn’t just have ghost workers, it has thousands of customers who don’t pay their bills on a network which is crumbling and loses $2 billion dollars a year. The corrupt elite love Edl as they use it to justify backhanders and bungs on emergency measures, not to mention the hundreds of generator operators who support their local politician, as he helps them feather their caps.
EdL, which was recently in the local press for accommodating an entire chicken farm at its headquarters, could pay its own bills if the absurdly cheap electricity which the Lebanese enjoy was doubled. No politician wants to do that though, which would cause a political tremor.
Yes, Lebanon needs governance like a dying man needs an understanding undertaker. But the relentless bed-wetting from Lebanese so-called liberal progressives which identify isolated cacophonies of failure like Edl are a joy for the fat cats who are milking this country for billions.
Nailing corruption is the only way forward as specifically, it is ubiquitous corruption which feeds on itself and produces greed on all levels which not only make the humble shopkeeper a crook but also stops billions of dollars from reaching the central bank in unpaid taxes. No one in the media here writes about the millionaire lifestyles of Ministry of Finance auditors who have pocketed a mint from profitable companies which refuse to pay corporation tax. Or for that matter, the thousands of small businessmen who never pay any tax at all – plumbers, electricians, body shop artisans, builders, shop keepers, welders, plasterers, taxi drivers, the list is endless of what UN economists like to call the ‘informal sector.’
When you have almost no real fiscal policy other than clubbing people over the head for importing a $10 dollar pair of Chinese sunglasses via Amazon, then it’s hard to talk about tax and what it can do, let alone ‘reform.’
Yet fiscal reform now is vital for Lebanon if it is to stop the economy from tail-spinning into the ground and becoming an IMF basket case. It’s one of the main reasons why journalists compare Lebanon to Greece, i.e that the latter didn’t collect any real taxes, which lead to its tragic demise.
Lebanese parliament sucks
But in Lebanon’s case, the Lebanese themselves are contributing to the meltdown by suffering from a condition left behind by the French in 1943 called ‘delusions of adequacy,’ about where the country is right now and what it can and cannot afford. This third world country which can’t even afford full-time cleaners in its international airports’ toilet, let alone provide water and electricity to its citizens, is entirely out of touch with the realities of its own state, financially. It believes it is France, in the Arab world, with a few teething problems. Meanwhile, no one is looking at the cosmic, jaw-dropping sums of money being drained from state coffers, towards, say, golden handshake pension payments of up to half a million dollars to retired generals. Yes, that’s $500,000 in some cases. Or, for that matter the Lebanese parliament itself which probably sucks a billion dollars a year in salaries of deputies, ex-deputies, widows of deputies, daughters of deputies, many who draw salaries for their entire lives.
Pick up the phone, dude
Lebanon’s current Senate of motley gangsters who run the country don’t understand anything about governance or about how their own examples of looting has a trickle-down effect. They simply have no clue of how to run a country and would probably argue that’s not what they were elected to do. But their gargantuan incompetence and corrupt practices are having an Ebola-like effect on the public sector.
When you telephone a government ministry here no one answers the phone. Entire ministries have become self ingratiating incorporations for personal profit – with even the very ministry itself responsible for rooting out corruption, being mired in graft allegations around public contracts, my own investigations have revealed.
A revolution…and C.H.I.P.S.
What is required is a velvet revolution which is what we’re heading towards, before the corrupt elite cut some slack and look at some of these problems. Yet remarkably there are other means to save Lebanon’s economic crisis, which is simply to install law and order – a cash-rich rational which EU countries learnt put billions in the coffers of the central bank. Lebanon’s roads are literally teaming with thousands of illegal cars, eclipsed only by scores of thousands of traffic offenses carried out each day, unchallenged. This is a country which practically invented dangerous driving and made it a national sport on YouTube. When you shout at someone on the highway “you’re driving like a lunatic!” the response is one of bewilderment from the speeding buffoon juggling with his WhatsApp, who’s having a row with his large bosomed girlfriend and trying to run other annoying motorists off the road by tailgating them in his lane, all at the same time.
The roads themselves could easily provide the missing $5 billion dollars the country needs to plug the gap between a functioning state or a failed one. The fact that the powerful leaders don’t crack down on road traffic offences and reap the considerable revenue which is there for the taking makes me suspicious of their motives. Do these individuals have a vested interest in the country’s economy collapsing? For some of them, this is surely the case. But for others, it’s simply a matter of being numpties who aren’t even good at being greedy and corrupt in the first place. They just don’t have the vision of the revenue out there which needs to be skimmed. What’s wrong with these people? Haven’t they seen The Sopranos?