Monthly Archives: May 2013

Lebanon at the mercy of regional fires

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut was founded in late 2012. Inspired by bracelets from Brazil, a group of young creatives aim to highlight the positive in Lebanon. Instagram and Facebook feeds show a colourful country filled with smiles and sunshine, sullied only by some ugly development along Beirut’s waterfront.

I imagine Beirut to mix Western and Oriental influences with an edge of uncertainty. From my childhood, I remember news reports of bombings and kidnappings. Those memories have given way to a fascination with Lebanon; to a desire to explore this troubled land. It comes, perhaps, from the same place as my desire to be a foreign correspondent.

Live Love Beirut has its work cut out. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the end of the country’s civil war. But, the sound of gunfire again prompts nothing more than a shrug of shoulders. Fanned by war in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon is at risk of another sectarian implosion.

Two rockets hit a Beirut suburb, populated by Shias, on May 26th. More than 30 people have been killed in sectarian clashes in the northern, mostly Sunni, city of Tripoli in recent weeks. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, has finally declared its long-suspected involvement in Syria, in support of President Assad.

Sectarian tensions and the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees helped to birth civil war in 1975. Religious attachment has often meant life or death in Lebanon. The arrival of thousands of mainly Sunni refugees fleeing Syria has upended the delicate sectarian headcount.

Power vacuums do not help. The country has been without a government since March. Hezbollah attempted to assert its authority over internal security and election laws. A Shiite group backed by Iran and Syria, it did not want the country’s police chief, a Sunni, reappointed. The Prime Minister, Najib Makiti, also a Sunni, promptly resigned. Elections are due next month. A postponement seems inevitable.

Lebanon is a patchwork of religions. Stitched together by the whims of post-World War I geopolitics, its existence has been questioned since independence in 1943. The centre is weak, and tribal affiliations are more influential than national identity. The constitution is based on confessional compromise. Presidents are Christian; Prime Ministers are Sunni and Speakers of Parliament are Shia.

There was a time when Beirut was known as the Paris of the East; Lebanon was the Switzerland of the Orient. The hedonistic and open-minded outlook of its residents helped the country become a tourist mecca. Beirut was a cosmopolitan city, Brigitte Bardot a regular visitor. That ended in 1975.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ Beirut Correspondent between 1982 and 1987, wrote an evocative memoir of his time there. In it, he laments the death of the city. But, in his own words, “Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea.” The idea was that of co-existence, tolerance and the mingling of religions and communities.

The possibility of the Levantine sprit was reborn after 1990. Tourists returned. GDP grew from $14.7bn in 2000 to $49.5bn in 2012. Possibility, nevertheless, is different from reality. A fractured society and a lack of authority were always risks to this nascent rebirth.

Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has been less than benign. Iran used Syria as a conduit for aid to Hezbollah. With no state institutions able to check its growth, the militia group became akin to a shadow government in parts of Lebanon. It is now more powerful than the Lebanese army.

On May 25th, Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, put another nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s spirit. “This battle is ours, and I promise you victory,” he declared. Nasrallah committed Hezbollah to fighting fellow Muslims in Syria. In doing so, it risks Lebanon’s future in defence of its key ally; Israel has threatened air strikes.

The recent discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean may further raise tensions with Israel. Lebanon has warned that part of the gas field lies in its territorial waters. The precise maritime border between the two countries has never been agreed.

On his resignation Najib Mikati declared, “The region is heading toward the unknown and the regional fires are hitting us with their heat.” The longer those regional fires burn, the more Lebanon is at risk of being engulfed. No wonder Mr Mikati seeks salvation.

And yet, I imagine Beirut to know, despite all of its difficulties, what it is; I imagine a city that collects its identities into one, uniquely Beiruti character. The city’s residents are a famously resilient lot.

Writing of earlier times, Philip Mansel concluded, “In Beirut…the city was the prey of Beirutis themselves.” Some dismiss the prospect of sustained conflict in Lebanon now. Yet, perhaps my wish to visit Beirut will be fulfilled, just not as a tourist. Despite the efforts of Lebanon’s young people, perhaps my visit will be as a foreign correspondent.

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Ostriches as innovators in Northern Ireland

Ostriches are wrongly famed for sticking their heads in the sand. Such behaviour has been popularly but falsely attributed to the birds since Ancient Rome. It explains the evocative metaphor for people who pretend that reality can be ignored. Even those sober economists who work in behavioural finance have adopted the term “ostrich effect” to describe when people ignore risky financial situations by pretending that they don’t exist.

Northern Ireland is a place where many people stick their heads in the sand. Not least among them is the region’s political and business elite. Its members pay lip service to the need for an innovative, knowledge based future. But they are at a loss as to what this means or how it will be achieved. More importantly, they fail to consider how the region’s political system is a very real obstacle to innovation.

The Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, Dr. Malcolm McKibbin, spoke recently at a conference on innovation in Northern Ireland, organised by NESTA, a UK-wide think tank. He said politicians were urging civil servants to press forward with delivery of projects that would encourage job creation and economic growth. The basis for this pressure, he said, was because the electorate will judge politicians on said delivery. That might be the case in Stockholm or Vancouver. It is not so in Northern Ireland.

The political system is comprised of tribal blocks, both representing closed ideologies. Neither side is receptive to fresh ideas; parties balk at ideas that challenge or undermine the section of the community they represent. Speaking at the same event, a Board Member of Invest NI, the region’s economic development agency, said that innovation is based on curiosity. You would be hard pressed to find two less curious tribes than Ulster’s Unionists and Nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s political and business elite specialises in a circular conversation. Dissent is not especially welcome, and outside influences are often distrusted. There are always one and a half eyes on identity politics. Symbolism usually trumps substance. One prominent business man voiced the frustration of many when he launched a scathing attack on the dysfunction of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Politicians today announced the latest in a series of proposals to tackle division in Northern Ireland. Some estimates put the cost of duplicating services such as schools and leisure centres in neighbouring communities at £1.5bn. That is more than a tenth of Northern Ireland’s budget.

Among the proposals are work placements for 10,000 unemployed young people and a pledge to remove so-called “peace walls” by 2023. Nursery school children are to get a cross-community buddy. Gone are the days of a strategy to deal with division; all that is left are piecemeal and uncoordinated proposals.

Yet, when first mooted two weeks ago, the argument was not about the policies’ lack of ambition. It was, instead, about the ugly development process. Responding to displeased ministerial colleagues, frustrated at their exclusion, one Sinn Fein minister blurted out, “So what?”

A “shared future”, the supposed end goal of the original push to develop a strategy for reconciliation, was always woolly. In a place like Northern Ireland, it meant all things to all people. Most dangerously of all, it had become the height of ambition for the region. Other places take living together for granted and focus on more important things.

Part of the push for a comprehensive strategy was to deal effectively with the most contentious issues. Flags, parades and the legacy of the past stir up hardened opinions. No agreement has so far been possible. Hopes and expectations for a solution fall now on a working party, with a December deadline for agreement.

Few people doubt the need for economic “rebalancing” in Northern Ireland. Innovation has been identified as a way to power the growth of the region’s tiny private sector, but less than a third of companies currently undertake any R&D activity.

It is too easy to say that innovation and creativity will be economic saviours. Behind the platitudes there needs to be a robust and realistic framework for how innovation can spur economic growth. An honest debate about the obstacles to economic change in Northern Ireland is urgently needed. The political system must be top of the list.

At a time when other regions of the world are focused on how to engender economic growth, Northern Ireland is once again facing a summer of uncertainty. Unproductive navel gazing is indicative of the region’s failure to grasp that it has to work for a future that is prosperous and innovative. Events such as the NESTA roadshow, a masterclass in smug introspection, hinder rather than help.

The political system is neither mature nor sophisticated enough to deal with a sustained challenge brought about by flags, parades or the past. The ostriches might well do a better job.

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