2009 was a mixed year for Lebanon. Here’s a (very) brief recap:
Politically, the country averted a repeat of May 2008′s armed clashes, held free and fair elections, and continued to walk the tightrope between East and West. At the regional level, detente between the U.S., conservative Arab, and Israeli camp and a front consisting of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas, allowed for the continued viability of the Doha Accords and brought calm to Lebanon.
Of course, calm came at a price. The much ballyhooed elections – which saw the March 14 coalition “defeat” the opposition of Hizbullah, the Change and Reform Bloc, and AMAL – gave way to a five-month-long tussle over cabinet formation.
Once more, Lebanese politicians chose the “controlled chaos” of an extended political vaccuum rather than settling for an arrangement that reflected the results of an election. And once more, a terrible precedent was set.
Additionally, despite rapprochment, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Syria and their respective partisans in Lebanon, political discourse remains dominated by the negative (and by mutual accusations of fearmongering and treachery).
Against this backdrop, the Lebanese state remains weak and dependent on the coalescence of sub-state factions, Hizbullah remains armed, and regional stability is as delicate as ever. Nevertheless, the consequences of these unresolved issues will manifest tomorrow, not today; in looking back, Lebanon dodged a bullet (or bunker buster) in 2009.
Economically, Lebanon certainly benefited from its newfound political stability (however fragile). Tourism and banking, which have long stood as pillars of the Lebanese economy, impressed greatly in 2009.
The Ministry of Tourism claims that more than 2 million tourists visited Lebanon over the past year, which easily eclipsed the previous record of 1.4 million set in 1974. Buoyed by cautious fiscal policies, stringent reserve requirements, and a robust secrecy regime, Lebanon’s bank assets and deposits now stand at 334 percent and 274 percent of GDP, respectively, among the highest rates in the world.
But not all is rosy. Tourism, banking, the buying up of properties by foreigners and nationals living abroad, an influx of politically-linked funds (which probably approached $1 billion this year), and the flow of remittances have created a “country for others.” Money from abroad, while put to good use in furthering the ambitions of diaspora Lebanese and foreign investors, has driven up the cost of living and made it difficult for many resident citizens to cope.
In summer 2009, a revitalized festival season helped remind tourists, members of the diaspora, as well as resident citizens, that there is more to the country than Beirut’s sizzling night scene. Alongside old stalwarts like the Baalbeck and Beiteddine festivals, which for decades have drawn some of the biggest names in international culture and entertainment, newer festivals in Batroun, Byblos, Tyre, Zahle, and Zouk offered an assortment of options for the cultural tourist.
Of course, with impressive Phoenician remnants, Greek and Roman ruins, a dozen Crusader castles, and the ever-present Turkish and French legacies – not to mention monasteries that date back to the 4th century A.D. – Lebanon has much to offer any tourist.
Unfortunately, with an unstable regional environment and a focus on Beirut, Lebanon’s tourism industry has yet to capitalize on the country’s cultural heritage as an attraction. Perhaps that’s for the best: a tourist in Baalbeck can basically wander the Temple of Jupiter alone, undisturbed by the hordes of people found, for instance, at the Acropolis in Athens. Again, it’s a mixed bag.
On the one hand, the country broke several world records – and can now lay claim to the largest dishes of hummus, tabbouleh, and kibbeh on record. Lacking the capability to confront Israel militarily and having been outflanked (to date) in Western markets, the Lebanese seem to have launched a culinary counterattack with the aim of regaining ascendency on Levantine cuisine in the minds (and markets) of the world.
On the other hand, in a food fight that encompasses everything from hummus to shawarma, it would be difficult – not to mention, arrogant and unfair – for one country to lay claim to a culinary tradition that in large part is common to Levantine Arabs, Greeks, and Turks.
Hummus and tabbouleh rightfully stir the passions: they are basic dishes that have fed Levantines for centuries, and may soon come to symbolize a broader struggle over land, culture, and history. However, if food serves to divide rather than unite the people of the region, then there may be little hope for tomorrow.
The Lebanese basketball team, with a myriad of dual citizens like Matt Freije and Daniel Faris teaming with established domestic players like Fadi El-Khatib and Rony Fahed, failed to finish second in Asia as it had in the past three major tournaments. Deflated by a close and controversial 72-68 defeat to China, Lebanon collapsed against Jordan in the third-place game and thus missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Championships in Istanbul. In December, however, FIBA awarded Lebanon – along with three European countries – one of four ‘wildcard’ births in the tournament.
The Lebanese soccer team, by contrast, continued to struggle on the international stage. Despite signs of improvement, a lack of funds, political infighting in the domestic competition, and am underdeveloped training program for the national team ensured a year of unremarkable performances (some speculate that basketball, Lebanon’s flagship sport, will soon fall prey to the same problems).
The Lebanese rugby league team, again including a host of dual-citizens, finished third in the European Cup. After demolishing the Italy’s inexperienced Azzuri side 86-0 and losing a 22-10 scratcher against the Scotland Bravehearts, Lebanon’s Cedars beat the Ireland Wolfhounds 40-16 to set the tone in an emerging rivalry that will feature centrally in next year’s Cup.
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