Lebanon’s turbulent friendship with the international communityMay 12th, 2008 By Paul Cochrane, Beirut How the Lebanese view international institutions and the world at large depends on sectarian and political allegiances. With Lebanon a microcosm of the macro political-economic issues facing the Middle East today - due to the country’s geographical position bordering Israel and Syria, and the country’s political-sectarian divisions between Sunnis, Shias, Druze and Christians - Lebanon is where the powers that be flex their muscles.
And with Lebanese political leaders looking to outside powers to consolidate their domestic position, whether you are pro- or anti- Western depends on the politics of the day.
But that, like any brief summary of Lebanon, is a simplification, as although the Hizbullah led opposition is ostensibly anti-Western, strongly backed by Iran and ardently anti-Zionist, fellow opposition party the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is predominantly Christian and pro-Western. Compounding such descriptive complications is the FPM’s economic policy being along neo-liberal lines, while Hizbullah denounces the WTO and the IMF as Western tools of imperialism. Even the 15,000 strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), based in the south along the Lebanese-Israeli border, is viewed by some Lebanese as an occupying force put in place for the benefit of Israel by the West, the argument being there should be a UN peacekeeping force on both sides of the border.
The pro-Western government led by Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is equally difficult to pigeon-hole. Although backed by the Sunnis and certain Christian parties, with the government giving lip service to the free market, de-regulation has not taken place due to nepotism and the need to retain power bases of different sectarian groups by controlling certain monopolies, such as telecoms. Furthermore, the Christians are not keen on Saudi Arabia’s financial and political support of the Sunnis, while more zealous Sunnis are not keen on the government’s support of the US, Britain and France.
On top of all this, there is the fact that the Lebanese are historically natural traders and businessmen, seeking out business opportunities around the globe and increasingly in the region itself, particularly in banking. Lebanese banks, with a saturated domestic market, have set up in neighbouring Syria, Algeria, Sudan and the Gulf, heedless of international criticism of the Sudanese government over atrocities in Darfur and Syria being under US economic sanctions.
There is also a huge Lebanese diaspora, estimated as high as 10 million (in North and South America, West Africa, Europe and Australia), that impacts on the Lebanese world view, as well as the economic opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, 25% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances abroad, a figure that continues to grow as more and more Lebanese emigrate in pursuit of careers, stability and second citizenship – for the former to the Gulf, and the latter to Europe and N. America.
The Lebanese can therefore be said to have a somewhat schizophrenic view of the world, particularly the West, as both saviour and tormentor, damning say the US one day, and seeking a Green card the next.