Lebanon beckons Gulf Arabs

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Lebanon beckons Gulf Arabs

Beirut - Already there are signs that Saudi construction projects which were previously suspended, have started again.

By Martin Jay

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Published: Tue 17 Jan 2017, 11:01 AM

Last updated: Tue 17 Jan 2017, 1:05 PM

Are the Lebanese possibly the worst drivers in the world? It's a question I recently asked myself when I drove up the main coastal highway at night to a wedding held in Biblos. I should have taken my sunglasses with me and a roll of cameraman's tape though - the latter to put over the rear view mirror and the sunglasses to reduce the glare from drivers who think it quite smart to belt along the highway with their lights on full beam.
Driving in Lebanon is a challenge which leaves you arriving at your destination shaking like a rapist on the run, shouting at everyone like a maniac. Driving badly here is an historical right of the Lebanese, almost like gun ownership in America.
It is an exercise in Darwinian survival as if there is any part of Lebanese society which is truthfully entirely bereft of law and order, it is the roads, where the Lebanese relive the civil war dispensing of the pretence of being a modern secular country but more of a Mad Max bandit state where drivers fall into a number of categories: the racing driver from Mount Lebanon who believes it is encrusted into the Lebanese constitution that it is his right to drive like a crack head racing to his drug dealer, usually touching your rear bumper as he flashes his lights believing that he is an emergency vehicle (with an exhaust pipe with the statutory drilled hole); the Old Git, who never really learned to drive in the first place and is never going to grasp the rudimentary of steering and control or the basic logic of giving the driver ahead of you more distance than merely 25cm, thus eliminating the possibility of rear-ending him when he brakes and his break lights inevitably fail to come on; the three digit new money madman - this is the super rich individual who, because he has a three digit registration plate and smoked out windows, believes that it is his birthright to drive as though his intention is to actually kill everyone in his path (usually Range Rover or Mercedes 4x4), mowing down human beings if they step into his path, thus having less status that cattle on the streets of Delhi; and finally the communicator. And this last group is a big one.
The Lebanese, given that they are blessed with at least four religions, believe they have divine skills and that they can drive a car along a busy highway or in traffic in Beirut while reading and replying to their Whatsapp messages. Whatsapp here causes a lot of car accidents. People actually believe they can drive - even at high speed - and text type messages to friends. And then there's the love affair with the horn. Never an opportunity is lost to use it. It's there. It's free. Press it. Press it again. In this road rage hell, Druze fight Christians, Sunnis battle Shia and foreigners are targeted by everyone.
I wonder though which category of driver is Michel Aoun, our new President who, as I write my weekly dispatch from the Calais of the Middle East, is visiting Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a bid to improve relations with these oil rich states who provided a lifeline to Lebanon, one of which was cut recently after Aoun's son - our foreign minister-put his foot in it and upset Riyadh. Lebanese media was buzzing with enthusiasm at the prospect of the Saudis once again considering the tiny country as their own, a sort of gem to keep in their pockets and pull out every now and again and marvel at. But this has become tricky of late. Outgoing US President Obama had some pretty whacky ideas about bringing those poor Iranians in from the cold. The so-called 'Iran Deal' has on paper at least taken away the threat of a nuclear attack from Tehran, but in so doing will lift sanctions and give Iran's economy a boost, which from Hezbollah's point of view in Lebanon (and Aoun's whose Christian party is in the same coalition) can only be good news. But at what price?
Saudi Arabia not only was about to deliver a $3 billion military aid package of guns n ammo to this tiny country so that the Lebanese army could stand up against Hezbolloah, er, sorry, I mean stand up against the threat of Daesh on its border. But perhaps more importantly, the Saudis led the charge on Gulf Arabs coming to Lebanon and spending valuable tourist dollars here. Since the early days of the war in Syria those cash rich tourists kept a distance from Lebanon as their fear was being kidnapped. This fear was actually misplaced but now one wonders what it is which still keeps them afar. Aoun will no doubt attempt to convince them that things are calmer and that the endearing fleshpots of the Lebanese coastline is anxiously awaiting their arrival. Indeed, some Lebanese tourist towns like Jounieh were practically built on their financial lifeline. Of course, with Iran's influence in Lebanon growing even more, the Saudis may well argue they can no longer supply the army with weapons, but I wonder if Hezbollah's strength in this tiny country which borders Israel will also deter the Gulf tourists from coming. Already there are signs that Saudi construction projects which were previously suspended, have started again. Perhaps the torrent of tourists previously from the Gulf will also return, although the whole question raises a more profound one which your humble correspondent wouldn't dare tackle: does Hezbollah and Iran actually want the country to flourish economically?
Lebanon has been performing this geopolitical balancing act for so long now, but in the past Hezbollah didn't quite have the power that it had and Iran - its paymaster - was considered a poor, backward state which the Gulf could look down on. But that's no longer the case today. Perhaps Aoun can convince the Saudis to bring the money back despite most Lebanese in private admitting that the country has more or less become an Iranian satellite. Perhaps this could be the very justification for Riyadh to dip into its dish dash for a few dollars more. But the playboys should come back. There is as much chance of them being kidnapped here as there is of being stopped by a traffic cop on the highway to Jounieh for wearing dark Raybans at night.
Martin Jay is a journalist based in Beirut who recently won the UN's prestigious Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize (UNCA) in New York, for his Middle East work. He can be followed at @MartinRJay

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