Lebanon on my mind

Part of the “past occupations series”:

Just as Lebanon appears on the front pages of the international press again, I “revisited” it last week, writing up some anecdotes from a research trip there two years ago. This small country with its bloody history and fractious politics also has a few billion USD worth of international bonds outstanding. Getting some grip on the conflict in the country and the region was thus quite important job-wise, although very daunting given the complexity of the situation.

I once got asked by my CIO to accompany a senior equity portfolio manager on a research trip throughout the Gulf region. Her initial idea had been to see Saudi corporates – but that country’s attitude towards women made that all but impossible. We decided to go for the Gulf countries instead and throw Lebanon into the mix to make the trip worthwhile. I took a backseat regarding the organisation, so this trip was very corporate-focused with plenty of “buy our shares” schmoozing and handing out of glossy information packs: The future is bright and all that is bad is not actually so bad.

Beirut was the last stop of the trip and the undisputed highlight: In contrast to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar (which we had seen during the days before), it is a real city that did not just get built over the last couple of years. One can feel recent history everywhere, and it is still visible in the scars of the civil war and the ongoing urban regeneration. Our taxi took us to our hotel at breakneck speed, past the Camille Chamoun stadium that got completely destroyed in the civil war (actually the Israelis shelled it during one of their incursions into Beirut). A warm breeze coming through the open windows, and the sight of a somewhat more chaotic and lively street life instantly made me look forward to the days ahead.   

We had to stay in the Movenpick hotel, which judging by its $500 per night price tag should have been amazing, but, alas, was by far the worst hotel of the trip. Why did we have to stay there? It has the only secluded and detached driveway in town, which allegedly protects it from car bombs (they would go off on the street checkpoint). My room was directly above the reception area, so mind you, any bomb would have been particularly bad news for me.

Our Palestinian Saudi-based sales contact who accompanied us on the trip to facilitate the logistics was a regular in town – so he had plenty of friends, including a on-off-girlfriend it seemed. I had literally just told my colleague of the World Press Photo of the Year 2006, depicting four well-off Lebanese driving through southern Beirut in a Mini after Israeli bombardments. The next moment a black Mini with two very attractive Lebanese women pulled up at the reception. As a group of four we drove through funky bar districts and had a couple of drinks in lively trendy bars. Lebanese people party hard it seems, because tomorrow, their city may lie in ruins yet again.

Most meetings were great, slightly reminiscent of my times in Turkey and Argentina. Again, politics trumped everything and everyone had an opinion. A newspaper editor confided in us that he was bringing his family to safety (abroad?) as he predicted violence to break out in the very near future (not related to Syria back then but to a possible indictment of Hizbullah in front of the ICC). Meanwhile, brave women in the ministry of finance (who were, as I recall, seconded from the UNDP) tried to calmly take me through the current account and budget figures of the sovereign. The former head of the UN troops guarding the border between Israel and Lebanon, a Turkish national, gave me a grand tour of his exceptionally experienced mind. We were taken on another site visit to “Solidere”, downtown Beirut’s swanky urban regeneration project, widely criticised for turning the inner city into a lifeless luxury-shopping arcade entirely in private but politically well-connected hands.

Any investor trip to Lebanon is not complete without seeing the country’s major banks – they channel large parts of the diaspora remittances into government bonds and thus sustain the slightly Ponzi-esque scheme that is Lebanon. One of the banks gave us a great tour of their headquarters, more reminiscent of a major art gallery than large retail bank. We met two banks’ CFOs if I recall this correctly – who provided exceptional insights into the country and its economy.

Just as the meetings were coming to an end, I met with friends from SOAS for a great mediterranean dinner, then rushed to the airport and took the overnight flight to Paris, connecting to an early-morning service to Amsterdam. Another very surreal return to Holland on an early winter Saturday morning.

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