Lebanon opens for business

EDITOR'S BLOG: Lebanon might not seem the best place for start-ups. But with an enterprising culture and UK plc there to help, the country has a bright future.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 04 Jun 2015

When I first visited Lebanon in 1993 even the cockerels were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.They began crowing at half-past midnight and fell silent at dawn. Downtown Beirut was a pile of rubble - the result of a vicious civil war that had dragged on for 15 years. But even then, among the ruins, there was something brilliant about the city. I skied in the Chouf in the morning, sunned myself by the crusader castle at Byblos in late afternoon and went to the Blue Note club in Hamra in the evening. One of my closest friends got married to a local woman. The marriage lasted three months.

Much in Lebanon has changed in the intervening 22 years. Downtown is rebuilt, albeit in Dubai bling style. The currency is stable. Money is flooding into Lebanese banks. Real-estate prices are going through the roof. Tourism, especially from elsewhere in Arabia, is coming back with a vengeance.

For my first trip I took Touring Lebanon, published in 1971. The slim volume confidently asserted that in this 'Land of milk and honey ... toleration between religious sects is written into the constitution, and is practised as a matter of course by the easy-going Lebanese.' That was rubbish in 1971, 1993 and remains so now. The sectarianism there has made what goes on in Northern Ireland look like a whist drive at the Godalming Women's Institute.

However, much of the blame for the current instability can be laid at the doors of Lebanon's bully-boy neighbours, Syria, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If the country is allowed to get on with it without such interference it has the brightest of futures. In the absence of a functioning state, the private sector does almost everything and you rarely come across so enterprising a people. And it's encouraging that the UK is in there playing its small part to get new business going - as I discovered on my recent visit.

I love tennis. It's the only sport I'm any good at, and I'm useless. I would give almost anything for a Federer backhand, a Nadal forehand or a Serena overhead smash. Or, indeed, any decent strokes at all. I once had a knock-up with ex-UK number one Andrew Castle who we interviewed for a feature on the business of tennis. I couldn't even see his serves, let alone return them.

I'm all in favour of Airbnb. I had a great time last summer in one in Rome, and it is giving complacent hotels a run for their money. Established players will have to up their game to compete and that's never a bad thing. When we held our Inspiring Women conference in Birmingham last month my four-star hotel had a number of hairs in the bath. Some were straight. Others were not.

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