I came to Lebanon as an investor believing in the law,constitution and state of this country and I believedstrongly enough to invest hundreds of millions of dollars,”said Khalaf Habtoor, founding father and chairman of theEmirati Habtoor Group. “However, despite the existence of apolitical and legal framework, law and order is not beingimplemented. Investments in Lebanon have been significantlydamaged by political, economic and social instability,created by the Lebanese system.”
Habtoor Group is one of the main foreign investors inLebanon, with such assets as the Metropolitan Hotel, theHabtoor Grand Hotel and Habtoorland. Due to the summer warand ongoing political crisis, the hotels have laid off mostof their staff, while the amusement park has closed downcompletely. No wonder, Habtoor on March 20 asked someunsettling questions, as he delivered a message of anger,despair and bitter disappointment.
“Protests, affirmative action and terrorist activities takeplace in many countries. Lebanon is not alone in this,” hesaid. “The difference is that in other countries life is notbrought to a standstill. Did London close down for weeksafter the subway blast? Did Egypt, Morocco and Jordan cometo a complete standstill? No. The situation was contained bythe state, and authorities made sure that businesscontinued.”
Not so in Lebanon, where the seemingly endless politicalcrisis increasingly paralyzes the economy. Emphasizing he isnot engaged in politics on either side of the Lebanesedivide, Habtoor firmly pointed his finger not at theopposition or government, but at the shortcomings of theLebanese system.
“The state should take care of the welfare of the countryand people and should have policies and decisions firmly inplace,” he said. “Lebanon needs foreign investments as itneeds to create employment, and for that it has to ensurepeace, justice to all and security to the investor. Why isthe state unable to protect interests and security, despitehaving a full fledged army and police force?”
According to Habtoor, “a ship has only one captain andcannot navigate a rough sea if the power is diluted.”Lebanon’s lack of unity and true leadership is onlyaggravated by the fact that “local and governmental bodiesact as independent authorities. Each and every corner of thecountry has its own ruler and for every few villages anautonomous municipality functions without state sanction.”
As an example, Habtoor cited he was never told by localauthorities that there was an army firing range next toHabtoorland and, while the Habtoor Grand Hotel was ready foroperation by August 2005, the opening suffered excessivedelays, as an operating license was denied, even though thehotel was built according to prior approval.
Habtoor is not the sole investor with such grievances. Dueto the continuing unfriendly investment climate in Lebanon,a number of Arab and Lebanese investors have approachedHabtoor to join them in suing the Lebanese state at theUnited Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
Habtoor, who was decorated by Lebanon’s president in 2002,blamed the Lebanese and their frail political system for hismisery. “I think that the only fault I committed was that Iever believed in Lebanon.”