Diplomatically speaking

Executive met with Martin Huth, Germany’s ambassador to Lebanon

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive
Reading Time: 11 minutes

In 2015, Germany experienced a sudden unexpected influx of migrants and refugees in large part due to the Syrian crisis and its effect on host countries, including Lebanon. As Germany has been trying to deal with the large number of people coming in, what will the political impact be and what are the current prospects for Syrians seeking shelter in Germany and elsewhere in Europe?   

Allow me first to express my appreciation for Executive Magazine. It was more or less by coincidence that I came across a copy of the magazine one or two months after I arrived in Lebanon [to take charge of the German embassy in September 2015]. I found a lot of interesting articles and in-depth information, especially [concerning] the oil and gas sector. I was greatly intrigued by this.

When we talk about Germany and the refugee crisis, it is of course an ongoing process and an ongoing story. In the Syrian crisis we were dealing with what you may call a surprise factor. Refugees arrived most notably over the course of the past year when in September 2015 thousands of people were stranded on the German borders and, as our government was faced with these challenges, our chancellor, as you know, decided to open up the borders. It shows us that in today’s interconnected world a crisis can happen in one part of the world and it almost immediately affects us in other parts of the world. One of the lessons to be learned for future crises is that you have to be able to anticipate them and be prepared for what might come toward you by building on previous best practices.

E   What has this surprise migration created in German society?

I think it has brought out the best and the worst in some respects, and that is easy to see and understand. There was an enormous wave and readiness to assist in all quarters of society and there were outpourings of help and sympathy for the refugees. On the other hand, as the situation progressed and the influx increased, there were also concerns over whether Germany would be able to accommodate and integrate such large numbers that are arriving on short notice and all at the same time.

We now have about one million people who have entered Germany and of course not all will be able to stay. We still expect 500,000 to 600,000 people to gain access to Germany over this year. This of course poses a significant challenge but I see some hope on the horizon that eventually the conflict in Syria will come to an end and lead to a situation that will enable Syrian refugees and migrants to return to their country. We believe that a large majority will want to return.

E   How about those refugees who will want to remain in Germany?

The second area we are working on in Germany is the integration of refugees. Integration is a challenge that will not be achieved in a short time, and let us not forget that not everybody who is coming to Germany is from Syria – that is a misperception. But when it comes to Syrians there are a lot of people among them who are qualified and eager to work and who are willing to integrate.

[pullquote]Germany was co-host of the London conference and pledged 2.3 billion euros to improving the living conditions of refugees in the region[/pullquote]

One final point and one that you see here at the embassy is that every morning there are a large number of people who are waiting to have their cases processed; these are mainly people who apply for Familienzusammenführung, or family reunion. We have so far accepted 476,000 persons in Germany who are either refugees under the Geneva Convention or are registered as asylum seekers. People who have gained this status have a legal right for their children and their spouses to come to Germany [and, in hardship cases, their parents]. These people are now applying here for admission to Germany and we expect this to continue for some time because the registrations in Germany are ongoing and because of the decision taken in September of last year. I understand that this embassy will still be very busy until the end of next year processing those cases.

E   But is it correct that this embassy is not an open window for any person arriving from Syria and saying, ‘I am a refugee and want to apply to go to Germany’? People have to have a relation who is already in Germany in order to approach the embassy?    

That is absolutely correct. People have to have this and specifically there is no way of applying for asylum through a German embassy abroad.

E   What about managing expectations in Lebanon that Syrians should go home and dealing with local perceptions that the United Nations and the European Union might want to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

As I have illustrated to you, Germany is doing a lot to receive refugees and migrants from Syria in the present context. As you raised the issue of Syrians being implanted into Lebanon, which is a topic that is raised very often during political discussions here, let me make it very clear: neither the UN nor Germany nor any other Western donor country that is involved in helping Lebanon does so with the objective of implanting Syrians in Lebanon. And we believe that Syrians themselves don’t want to stay there longer than necessary.

E   Turning to the topic of assistance, it seems clear that the financial commitments made during the Supporting Syria & the Region London conference in February of this year cannot be expected to be disbursed all at once or even as quickly as one might hope for from the perspective of humanitarian assistance and relief. Can you update us on the main points regarding German assistance to Lebanon under the London commitments?

Germany was co-host of the London conference and pledged 2.3 billion euros to improving the living conditions of refugees in the region. That relates to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Out of this amount, 330 to 350 million euros will go towards Lebanon in 2016 alone. We have an ongoing discussion with other donors about how best to go about using this money and an implementation mechanism that will allow us to oversee and control this whole process. This involves the UN, donors and the Lebanese side.

On the other hand, we are putting some focus on certain deliverables that we would like to see from the Lebanese side; one of them relates to waiving or significantly reducing the registration fee for refugees and another relates to possibilities for opening the job market for Syrians in Lebanon, because as part of this money we have a special initiative for creating job opportunities for Syrians. For that to be successful you need some openings, notably in the work intensive sectors like agriculture and construction, where there are some difficulties here in Lebanon. These things have to happen in parallel so that the funds can be put to best use and that is what our country and the Lebanese are focusing on.

E   The disbursement period for these funds will be from when to when?

I cannot answer fully when the flows will commence and how they will be implemented. I think $20 million has been made available already with the [International Labour Organization] and other first amounts may have been authorized in other areas, but things will certainly get moving over the next weeks and months. We have to do our part and act as quickly as possible.

E   Lebanon as a country of course has not just entered German awareness since the refugee crisis, even without reminiscing as far back as when Kaiser Wilhelm visited Baalbeck in 1898 and made a statement about those magnificent ruins. When it comes to the development of economic and social relations between the two countries, what are your priorities?

In fact, [when talking about touch points in history] we can even go back to the 12th century when the body of Frederick Barbarossa was buried in various places and his heart was to be taken to Jerusalem, though according to lore it made it only to the town of Tyre and is actually buried in the cathedral, which I visited [in mid-April].

In terms of current economic relations, I think we benefit from the good reputation of our products. A special example is a type of Mercedes car from the 1970s, known as the Strich Acht Mercedes (W 114/115 model series). They feature in every Lebanese film and documentary about the civil war, probably because the trunk was so large that you could transport all kinds of things across the Green Line. These cars are in service until today and have become somewhat synonymous with Lebanon. I actually own a very nice one myself but didn’t bring it to Lebanon.

The love of German products is very much alive in Lebanon and there is a huge network of German company representation here. Lebanon also, until very recently, used to be a springboard for exporting these goods into other countries of the region, to Syria but also to Iraq and the Gulf countries. All of this is in the hands of very competent and clever Lebanese businessmen who again prove that in a situation where the state is notably absent, they can still make their living and the economy flourishes more or less rather independently from the political quagmires.

E   How does this economic relationship look in terms of numbers and potentials?

We have an exchange of about 700 to 800 million euros in trade from Germany to Lebanon. From the German perspective this is not a huge figure but given the size and population of Lebanon, I think it is quite noteworthy and we are number four in the Lebanese import statistics.

[pullquote]The love of German products is very much alive in Lebanon and there is a huge network of German company representation here[/pullquote]

Exports from Lebanon to Germany are only about 40 to 45 million euros per year and mostly agricultural products and there is probably room for improvement. I think we should be more interconnected not just for the exchange of goods but also for services, knowledge about technology, et cetera. An important link in this regard is trade fairs. We have a very unsatisfying level of attendance at the German trade fairs, even the very big ones. Take for example the (biennial) IFAT trade fair for waste management and sewage technology, which is coming up at the end of May. The topic is very important for Lebanon but our visa records showed only two registered visitors from Lebanon [in 2014]. According to our records, we had about 6,500 visitors to German trade fairs from Lebanon [in 2014] and about 90 who attended trade fairs [as exhibitors] with a stand. This can be greatly improved and extended. We will take a hopeful step in this direction now by boosting the capacities of the Lebanese German Business Council (LGBC) to provide information and assistance on business with and in Germany and on trade fairs. This service was offered previously by the embassy when I first worked here about ten years ago [but] was removed due to budget reductions, and inserting such capacities through the LGBC will move us forward.

An important area to mention in current economic activity is the revamping of electricity generation capacity. [One part of this is] through the refurbishing of power stations in Jiyeh and Zouk Mosbeh by a Danish-German consortium in which the German company MAN is providing turbines and I just saw these huge diesel generators, each with 18 cylinders, powering away at full speed in Jiyeh.

E   Have you seen these generators running?

Yes. These [power generation] capacities should go online very soon.

E   Is the embassy able to help specifically with the reputation development of German products in Lebanon when there is increasing global competition for German brands from Korean or Chinese makers?

We offer possibilities to promote our goods and we do that at our annual exhibition on the Day of German Unity [October 3] but I want to add that German cars, for example, don’t compete in the same market segment as Kia. We have Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW present here and they are very, very successful. Whether German washing machines face serious competition in Lebanon from other brands, I guess that is the case, but that is a market issue. Coming to our reputation: it builds on the solidity and the value-for-money reputation of our products and on other factors too, such as that we were not a colonial power in this region and that we have a strong cultural presence. Sometimes we don’t advertise ourselves sufficiently so people say what Germany is doing in Lebanon is one of the best kept secrets in Lebanon.

E   Marketing is not always seen as the German forte.

Marketing is important, especially in our day, and we should apply the saying that we have in Germany, which is, ‘Tue Gutes und rede darüber’ [do something good and talk about it].

E   Are you hoping for more marketing of Germany in Lebanon then?

We are taking a first step with the LGBC and I am ready to listen to any proposal from within or outside of the LGBC that takes us further. Another thing that is important is to move the embassy. We are rather removed from central Beirut. Fortunately now, after more than 25 years of relative isolation at what was supposed to be a provisional solution in Rabieh since 1988, I am happy to say that probably by the end of this year we will move into our new premises much closer to downtown Beirut and this should also give more prominence to our presence in the country.

E   There have been aspects of cost-cutting on the German side that impacted the presence, whether it was the Goethe Institute in Tripoli or the LGBC, but there were continual elements such as technical assistance and vocational training programs. Is the greater attention awarded to Lebanon under the current crisis providing some benefits in terms of funding for German presences?

As one of the things you mentioned, we should certainly try to reach out to other regions of the country. Lebanon is a small country and it is therefore not that difficult to look at centers outside of Beirut, notably Tripoli and perhaps Sidon and Tyre.

E   And you have already visited those regions.

The recent visit to the south underscored the importance of developing that region. We should be reaching out there as well. In Tripoli there is now a focal point of the Goethe Institute with the Safadi Foundation but there is room for more. But when it comes to directly assisting Lebanon, let us not forget that Lebanon is not a low income country. The average income is quite high when compared with less or least developed nations. When we talk of helping Lebanon what really needs to be done is to overcome the current political crisis and that is what should put Lebanon again on a good footing. What we have been witnessing is unfortunately a prolongation of the vacuum and the paralysis and a general unwillingness to overcome this. There is no abyss, but the absence of the state and its institutions that are really working in the service of the Lebanese citizen is a great deficit of this country, and I can only repeat what I said on other occasions: you can only help a country to the extent that it is willing and able to help itself.

[pullquote]What really needs to be done is to overcome the current political crisis and that is what should put Lebanon again on a good footing[/pullquote]

E   You used the word unwillingness. Do you think the Lebanese political class have an attitude of unwillingness or are they not even aware of the importance of properly functioning institutions in order to be engaged in international discourse and exchange?

It depends on who you speak with. I think that the primary function of a state to look after the welfare of its citizens is a notion that is not necessarily shared by every Lebanese politician. A very concrete example is the presidential vacuum when, every so often, you hear people tell you that the president of Lebanon traditionally was not chosen by Lebanese but was preordained and chosen by outside countries beforehand – and that right now the situation is so difficult that we need a green light for a solution from Riyadh, from Washington, from Tehran, from who knows who, to agree on a new president and we can’t do anything. At that point I always inject into the discussion that the Lebanese should turn this around and agree on a president first and then the green light will come as well.

E   It seems to me that Germany, back when I was growing up, was mired in geopolitical dependencies larger than those of Lebanon but the issue of sovereignty or the will to elect the people’s representatives in national parliament was not diminished by our geopolitical dependency.

That gives me the opportunity for a closing remark that is very important to me. All of us know that if we look back at our childhood and try to imagine the Germany that we grew up in and compare it to our country today, we must say that our country has undergone an enormous transformation. In this region, we always talk about stability, but the understanding of stability is very often limited to preserving the status quo in the sense of saying al-amn wal istikrar, security and stability, in the sense of having state security and no criminality. However, this is the twenty-first century and we live in an interconnected world. What does stability mean in this context? I think real stability, no longer means this kind of static stability, but rather it has to be some kind of dynamic stability – a stability that allows for the ever-happening transformation and change that takes place in every society. What is key to achieving this notion of dynamic stability is in my view one simple thing: participation in constant discourse in a society. We need a political class that is ready to tackle the challenges of society but is doing this on basis of a participatory dialogue with the population. That is why invigorating the Lebanese Parliament is so important. How can a country function if there is no parliament and no discussions? As societies have to renew themselves all the time, populations have the responsibility to actively participate in challenges that have to be mastered. In Germany there have been so many challenges; we can talk about the refugee crisis, about reunification, about the euro and the European process – all these have been accompanied by heated debates and elections and this for me is the core element for ensuring a degree of stability – and I think the same applies to Lebanon as well. This society is ready and willing to participate in dialogue and discussion of all issues.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail