During a long, wide-ranging exit interview, departing UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher tells Executive and other journalists that over the past four years, the British government has increased 100-fold the assistance it provides to Lebanon, from GBP 2 million per year to GBP 200 million.
The massive increase in aid money was triggered by the Syrian refugee crisis, but Fletcher notes that host communities are increasingly getting their cut. As he’s known for doing, the ambassador also lauded Lebanon for hosting so many of its neighbors.
Mr. Ambassador, as you have told us, the United Kingdom has greatly increased its humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. We came here to mainly discuss economic issues with you but let us first ask how you view the problem of growing unwillingness to admit new refugees?
The important thing for us is that the most vulnerable people are getting help, but it is also important that we have a partnership with the government because we do recognize how difficult it is here. So we try to find a pragmatic way through, but we also try to hold everyone to their humanitarian obligation, even though it’s not easy. If I’m honest, it’s very difficult to lecture people about keeping their borders open.
Because not every [country] has their borders open.
But you didn’t close Scotland.
[Laughs] No, Scotland’s open for business. And we sell, by the way, more Scottish salmon, more Scottish whiskey, here in Lebanon, per capita, than anywhere in the world. I was actually in tears the morning of the referendum, when the Scots voted to stay. It was a very emotional moment for all of us, but I was happy as well for our trade stats, because we rely on exports. We also sell more Jaguars, Bentleys and Princess Yachts, per capita, than anywhere in the world. And Panadol, bizarrely. There are 250 million panadol tablets sold here every year.
You’ve said trade between the UK and Lebanon has doubled in your four years, and looking at the Panadol stat, is there any re-export going on?
The model that works well here is not just thinking that it’s trade between the UK and Lebanon, but that it’s trade between the British and the Lebanese. So what we’ve tried to do is connect people who want to be connected. If you’ve got a guy making a new type of spoon in Belfast, we’ll connect him with a Lebanese network that will sell those spoons in West Africa, South America and so on. Our trade team compiled a list of Lebanese distributors who want new whiskey brands. As new whiskeys come to the market, they’re saying, ‘We want to be the distributor of that whiskey.’
Your mandate is to help British exports to Lebanon. What about the reverse, are more Lebanese products now headed for the UK?
It’s not explicitly part of my mandate, but I’ve always tried to encourage, for example, the Lebanese wine industry to get a good foothold in the UK. And it’s doing very well. It’s still quite expensive, at the UK end, but Lebanese wine has a real cache. Lots of agricultural products, nuts and so on, are also doing really well. But I guess the one where I’ve really tried to help is just on improving Lebanon’s general image because in a way, so much depends on that. I’ve been consistently trying to provide an image that doesn’t just focus on the bombs and the terrorism and so on.
Where does the UK Lebanon Tech Hub fit in?
Let’s see in three years’ time [about that].
But it’s only a two-year initiative.
I reckon it will run longer than that. It’s got legs. I think the two-year phase will be a government to government phase as we create that framework, and then we just let them go.
Where do you see the future of entrepreneurial collaborations between Lebanon and the UK, is it more outsourcing from the UK to Lebanese suppliers; knowledge transfer; entrepreneurial spirit infusion into Nordic development plans? What’s the formula?
All of the above, really. One thing I was struck by when I went to see the Tripoli Entrepreneurs’ Club up there, [was when] they said all we need is an internet connection and a room and we’ll do the rest. They said that every couple of months guys come along and smash their internet connection. So it’s as simple as that. There’s a kind of dividing line there, and they’re very much on the front line, really, of whether this region sinks or swims, and I would back them. I’m never going to be a tech entrepreneur or really understand the cutting edge of innovation, at all. When I started here, some people said to me, ‘you’re too young to be an ambassador.’ And I now realize that I’m probably too old to be an ambassador here because a lot of the future growth is coming from people who are in their early 20s.
How are you treating the anniversary of Sykes-Picot? The way you see it, has all of this past been digested? Have we overcome history?
It’s interesting you should raise that. I was back in London last week with all the ambassadors from the region and it’s a subject that I brought up. I think it’s fair to say that any school child in this region, whether they’re learning in French or in English, knows these [terms like Sykes-Picot]. [By contrast] only a very small percentage of school children in the UK and France will have that same sense of significance of these names and events. And particularly now, people across the region can see, for better or worse, that some of the lines that were drawn in the sand are disappearing.
I don’t think that you’re going to see Britain or France dwelling on these anniversaries in a big way. For me it’s part of history but I also realize it’s still part of people’s lives here especially when they worry about what’s happening to those boundaries.
Turkey didn’t exactly popularize commemorating the Armenian genocide this year so it would not be unusual to try and neglect or deny the Sykes-Picot agreement, with yours as one of the most civilized countries in the history of mankind? Don’t you want to take a slightly different approach of restitution and reconciliation?
Yeah, and we’ve always tried here to draw on the lessons of the Northern Ireland experience, to try and see what we can learn from reconciliation, coexistence, transitional justice and so on. I won’t be here for these anniversaries. If I was, I’d like to think we’d come up with a creative way to have a different conversation about reconciliation, the role of the state and so on in the region. I hope we can find a way into that conversation. We really do need the Syrian state to survive, the Iraqi state to survive. These are very important issues to everyone around here.
So in your view we cannot bury the nation state in the Middle East?
Yeah. It’s the least bad model that we have at the moment.
Turning to more hands-on issues in your future, do you want to become the Tony Blair of entrepreneurship in the Middle East?
Did you mean that in a positive way?
Well, Mr. Blair made it a personal mandate of peace building in the Middle Eastern development after leaving office. You mentioned at a EuroMoney conference in June that you might move more into entrepreneurship. Can you tell us more about that?
I definitely wouldn’t put myself in the same category as Tony Blair.
Entrepreneurship is a little bit smaller than peace building.
I don’t have plans to focus personally on entrepreneurship type work but who knows what will happen. My focus will probably be more on education, considering that there are millions of kids out of school, and trying and get those kids in school. That’s important.
As a private citizen with the credentials of former ambassador, you have a privileged position. From your point of view, is that a good economic prospect for Lebanon?
I won’t be hustling business, but there’s one area where I think I can help. If someone pops up in Rio representing Lebanon, [the Lebanese expats will wonder] are they March 8 or 14, are they Armenian or Druze – they’re instantly labeled in a way that often can undermine their effort. So in a way it’s strange, sometimes it’s easier for a foreigner to come in and look around and say look at these amazing people. I’m neither March 8 nor March 14, or anything else, just pro-Lebanese.
Did you find any Lebanese heritage in you somewhere from the time of the crusades?
We’ve all got some Lebanese in us haven’t we? Although I don’t want to bring up the crusades either, Sykes–Picot and Balfour were bad enough. We all came through here at some point but no, I haven’t discovered any direct Lebanese, the Fletchers can’t trace our lineage back that far.
What would be your advice to your successor, not in the diplomatic briefings that you can’t talk to us about, but in the experience of life and family life in Lebanon?
There’s a number of us [ambassadors] who are all leaving at the same time from so many of those countries that have real interest in backing Lebanon’s stability. I hope they’re able to continue this idea that there is not a conspiracy against Lebanon. There is a conspiracy in favour of Lebanon.