Hearing people fall back on the refrain of labeling Beirut the “Paris of the Middle East” grates the nerves not only because it is a lazy cliché but also because it is patently so far from the truth. It may be true that lots of people, in certain quarters of the city, speak French, but that’s about as far as the similarities go.
The sepia-hued nostalgia for the Beirut of days gone by tends to embrace the memories of a thriving, cosmopolitan city with a sophisticated swagger, where there were thriving markets, palm-tree lined parks and public transport. The nation’s capital has, however, fallen far.
So far in fact that in the 2012 Mercer Quality of Living Worldwide City Rankings, Beirut placed a dismal 171 out of 221 cities. Money may still buy the luxuries of private beach clubs and 24-hour electricity for some, but none of us can escape the crippling traffic, the void of green spaces or lead-footed Internet. At both a local and a national level, planning and strategy-making have been hijacked by short-term political expediency and narrow vested interests. The victim has been society at large.
The physical transmogrification of the city is a daily source of sorrow. The overlapping roles and interests of the city’s real estate barons, political elites and banking financiers have given them an inordinate level of control over the planning and design of the city. The race for lucrative towers has consistently overridden priorities such as affordable housing, heritage protection, traffic control, public space or local amenities.
Major property developers told Executive that bribery at the top levels of the municipal council is commonplace and a senior member of staff at the Directorate of Urban Planning confided, “it is the major property developers in this city who write and amend the building code.” The consequence is a continually expanding potential exploitation factor, meaning more and more floor space can be built on increasingly scarce plots of land. While a glut of swanky towers choking the skyline benefits a handful of property speculators, it does little to sustain our community as a whole.
It is perhaps in the grinding traffic that our frustrations are most vexed. Lebanon had the most advanced transport system in the Middle East before the outbreak of civil war, including tram, bus and train networks. However, in the post-war era the emphasis has been purely on developing more roads, and Lebanon now has one of the highest per capita car ownership rates in the world. As Lebanon underwent its radical postwar development in the 1990s, old road plans from the 1960s and 1970s were dusted off and botched together. The result is a city overflowing with cars sporting engines fit for the Autobahn but crawling in smog at only a few kilometers an hour.
Choose any sector and you will find that there has been a similar failure to harness the great human potential of the Lebanese people and turn it into any semblance of progressive and sustainable policy or infrastructure development. Electricity, water, telecommunications and education, to name but a few, are all fundamentally flawed and stagnant, resulting in poor and overpriced end products. Little surprise then that Beirut also came 204th out of 224 countries in another survey by the same firm ranking city infrastructure.
“There is no place for people like me in Lebanon any more,” Chafic Abi Said told Executive. He is a retired mechanical engineer who spent the majority of his working life trying to help better Lebanon’s energy sector in different roles at Électricité du Liban and the Ministry of Energy and Water, but now laments from afar on what could have been.
The dismay and dejection he expressed is reflective of countless other technically proficient and smart Lebanese I have interviewed who have plans and dreams on how to drag Lebanon out of its quagmire. Yet alas, zero-sum politics consistently stumps the day. The voracious personal ambitions of the antiquated zuamaa (sectarian leaders) and their paranoid distrust of each other have precluded the development of an administration that can serve this deserving nation and its capital, Beirut.
Zak Brophy is Free Speech Radio News’ Lebanon correspondent and a freelance business journalist