Snapshots of an environment with many wants
Looking at the world from a Lebanese vantage point, 1998 was an ominous year. Hopes for a prosperous future were still as ubiquitous as the construction cranes that dotted the Beirut cityscape. But optimism was being tested by harsh realities that had not been included in the scripts written back in 1989 – 1992 when war-ravaged Lebanon embarked on its ambitious path of reconstruction and development into the third millennium.
As the epitome of faith in a new future, the second half of the 1990s saw the Beirut Central District return in increments from a state of total physical ruin. On the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, construction highlights included road and transportation infrastructure and the Sports City Stadium, which in 1999 would be filled to capacity – a rare occurrence ever since – for a Pavarotti concert. In Beirut proper, the highlights of urban building were still mainly restorative, such as the reconstruction and enlargement of the Grand Serail in 1998 – including historic limestone cladding sliced from stones salvaged from destroyed downtown structures – and the re-erection of the American University of Beirut’s College Hall and Clock Tower, solemnly inaugurated in 1999. It was still years before anyone would start talking about the city as being defined by its skyline.
[pullquote]It was a complex time that called for the articulation of smart and authentic voices in Beirut-based (business) journalism[/pullquote]
International recognition of the country’s sovereignty was real, in theory. In all other terms, the lingering presences of two occupying neighbors were impeding the national identity and the daily lives of everyone: citizens, Palestinian residents and foreign labor of all classes. Until July 1997, United States passport holders were still in violation of US law when they traveled to Lebanon. Amid Israel’s military occupation, Syria’s armed presence and various foreign political pressures, the Lebanese vigor and spirit of the period were acknowledged in a fundraiser – the Friends of Lebanon conference in Washington in December 1996 – and a pastoral visit, the celebration of Lebanon “as a message” of coexistence in Pope John Paul II’s 48-hour visit in May 1997.
Life in Beirut was rediscovering freedom. While some visiting writers speculated glumly that the city might never return to its pre-conflict multiculturalism and relaxed intermingling of communities, Lebanese writers and thinkers told international conferences that the country had preserved its amazing character of being a mosaic of identities. Having fast food meant eating at Juicy Burger or Barbar. The young and the hip sought places to party and celebrate the now in clubs and pubs. The old cafes on Hamra Street couldn’t keep up with that. Modca faded into history. Shopping centers popped up in unsuitable indoor spaces in Verdun. Taxi drivers from the different communities learned to find routes in parts of the city that they had not navigated for 20 years and new public bus lines crisscrossed the metropolitan area, with varying degrees of success in punctuality and efficiency of service. People worshipped their cars while being oblivious to rules, and traffic lights were the rarest of street ornaments. Traffic was chaos (as if that was likely to ever change).
When compared with the political environment, the economic realm was a haven of confidence. The stability of the Lebanese Lira encouraged financial inflows into the banking system. The Beirut Stock Exchange was expected to see new listings and investment companies were hanging out their shingles. Companies in construction and development, hospitality and even waste management services were all engaged in new projects. New schools and institutions of higher education were taking shape. And perhaps most importantly, Lebanese expatriates from all continents were heeding the call to return and invest in their homeland. They arrived with the knowledge and experience of doing business in the most competitive places and were prepared to contribute to, and profit from, Lebanon’s expected rise.
In global economic affairs, the 1990s were a period of increased international integration of goods, capital and labor markets. The establishment of the World Trade Organization and of two regional trade agreements in North America and Europe enhanced globalization in conjunction with innovations in the information technology sector. Embedded in this environment, Lebanon’s post-Civil War economic aspirations shifted from the fragmented structures of the 1975-91 era of internal conflict into a desired role as a trade and services hub for economies of the Middle East and North Africa and bridge between MENA economies and markets in Europe, Africa and the Americas. As a continuation of Lebanese positions in global trade from historic and even semi-mythical perceptions, this desire was perhaps mainly intuitive and implicit in the words and actions of business leaders. It was not formulated by policy makers in the context of a national economic strategy and could not have been, given that there was no trace of any unified economic policy making.
The quagmires of restoration
Administered by three representative stakeholders of the country’s three largest communities, efforts at social and physical reconstruction from the center out were extremely costly and required investing own, borrowed and donated resources. Paying off the huge development drive of a new downtown, new economic infrastructure and the return of the displaced required making a bet on the recovery of the once pivotal Lebanese role in regional finance and trade, combined with anticipation of a peace dividend which was expected to result in an economic boom in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries.
[pullquote]In the 1990s, it was the waning days of what some historians had identified as the century of totalitarianism[/pullquote]
But in the second half of the 1990s, the Middle East was sliding back into a dark and stormy political night. Less than 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall epitomized the hopes for an end to the Cold War, United Nations-driven efforts at peacebuilding in crisis regions such as Somalia had proven ineffectual. In the Near East, the Palestinians were waiting for the state promised by the Oslo Accords under a 1999 deadline, while Israel was becoming increasingly preoccupied with national security at the expense of implementing the peace deal. In Lebanon, people were waiting for the full implementation of the Taif Accord, which had declared the end of internal violence and a reboot of the state based on a concept of national unity and the promised arrival of meritocratic politics. Regional rulers and the shakers of geopolitics, however, had other concerns than rooting for Lebanon. It was a complex time that called for the articulation of smart and authentic voices in Beirut-based (business) journalism.
In the 1990s, it was the waning days of what some historians had identified as the century of totalitarianism. The seachange of political and economic systems in favor of democratic capitalism led some other historians to talk of the end of history. Other scholars spoke of the clash of civilizations and there was much speculation on the feasibility of a new world order. The markets for explanations were brimming with ideological propositions and information markets started to see the dissolution of entrenched patterns of both media ownership and media consumption. The World Wide Web was the new kid in town and digital publishing was coming. The epic battle between propaganda and journalism was shifting from the political and ideological realm to competition over influencing the thinking of consumers.
Admission to an economic future
Within this wider context of a changing communications landscape, the media culture of the Middle East was searching for new beginnings. Newspapers and state-owned or aligned media entities were in deep need of developing their own angles and communicating the reality of Arab politics, business and social life beyond delivering propagandistic perspectives and announcement-style information on who the ruler of each realm had met or talked to on the previous day. From Qatar, the region’s most daring new media venture had just started to roll out – but as the Al Jazeera Media Network sent its marketing representatives to communication-themed trade shows in Beirut in the late 1990s, the Jazeera news brand was still unknown even among many Arabic-speaking audiences.
The stirrings of independent journalism were feeble. In countries with limited freedom, formal barriers and informal obstacles were used to keep the media controlled. Lebanon, one of the region’s historic hubs of freer expression since the Arab Awakening, saw the relaunching of its English-language print media with the return of The Daily Star and the establishment of Lebanon Opportunities as well as other, shorter-lived broadsheets and economic publications. The ticket to ride to success in any form of serious journalism was economic and business writing, albeit from within an environment where entrenched communication patterns were obstructive to analytical/critical writing and investigative reporting. Moreover, the tech was not up to speed. Internet penetration rates were minimal and there was no digital media culture worth mentioning. In Beirut, journalists at forward-thinking daily or periodical publications would typically have a dial-up connection to ultra-slow internet service at a rate of one per newsroom.
It was into this environment where two twenty-something Lebanese, banker-to-be Antoun Sehnaoui and entrepreneur Dany Rizk, returned from their university studies in California. Having been inspired by mature US business periodicals and brands such as Forbes and Fortune, they carried with them the idea of creating an independent business magazine for Lebanon. Throughout 1998, they set up the framework for creating Executive, the Lebanese business magazine. Working from a not quite purpose-built newsroom in the Brazilia district in Hazmieh, they contacted prospective editors and journalists. Rizk, wearing the hat of editor-in-chief noted in one conversation with a freelance contributor that neither his partner nor he had any experience in journalism or publishing. “But we don’t believe this to be a detriment,” he said.
It was probably better to not be too aware of the demands involved in developing an independent professional publication in the Lebanese setting and it was almost certainly an even bigger advantage not to know what challenges and costs the coming years would throw in the way of this venture. We have come a long way since those early days. The rest of the story is in the timeline.