The importance of Lebanon’s macro and micro mobility

Stories of trade and travel

Illustration by Ivan Debs

“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”

Adam Smith

Online economic literature has no ready answer to the question of whether Adam Smith had a deep personal bond with a canine, nor if he was an expert on animal behavior by the standards of the time and Scottish dog-keeping society. But one thing is certain: Smith’s interpretation of the distinctly human trait for trade as a “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”—which is directly juxtaposed with his dog reference in his inquiry into the wealth of nations—is an indisputable pointer to the importance of trade in the making of human economy. Some even see trade as the secret that made us human.

Regardless of the idea of what makes one human, one can easily postulate that the impulse to engage in give and take has provided fundamental patterns for people’s interaction and development of diverse forms of capitalist economies—whether in Adam Smith’s human-gain-oriented propensity or in Karl Polanyi’s social-relationships-oriented “reciprocity and redistribution.”

From the vantage point of modern Lebanese identity, however, the real roots of this Lebanese identity construct may have emerged and been shaped at the time of the country’s political formation. Trade is intrinsically linked to the history of the seafaring people in this region since some 32 or 33 centuries ago when the Phoenician era saw Levantine cities rise to world-shaping trade powers. And for about the same length of time—about three millennia—trade organized from the cities on this coast was inextricably entwined with the people’s aptitude for mobility and their adoption of practicable written communication through the Phoenician alphabet.

The narratives of Phoenician trade by ancient Greek and Roman observers strengthen the view that trade is an eternal trait—if there ever is anything human that can be called eternal. Moreover, success in trade, by this very long view, is contingent upon positive linkages to two other fundamental human traits: the desire for mobility and the ability to communicate. This desire to move and discover, entwined with the impulse to pursue actions of give and take, and augmented by the will to narrate, has preceded, transpired into, and historically driven, the development of humanity’s trade and mobility tools from the physical to the organizational.

This means on the practical front that the cargo always came before the container and preceded the vessel. It makes the case that trade existed before the first bank opened its doors and that trade indeed determined the creation of the mercantile corporation. It also puts recent issues into perspective. The story—and dream—of travel started before the rise of cart, train, car, plane, and any Elon Musk rocket project; and the commute to places of greater productivity existed before the metro, before the tram, and way, way, way before the ride hailing app.

In short, trade and travel are inseparable from what contemporary society views as progress. As long as people exist, mobility happens and trade happens. But matching the impulses to engage in trade and mobility with the optimal tools and patterns for each moment in history is the source of the narratives of failures or successes that shape history. This is evidenced from the establishment of the Silk Road over the narrative of the Dutch East India Corporation as the archetypical enterprise, to the double daily congestion that we experience commuting between our homes in Damour, Aley, or Jbeil and Jounieh to our work places in Beirut.

For the present state of Lebanon, the importance of trade and mobility extends from the country’s positioning on the trade routes between Asia and Europe that are emerging as 21st century Belt and Road iterations of the Silk Road—with all implications for the need to develop Lebanese logistics, marine shipping, and port operations—to responsible care and expansion of 20th century aviation patterns between Lebanon and its relevant but diverse travel markets in the Arab world, Africa, and Europe.

These trade issues, some of which have been getting considerable attention by the political circles in the country, will be integral for the success of the Lebanese economy—but just as crucial for the Lebanese economy, and urgently deserving attention, are the myriad aspects of urban mobility and near-term futures in digital transportation. Executive hopes you will enjoy some of our mobility stories and find them useful in working to improve Lebanon’s national and your personal productivity.

Thomas Schellen

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

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