On May 2, the New York Times ran a story called "36 hours in Beirut" as part of its regular series about short visits to exciting global destinations. This followed on the Times designation of Beirut just last year as the world's number one destination. Later that week, I had an opportunity to drop in to Beirut following a conference I spoke at in Jordan. I fell in love with Beirut in the late 90s and early 00's, but I had not been back since 2001 so I decided to reacquaint myself with the city. What I saw over four days was certainly worthy of the Times picks but it was even more than that. I saw an economic boom that I had not expected.
If anyone had told me that Beirut would become a retreat for money amidst a global recession, I would have laughed. Yet, that is what is happening and I do not think that outside of the Middle East, most people are paying much attention.
When I talked with members of the Parliament, government officials, academics and corporate officials about the boom, I heard a fairly uniform series of explanations. First, during the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon never once defaulted on its debt. In part this reflects a developed capacity for managing risk but it is also good business sense, something Lebanese are known for having in spades. Second, to this day, the Lebanese banking system remains very conservative which includes certain secrecy provisions that make it attractive to those with honest and I am sure not so honest intentions. Third, because of the civil war and the pursuant reconstruction of the late 90s, Lebanon was fairly isolated from the global economic wave that washed over almost every other country. As a result, it did not get hit hard in the collapse that came after.
The most obvious outcome of this situation is construction. After 24 hours in Beirut, I found myself taking pictures of the signs developers put up to advertise the building that will be there shortly. There were slogans like - Come live in Paradise" and "Refined Living", or my favorite "Very Few Dreams Left: Baabda Palace Residence." I found the irony if one thinks back just even a couple years to be striking.
What is an even more striking outcome is the life of the city. At night, the Gemmayze District can swing with any nightlife district in the world. Dozens of bars have been created in the basements of very old buildings, all of them serving great food and drink - this is Lebanon after all - and many of them offer fantastic music. The result is people on the streets. Regardless of their sect, the young people are enjoying life, further fueling the boom.
To be sure, there is a class division here. Not everyone can afford to party. And it was a class division that cut fairly clearly along sectarian lines that helped spark the Civil War. However, the lines are not so strictly drawn this time. Every sect, at some level, is enjoying the new Beirut.
Some elected officials are trying to capitalize on this positive outlook of the future to pass laws that will help further reduce the old divisions of the past, and democracy continues to reassert itself lending a bit more stability to the country. While I was there the local elections were being conducted and people were turning out and voting in an orderly fashion. There were some complaints in Beirut about a lack of choice but this seemed to be more the result of politics than uninhibited manipulation.
Lastly, one of the most encouraging signs I saw was that venture capital funds are emerging to support the development of new businesses in the country.
All of this is remarkable when you consider Lebanon's recent history.
Of course, those unfortunate realities of Lebanon's existence have not disappeared. All of this happens in the shadow of weak regional stability. And the obvious question is typically answered that people are nervous but they are not willing to stop living or to stop trying. Perhaps that is the most fascinating thing. In the face of so many reasons to quit, Lebanon is rebuilding itself and the people are finding ways to work with each other to make a stronger country, even a place where people have enough confidence to put their money.