According to all available economic data, Lebanon is a country rich in natural and human resources and, until recently, its people enjoyed high living standards in general. In the 1970s, Beirut was the main international financial centre in the Middle East, in addition to being a destination for tourism and entertainment.
It was also a hub for industries, agricultural production and advanced infrastructure, while Beirut airport was the main link into the region.
Where did it all go? Who is responsible for what is happening now?
Currently, two-thirds of Lebanon’s population are displaced to various parts of the world and the other third is stuck in poverty and unemployment.
A policy of grab
Corruption and backward-looking ideologies have exhausted Lebanon’s great economic potential. Corruption has exhausted the state’s finances, while much of its private wealth having gone abroad. Meanwhile, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah has tampered with the remainder of the wealth still stuck there, due to its total domination of the state, including of facilities such as the airport and ports, especially after the US sanctions imposed on Iran. The sanctions prompted Hezbollah to seize more of the public resources.
After a corrupt administrative group took over the running of Lebanon, it resorted to imposing a tax on WhatsApp messages at $6 per month. It may seem trifling for the rich, but categorically not the case for the Lebanese.
This tax is ridiculous and tragic at the same time. It is ridiculous because the Ministry of Telecommunications and the Council of Ministers, which approved the tax, have nothing to do with WhatsApp services. It is a platform operated by a global corporate over the web. Lebanese citizens are just recipients of this service like those in other countries.
It is tragic because it affects the lives of ordinary people who have already been deprived of basic services such as electricity, clean water and public transportation. And because it reflects the incompetence of the government, which should be looking at ways to develop wealth through implementing projects, provide jobs and offer basic services. Rather than doing all of that, those in power resorted to ways that most Lebanese cannot afford.
All gone to waste
In the 1990s, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri attempted to pull Lebanon out of poverty and chaos by attracting investments, implementing projects, developing infrastructure and providing new jobs. All this within a record time, He managed to achieve a qualitative leap in the economy and carried out vital projects.
However, Hariri was killed at the dawn of the new millennium by the Hezbollah, according to the International Commission of Inquiry set up on his death, leading to the flight of foreign capital, including those from the Gulf which constituted the biggest share.
Hezbollah’s anti-Gulf position and its training of terrorist operatives have placed many restrictions in the travel of GCC nationals to that country, who constitute the majority of the tourists visiting this country. Lebanon’s tourism sector has since lost its vitality and caused heavy losses to investors.
The WhatsApp tax does reflect the failure of the government. Instead of imposing taxes, Lebanon can create an effective administrative system away from the political parties and sectarian quotas. It has also to take advantage of its enormous capabilities, distance itself from regional conflicts, and put all state facilities and infrastructure under professional management.
To attract foreign investments and encourage Lebanese investors to return, Lebanon must also take action to curb rampant corruption in government agencies and enact regulations guaranteeing investment safety.
This will surely bring about a qualitative leap to the Lebanese economy and society, revitalise the tourism sector and provide job opportunities. In this case, there will be a completely different Lebanon. And it will not need to impose a “helpless tax”, ie, the ridiculous taxation on WhatsApp messages.
Dr Mohammad Al Asoomi is a UAE economic expert and specialist in economic and social development in the UAE and the GCC countries.