Damascus: The dramatic escape of ex-Nissan and Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, from Japan to his native Lebanon, topped all headlines in the region ahead of New Year’s Year.
Lebanese journalist Beshara Charbel described it as “James Bondish,” amidst reports that he arrived in Lebanon hidden in a wooden box, carried on a private plane. That story was immediately refuted by his wife, Carole Ghosn, who described it as “fiction.”
The drama was only matched by yet another story, however, predicting that Ghosn might be appointed cabinet minister in the government of prime minister-designate Hassan Diab. Ghosn is out of jail on-bail awaiting trial in Japan for tax evasion and financial misconduct.
If he gets Lebanese government immunity, that would prevent his extradition to Tokyo.
Last month, Diab was tasked with forming a cabinet of technocrats, where ministers are appointed for their professional merit, rather than political affiliations.
“He is seriously being considered for the Ministry of Industry,” said Fadi Walid Akoum, a prominent Lebanese analyst.
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Given that he faces accusations of corruption, then he will be automatically rejected by the Lebanese street, which revolted against corruption last October.”
Adding credit to the rumors was an invitation Ghosn got to Baabda Palace shortly after landing in Beirut, where he met with President Michel Aoun.
On Thursday the presidency denied that the two men had met, but Ghosn is scheduled to address the media next week.
Ghosn will be holding a press conference in Beirut on January 8, explaining how he got to Lebanon and whether or not he is going to join any forthcoming government.
Close ties with FPM
In 2018, then-Justice Minister Saleem Jeruisati got on the phone with his Japanese counterpart, lobbying on Ghosn’s behalf after his arrest.
Jereisati is now minister of state for presidential affairs in the caretaker cabinet of Saad Hariri and a member of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
Jereisati’s boss, outgoing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil also stands by Ghosn, saying: “He is an expatriate Lebanese who represents one of our success stories.”
“For Lebanon, this is a matter of national pride for some,” said Fadi Assaf, a Lebanese political risk consultant and co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives.
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “The presence today in Lebanon of the man who could have been a “providential man” for Lebanon in another context could hurt the interests of the country if this presence is mismanaged.”
Good management of this sensitive issue could also benefit Lebanon, noted Assaf.
“Appointing him to a ministerial position, however, would be particularly risky for local authorities and very difficult to manage.”
Aoun’s ally, Hezbollah, has been lukewarm towards Ghosn, having accused him of treason for a 2008 visit to Israel.
At the time, he was photographed with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had led the 2006 war on Lebanon, and met with President Shimon Peres.
Hezbollah demanded withdrawal of his Lebanese passport, and some went as far as calling for his arrest if he sets foot in Beirut, citing a Lebanese law dating back to 1955 which prohibits any Lebanese from visiting Israeli territory or dealing with Israeli citizens.
Ghosn ignored their threats, however, and his last visit was in 2017, when a stamp was issued with his image by Liban Post.
The ceremony, held at the posh Yacht Club on Zeitouneh Bey on the Beirut seaside, was boycotted by Hezbollah ministers.
For that reason—more so than the tax evasion charges in Japan—he stands a slim chance of becoming minister today. Hassan Diab was named premier by Hezbollah and cannot assemble a cabinet without its consent.
“Ghosn refused to abide by US sanctions on Iran, however, and refused to shut down Renault’s factory in Iran” which might give Hezbollah a pretext to back out on their criticism of him, should consensus be reached on making him minister, added Akoum. Lebanese roots
Ghosn's Lebanon connection
Ghosn’s connection to Lebanon runs through his grandfather Beshara, a Lebanese émigré who arrived in Latin America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he worked in the sale of rubber and agricultural machinery.
Born in 1954, Carlos moved to Beirut with his family in 1960, where he studied at the Jesuit school, College Notre-Dame de Jamhour.
At one point in 2007, Lebanese dailies speculated that Ghosn might run for presidential office in Lebanon, using his wealth and international connections to relieve the country of its economic burdens.
Speaking to the Damascus-based magazine Forward Magazine in July 2009 he denied the claims saying: “I have no political ambitions.”
In an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Alsharq Alawsat, he drew parallels between the Lebanese economy and Nissan Motors when he first joined the group as chief operations officer in 1999, saying that the country can rise from its stagnation, just like Nissan.
Lebanon was $45 billion in debt, while Nissan was suffering from $20 billion in debt.