There are opportunities for British firms to aid in rebuilding countries with troubled pasts, such as Lebanon and Iraq, provided we leave any preconceptions at the door
Despite the ravages of war, being surrounded by Israel and Isis, enduring millions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees, having an impossible constitution of 50% Christian, 25% Sunni and 25% Shia in their parliament with a Sunni president and a Shia prime minister (or is it vice-versa?) who will never get on and being under the threat of a new war any day, Beirut remains indefatigably glamorous and determined to be luxurious. These people love their country, which is undeniably beautiful, and will not let a few difficulties drive them out or hold them from the lifestyle they feel is theirs by birthright - and which they can only have now by force of will. How can you not admire that?
The Lebanon was a French colony and the French savoir faire and joie de vivre lives on. It’s a sophisticated place, and as you fly in over the corniches with their apartment blocks by Foster and Coop Himmelblau next to the cruise ship berths, you might be landing in Nice. The people are very western and fashionable, the girls are all in the latest gear and coiffed to the nines, balancing on their six-inch stilettos. The Beiruties are charming and industrious. The Lebanese have been THE traders of the Middle East for hundreds of years, and Beirut variously described as the Paris or Switzerland (for its banking) of the Middle East. I am left wondering what expertise UK businesses can possibly bring to aid this sophisticated and industrious nation.
My trip is to make presentations to Perkins and Will’s parent company, Dar Al-Handasah, one of the world’s most successful engineering consultancies. I arrived on the Thursday night and was booked into the ultra-modern Le Gray hotel where I had a suite the size of a small flat. I met colleagues in the rooftop bar with its panoramic views over the city nestling in the hills of the Lebanon. Villas dot the cedar-lined slopes with views to the sea. It’s far from its war-torn image.
These ancient, historic communities are full of supremely capable people who are trapped by their circumstances. They are impatient for it all to stop so they can get on with their lives
The next day we make presentations on our capabilities to our hosts which are warmly received, and then we go for lunch. It’s a Japanese-Italian restaurant; the Lebanese take fusion to new limits, sushi followed by pizza! And over conversation we learn about the Lebanon’s unique predicament. Our host is driven and spends all week on jets around the Middle East sorting out massive jobs in Saudi, Dubai etc. We are there on a Friday because that’s the day he “homes” to be with his family for the weekend.
“Why didn’t you bring your wife?” he asks. Family is everything.
There’s a gala dinner at night in aid of the outgoing president of the American University of Beirut - the city’s top university. Dinner is served promptly followed by speeches; a Lebanese opera singer and a virtuoso Arab violinist follow with convivial conversation. The dinner ends equally promptly and we are whisked back to the hotel via the harbour side boulevards lined with designer clothes shops. Beirut’s reputation for intelligence, industry and sophistication is further underlined.
On Saturday the hotel limo drives me to the airport to fly to Dubai. A pleasant journey through one or two army roadside checks.
They seem relaxed enough. “Do you drive?” asks the chauffeur. “Yes,” I say. “Could you drive in Beirut?” “I think so, it can’t be worse than London,” I reply. He looks disappointed. “You should see it during the week. The traffic is terrible.”
Indeed it is. But it’s still a lovely town.
Back in London, I chair a session for Baroness Nicholson at the IBBC conference on rebuilding Iraq. Most of the day is spent discussing business opportunities in Iraq and how to deal with the security situation and the threat of Isis to Iraq’s recovery. My session on architecture is a moment when we can all look to the positive challenge of rebuilding a community using Iraq’s vast natural resources.
There was a common theme between Lebanon and Iraq, if more extreme in Iraq. These ancient, historic communities are full of supremely capable people who are trapped by their circumstances. The recent past has been full of false dawns; the cessation of war in Lebanon in 2000 and the deposing of Saddam Hussein, only for new threats to arise from dysfunctional politics and religious intolerance. They are impatient for it all to stop so they can get on with their lives, build great businesses and communities, and enjoy their futures.
We see these troubled countries as a problem, they see them as home. There is an opportunity for British firms to aid these countries in rebuilding from their troubled past, but only if we leave our preconceptions - and any sense of Western superiority - at the door. If we do, we can help give these communities the opportunity for a new tomorrow that they are after.
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will