23 November 2010

* CBC Report on Hariri's Killing

It wasn't until late 2007 that the awkwardly titled UN International Independent Investigation Commission actually got around to some serious investigating.
By then, nearly three years had passed since the spectacular public murder of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, the builder. The billionaire tycoon who'd reclaimed Beirut's architectural heritage from the shattered cityscape of a civil war and made it his mission to restore Lebanon's mercantile leadership.
Hariri, the nationalist who'd had the courage to stand against Syria, Lebanon's longtime occupier; and in his day was the most important reformer in the Middle East.
The massive detonation that killed him on Feb. 14, 2005 unleashed forces no one knew were there. All of Lebanon seemed to rise up in the murder's aftermath, furiously pointing at the country's Syrian overlords.

The not unreasonable assumption was that Hariri had died for opposing Damascus.
Lebanon's fury quickly accomplished what the assassinated leader had failed to achieve in his lifetime.
The murder gave rise to the so-called Cedar Revolution, a rare Lebanese political consensus. Syria, cowed by the collective anger, withdrew its troops.
At the UN, France and the U.S. pushed the Security Council into dispatching a special investigative commission.
For a time, it actually seemed that Lebanon was moving toward the rule of law and true democracy.
But, by the end of 2007, all that had ebbed. The killers remained uncaught. Syria was gradually reasserting its influence. And assassinations of other prominent Lebanese continued.
In the White House, senior administration officials began to conclude that the UN's famous clay feet were plodding toward nothing.
It turned out they were right.
A months-long CBC investigation, relying on interviews with multiple sources from inside the UN inquiry and some of the commission's own records, found examples of timidity, bureaucratic inertia and incompetence bordering on gross negligence.
Among other things, CBC News has learned that:
  • Evidence gathered by Lebanese police and, much later, the UN, points overwhelmingly to the fact that the assassins were from Hezbollah, the militant Party of God that is largely sponsored by Syria and Iran. CBC News has obtained cellphone and other telecommunications evidence that is at the core of the case.
  • UN investigators came to believe their inquiry was penetrated early by Hezbollah and that that the commission's lax security likely led to the murder of a young, dedicated Lebanese policeman who had largely cracked the case on his own and was co-operating with the international inquiry.
  • UN commission insiders also suspected Hariri's own chief of protocol at the time, a man who now heads Lebanon's intelligence service, of colluding with Hezbollah. But those suspicions, laid out in an extensive internal memo, were not pursued, basically for diplomatic reasons.

 In its first months, the UN inquiry had actually appeared promising. The first commissioner, a German judge named Detlev Mehlis, quickly delivered a blistering report suggesting Syria had ordered, if not actually carried out, the hit.
Unspecified agents, Mehlis contended, had done the deed.
But Mehlis's successor, a Belgian prosecutor named Serge Brammertz, seemed to be more interested in avoiding controversy than in pursuing any sort of serious investigation, at least according to people who worked for him.

Under his leadership, the commission spent most of its time chasing what turned out to be false leads and disproving wild conspiracy theories.
That isn't to say the commission didn't have some good investigators. It did. In fact, it had a handful of the best that Western police agencies had to offer.
But Brammertz could not be persuaded to authorize the one technique that those investigators wanted above all to deploy: telecommunications analysis, probably the single most important intelligence-gathering tool in modern times.
Telecommunications analysts use powerful computers and highly sophisticated software to sift through millions of phone calls, seeking patterns, referencing and cross-referencing, identifying networks and associations.
Police forces call it "telecomms." Spy agencies call it "sigint." It leads to convictions in courts and missile strikes in places like Afghanistan and Yemen.
Unbelievably, though, the UN commission in Lebanon did no telecom analysis at all for most of its first three years of existence. It wasn't until Brammertz was nearing the end of his term that one particularly dogged detective prodded him into letting the inquiry start examining phone records.

The breakthrough

At that point, in October of 2007, things began moving fast. Commission staff actually managed to obtain the records of every single phone call made in Lebanon the year of Hariri's murder — a stunning amount of data — and brought in a British firm called FTS to carry out the specialized analysis.

UN clerks worked day and night inputting data into a program called IBase. Then, in December, a specialist from FTS began examining what the computer was spitting out.
Within two days, he called the UN investigators together. He had identified a small network of mobile phones, eight in all, that had been shadowing Hariri in the weeks prior to his death.
It was the single biggest breakthrough the commission had accomplished since its formation — "earth-shattering," in the words of one of the people in the room the day the network was identified.
What the British analyst showed them was nothing less than the hit squad that had carried out the murder, or at least the phones they'd been carrying at the time.
For the first time, commission investigators were staring at their quarry. The trouble was, the traces were now nearly three years old, long past the "golden hour" for harvesting the best clues.
Still, it was something. And when the investigators began their due diligence, double-checking their work, there was another revelation, this one even more earth-shattering.
Someone digging though the commission's records turned up a report from a mid-ranking Lebanese policeman that had been sent over to the UN offices nearly a year and a half earlier, in the first months of 2006.

Not only had the policeman identified what the UN would eventually dub the "red network" — the hit team — he had discovered much more. He had found the networks behind the networks.
In fact, he'd uncovered a complex, disciplined plot that had been at least a year in the planning, and he had already questioned suspects.
What's more, everything he'd discovered pointed to one culprit: Hezbollah, the Party of God.
All of this was in the policeman's report, which he had dutifully sent to the UN officials with whom he was supposed to be partnering.
And the UN commission had promptly lost it.

Before his violent death in 2008, Wissam Eid was an unusual figure in the murky, often corrupt world of Arab policing.
He had never actually wanted to be a policeman, or an intelligence officer. In authoritarian Arab society, he had no interest in becoming an authority figure. And yet, he'd had no choice.

When he was doing his military service in the 1990s, the ISF, Lebanon's all-encompassing security force, noticed Eid's degree in computer engineering.
The security service was then trying to build an information technology department. And that was that.
"He was a patriot," says his father Mahmoud, sitting in the living room of the family home in Deir Ammar, on the outskirts of Tripoli.
The centerpiece of the room is, in the Arab way, a shrine to their son. The young man's intense, chiselled countenance stares back at visitors over commendations and testimonials.
His mother Samira, a picture of Islamic dignity, is a religious person. It helps with the grief.
The rest of her family is not particularly observant. But they all understand the savage realities of their country and how those realities clashed with Eid's unyielding pursuit of some of the most dangerous people in the world.
By the time Hariri was killed in 2005, Eid was a captain in the ISF. His boss, Lt.-Col. Samer Shehadeh, brought him into the investigation.
It was a Lebanese investigation, Eid was told, but it was also a UN one. Eid was to co-operate with the foreigners working out of the old abandoned hotel in the hills above Beirut.

Process of elimination

Capt. Eid, though, wasn't interested in delving into some of the wilder theories making the rounds in Lebanon.
He reasoned that finding the first traces of the killers was a process of elimination.

From Lebanon's phone companies, he obtained the call records of all the cellphones that had registered with the cell towers in the immediate vicinity of the Hotel St. George, where the massive blast had torn a deep crater.
Once Eid had those records, he began thinning out the hundreds of phones in the area that morning, subtracting those held by each of the 22 dead, then those in Hariri's entourage, then those of people nearby who had been interviewed and had alibis.
Soon enough, he had found the "red" phones the hit team had used.
But he didn't stop there. Exhaustively tracking which towers the red phones had "shaken hands with" in the days before the assassination, and comparing those records to Hariri's schedule, he discovered that this network had been shadowing the former PM.
The red-phone carriers were clearly a disciplined group. They communicated with one another and almost never with an outside phone. And directly after the assassination, the red network went dead forever.

But Eid had found another connection. He eventually identified eight other phones that had for months simultaneously used the same cell towers as the red phones.
Signals intelligence professionals call these "co-location" phones.
What Capt. Eid had discovered was that everyone on the hit team had carried a second phone, and that the team members had used their second phones to communicate with a much larger support network that had been in existence for at least a year.
Eventually, the UN would label that group the "blue" network.

More networks

The blue network also exercised considerable discipline. It, too, remained a "closed" network. Not once did any blue-network member make the sort of slip that telecom sleuths look for.
But these people also carried co-location phones and Eid kept following the ever-widening trail of crumbs.
The big break came when the blue network was closed down and the phones were collected by a minor electronics specialist who worked for Hezbollah, Abd al Majid al Ghamloush.
Ghamloush was, in the words of one former UN investigator, "an idiot."
Given the job of collecting and disposing of the blue phones, he noticed some still had time remaining on them and used one to call his girlfriend, Sawan, in the process basically identifying himself to Capt. Eid. He might as well have written his name on a whiteboard and held it up outside ISF headquarters.
Ghamloush's stupidity eventually led Eid to a pair of brothers named Hussein and Mouin Khreis, both Hezbollah operatives. One of them had actually been at the site of the blast.
Capt. Eid kept going, identifying more and more phones directly or indirectly associated with the hit team. He found the core of a third network, a longer-term surveillance team that would eventually be dubbed the "yellows."
Eid's work would also lead to another discovery: Everything connected, however elliptically, to land lines inside Hezbollah's Great Prophet Hospital in South Beirut, a sector of the city entirely controlled by the Party of God.

It has long been said that the fundamentalist fighters operate a command centre in the hospital.
Eventually, telecom sleuths would identify another network of four so-called "pink phones" that had been communicating both with the hospital and, indirectly, with the other networks.
These phones turned out to be tremendously important. It turned out they had been issued by the Lebanese government itself and when the ministry of communications was queried about who they had been issued to, the answer came back in the form of a bland government record.
CBC has obtained a copy of this record provided to the commission. On it, someone has highlighted four entries in a long column of six-digit numbers. Beside the highlighted numbers, in Arabic, was the word "Hezbollah."
Hezbollah has several seats in the Lebanese legislature and at the time had been part of a governing coalition, hence the government-issued phones.
Finally, Eid was handed a clue from the best source possible: He was contacted by Hezbollah itself and told that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counter-espionage operation against Israel's Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.
The warning could not have been more clear.
As though to underscore it, Eid's boss, Lt.-Col. Shehadeh, was targeted by bombers in September 2006. The blast killed four of his bodyguards and nearly killed Shehadeh, who was sent to Quebec for medical treatment and resettlement.
By that time, Capt. Eid had sent his report to the UN inquiry and moved on to another operation.
The Eid report was entered into the UN's database by someone who either didn't understand it or didn't care enough to bring it forward. It disappeared.

Mixed with shame

A year and a half later, in December 2007, when the Eid report finally resurfaced, the immediate reaction of the UN telecom team was embarrassment. And then suspicion.
Eid claimed to have performed his analysis using nothing but Excel spreadsheets and that, said the British specialist, was impossible.
No one, he declared, could accomplish such a thing without powerful computer assistance and the requisite training. No amateur, which is how the specialists regarded Eid, could possibly have waded through the millions of possible permutations posed by the phone records and extracted individual networks.

This Capt. Eid must have had help, thought the telecom experts. Someone must have given him this information. Perhaps he was involved somehow?
By now it was January 2008. A new UN commissioner was in charge, a Canadian justice official named Daniel Bellemare. Investigators were finally beginning to believe they were getting somewhere.
A deputation of telecom experts was dispatched to meet Eid. They questioned him and returned convinced that, somehow, he had indeed identified the networks himself.
Eid appeared to be one of those people who could intuit mathematical patterns, the sort who thinks several moves ahead in chess. Even better, he was willing to help directly. He wanted Hariri's killers to face justice, Hezbollah's warning be damned.
It was an exciting prospect for the UN team. Here was an actual Lebanese investigator, with insights and contacts the UN foreigners could never match.
A week later, a larger UN team met with Capt. Eid and, again, all went well.
Then, the next day, Jan. 25, 2008, eight days after his first meeting with the UN investigators, Capt. Wissam Eid met precisely the same fate as Hariri. The bomb that ripped apart his four-wheel-drive vehicle also killed his bodyguard and three innocent bystanders.
Lebanon gave Eid a televised funeral and, at the UN inquiry, there was outrage as well. But mixed with shame.
Because there was no doubt in the mind of any member of the telecom team why Eid had died: Hezbollah, they deduced, had found out that Capt. Eid's report had been discovered, that he'd met with the UN investigators and that he had agreed to work with them.
Immediately, the telecom team had the records of the cell towers near the Eid blast site collected, reasoning the killers might once again have left digital footprints they could follow.
Not this time, though. There was nothing. This time the killers did what they should have been doing all along: They'd used radios, not cellphones. Radios don't leave a trace.
That left the UN team with the obvious problem. Their adversary obviously knew not only what the UN investigators were doing, but knew in considerable detail.
And the more the UN investigators thought about it, the more they focused on one man: Col. Wissam al Hassan, the new head of Lebanese intelligence.

In the tradition of Middle Eastern intelligence chiefs, Col. Hassan is a puzzling, even feared figure in his own country.
He was on the UN radar from the beginning, for two reasons: He quickly became one of the inquiry's main liaisons with the ISF; plus he was in charge of Hariri's security at the time of the assassination.
Except he hadn't been in the convoy the day of the blast. And his alibi was flimsy, to put it mildly.

On July 9, 2005, Col. Hassan told UN investigators that he was enrolled in a computer course, Management Social et Humaine, at Lebanese University.
He said that on the day before the assassination, Feb. 13, he had received a call from his professor, Yahya Rabih, informing him he was required to sit for an exam the next day.
Twenty minutes later, he told investigators, Hariri had phoned, summoning him. Col. Hassan said he arrived at Hariri's residence at 9:30 that evening and obtained his boss's permission to attend the exam the next day.
He spent the entire next morning studying for the exam, he told the UN, and turned off his phone when he entered the university, which was at just about the time Hariri died.
"If I wasn't sitting for that exam," Hassan told investigators, "I would have been with Mr. Hariri" when he died.

A different story

But Hassan's phone records told another story entirely.
In fact, it was Col. Hassan who called the professor, not the other way around. And Hassan placed the call half an hour after he had met Hariri earlier in the evening.

The cell towers around Hassan's home also showed that the next day Col. Hassan spent the hours before Hariri's assassination, the time he was supposedly studying, on the phone.
He made 24 calls, an average of one every nine minutes.
What was also disturbing the UN investigators was that high security officials in Lebanon don't normally sit for exams.
"His alibi is weak and inconsistent," says a confidential UN report that labels Hassan a "possible suspect in the Hariri murder."
That report, obtained by CBC News, was prepared in late 2008 for Garry Loeppky, a former senior RCMP official who had taken over as the UN's chief investigator that summer.
Hassan's alibi, said the document, "does not appear to have been independently verified."
That hadn't been for lack of desire on the part of UN investigators. They'd wanted to check out Hassan's alibi, to "get in his face," in the words of one former detective, and pick apart his story.

At the very least, they wanted to contact Rabih, the professor.
But Brammertz, the second UN commissioner, flatly ruled that out. He considered Hassan too valuable a contact and any such investigation as too disruptive.

'Might damage relations'

The confidential report concedes that investigating Hassan could have its drawbacks: "It may damage the commission's relations with the ISF, and if he was somehow involved in the Hariri murder, the network might resolve to eliminate him."
Nonetheless, the report states that Col. Hassan "is a key interlocutor for the commission. He is in a unique position to influence our investigation. As such, questions regarding his loyalty and intentions should be resolved.
"Therefore, it is recommended that WAH be investigated quietly."
But even that wasn't done. The UN commission's management ignored the recommendation.
Former UN investigators remain suspicious to this day of Hassan, who, they note, was eventually cut out of the inquiry's loop.
But Hassan did become Capt. Eid's boss after the Hariri assassination. He certainly would have known about the sudden interest in the Eid report, and the meetings.
"He was an unsavory character," a former senior UN official said. "I don't think he participated in the murder, but there's no way of telling what he knew."
"He rose, at the very least, to the level of a person of interest," said another.
Reached in Lebanon today, al Hassan repeatedly declined comment.

More calls

Though told to back off, UN investigators nevertheless had managed to collect Hassan's phone records for late 2004 and all of 2005.

In that time, he had 279 discussions with Hussein Khalil, the principal deputy of Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah. Khalil in turn spoke 602 times to Wafik Safa, who is known in intelligence circles as the hard man who runs Hezbollah's internal security department.
No one asked Hassan about those calls, either.
Hassan, though, also has his defenders. He remains a close ally of Hariri's son Saad, the current Lebanese prime minister.
Also, former U.S. officials, some of whom were in the Oval Office when then president George W. Bush vented his frustration with the commission's apparent incompetence, maintain that Hassan is in fact a bitter enemy of Hezbollah, and casting suspicion on him merely plays into the group's hands.
That this particular UN memo about Hassan was ever written, says one former American security official, is evidence that the commission hadn't the slightest idea what it was doing.
Several former UN investigators, though, are unanimous. They believe Hezbollah infiltrated the commission and used Hassan in the process.
"He lied to us on the alibi," says one. "He should have died in the convoy. That's the question mark."

Nearly six years have now passed since Hariri's assassination. The UN mandate was eventually expanded to include nine untargeted public bombings and 11 targeted attacks and assassinations, including that of Capt. Eid.
Daniel Bellemare oversaw the commission's transformation into the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, residing in The Hague, and is now its chief prosecutor.
To date, the UN inquiry has reportedly spent in the range of $200 million and there has been talk for some time now that it is preparing to bring down indictments, possibly late this year or in early 2011.

The tribunal currently has an annual budget in excess of $40 million and more than 300 employees from 61 countries. It has a headquarters, a team of prosecutors, a defence office, judges, clerks, investigators and research staff, even access to detention facilities, but not a single accused.
Bellemare is singularly uncommunicative about whatever progress has been made, as was Brammertz. From time to time, Bellemare has assured the Lebanese media that justice is proceeding, must remain confidential and shouldn't be rushed.
Bellemare refused repeated requests to speak to CBC News about this report.
The commission's telecom team eventually produced a succession of sophisticated charts depicting the phone networks behind the Hariri killing. CBC News has obtained a fairly recent iteration.
In recent months, investigators even attached names to some of the red phones carried by the Hariri hit squad.
But the biggest problem, according to several sources, has been converting the telecommunications analysis into evidence that will stand up in a court of law.

That means someone has to find financial records, or witnesses or other evidence, to actually place the phones in the hands of the alleged perpetrators.
As of mid-2009, sources say, the commission had not done so.
"There was no [corroborating] evidence whatsoever," says one former insider. "And there was no hope of getting any evidence. Because who are you going to put on the ground in southern Beirut to go digging around? You can't put anyone on the ground. It's not possible."
What's more, the commission never used wiretaps, even after it identified certain phones in networks that hadn't gone dead.
In all likelihood, any formal request to the Lebanese authorities for a phone tap would have become known in short order to Hezbollah, given its connections. And Bellemare wouldn't allow his investigators to buy and use eavesdropping technology on their own.
He had, though, gone cap-in-hand to Washington, looking for help from its intelligence agencies. There, he met with Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and with then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
But he was rebuffed. Bellemare had not been Washington's choice for the job and U.S. officials did not hold him in terribly high regard. They were aware he had been spending much of his time obsessing over the trappings of his UN offices, ordering in tailored clothes, boasting about his prosecutorial prowess and designing a personal coat of arms.
His underlings had watched, bemused, as he dispatched security staff to Beirut's more fashionable shopping districts to inquire about having the family crest embossed on pieces of jewelry.
"If I was given to conspiracy theories," said one of Bellemare's former officials, "I'd think he was deliberately put in there so as not to achieve anything."
Secret intercepts from intelligence agencies like the CIA or National Security Agency are not useable in a court such as the UN Special Tribunal. And, knowing of the leaks and other problems at the UN commission, no intelligence agency in the West was prepared to hand over such sensitive material.

When Hadley politely inquired as to what Bellemare would consider a success — indictments, actual arrests, declarations of official suspicions? — the Canadian waffled, unable or unwilling to provide a precise answer.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, Hezbollah had begun mounting a campaign to ensure that gathering supporting evidence would remain next to impossible.
As rumours began surfacing in the Lebanese press that the UN tribunal was getting close to issuing indictments, Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, began warning that he will simply not tolerate arrests of any of his people.
That's no idle threat. Nasrallah operates a private militia considerably more powerful than the Lebanese army. And he also demanded that the UN tribunal, which is partially funded by Lebanon, be dissolved.
In recent months, Nasrallah has taken to claiming that it was actually Israel that killed Hariri.
More than one former UN investigator believes that should the telecommunications evidence ever be put before the Lebanese public, Nasrallah will acknowledge that his operatives were on the street when Hariri died, but claim that they were there chasing Israeli assassins.
Nothing the UN has uncovered points remotely at Israel. Everything points at Hezbollah. But invoking Israel always gains traction in the Arab world.

Backing off

One formerly senior official with the commission says "considerable progress" was made during the most recent months of Bellemare's term in gathering evidence to support the telecommunications work. But, he concedes, the evidence is still largely circumstantial.
That may be all the excuse that Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his political allies need to let this commission die.
Saad Hariri and his supporters originally blamed Syria for the assassination. But they've been backpedaling in recent months. Hariri recently exonerated Syria, repudiating his own sworn statement to UN investigators in 2005.
He has also called for an investigation of Nasrallah's claims that Israel killed his father.
Detlev Mehlis, the first UN commissioner, told CBC News recently that it has always been obvious Syria ordered the Hariri hit. That it would use Hezbollah, its long-time proxy, he says, is only logical.
The elder Hariri, Mehlis noted, had pushed not just for a Syrian withdrawal but also for the disarming of Hezbollah's feared militia.
Scott Carpenter, a former Bush administration official dispatched by the White House to Lebanon in the wake of Hariri's death, also says the reality is obvious.
But, he adds: "Is Hezbollah going to get away with it? Yes. Fewer travesties will be greater, but I don't see where the international will is to take this on, and I certainly don't see, absent that international will, how the Lebanese people can take it on."

A martyr remembered

Capt. Eid, who was posthumously promoted to the rank of major, lies in a grave not far from the family home in Deir Ammar.
His picture is everywhere in the city, looking down upon streets, cafes and restaurants. He is uniformly described as a martyr to his country.
His family has precious little by which to remember him. A few photos, a scrapbook of news stories about his death, and a few minutes of amateur video.

Mohammed Eid says that by late 2007, his older brother had begun living in his office, convinced he probably didn't have much longer to live.
He asked Mohammed to make the video, which depicts him working at his desk in the ISF's Beirut headquarters. In it, he banters with people off-screen; it is unremarkable footage, but haunting to anyone who knows his story.
Eid's mother, Samira, says her son was a gift to their country and believes that, as a martyr, he remains with her eternally.
"If we have a few other Wissams in Lebanon, the country will be just fine," she says. Her husband just stares sadly into space.
She and her husband and their three surviving sons know almost certainly who killed Wissam.
But this is Lebanon, and they understand the consequences of talking about that.
"I cannot open my mouth," she says, "because we have other young men to protect."
Mohammed Eid says the family has even come to realize that Lebanon could pay a bloody price if his brother's murderers are ever charged. "C'est pas le moment," he says, in the family's second language.
But of his brother's investigative skill, the family has no doubt.
In 2009, before the UN inquiry packed up and left for The Hague, an Australian prosecutor named Raelene Sharp, who'd been working for the commission, paid the Eid family a surprise visit.
She wept, as she told them that without their son, the commission would be nowhere.


21 November 2010

* Beirut property market projected to rise over next three years

The Lebanese economy ministry has said that the country's real estate market is expected to grow by up to 15% in the next three years, the Daily Star has reported. "Lebanon has gone against the current of the international financial crisis in the real estate sector," director general of the economy ministry Fuad Fleifel said at the Beirut International Property Fair.

"Its real estate value has risen by 9% during the first eight months of 2009, with expectations that it will rise between 10% and 15% until the year 2013." In the first quarter of 2010, Lebanon's real-estate transactions spiked by 41% over the same period of 2009, totalling just over $2bn, according to the Directorate of Real Estate. The market benefited from strong economic growth as well as remittances from expatriates, it said.


17 November 2010

* لبنان الاختلاط يتراجع... كل طائفة تعيش في قبرها

ابن بيروت الهارب من ضوضاء مدينته والباحث عن الهدوء في عرمون وبشامون، عليه أن يقدّم أوراق اعتماده إلى الطائفة ليحصل على سند التمليك. وابن الضاحية الذي يحب المدينة وتمنعه ظروفه من السكن فيها، ستحول طائفته بينه وبين السكن في الأشرفية. والشاطر من ينجح في التمويه ولا تُكشف حقيقته الطائفية إلا بعد أن يصبح داخل شقته الجديدة. عندها تبدأ معركة التحمّل
ربى أبو عمّو
حين اتصل حسين نصر الله للسؤال عن الشقة المعروضة للبيع في منطقة بعبدا، جاء الجواب، بعدما سُئل عن اسمه، أنها بيعت. ابنه الذي طلب منه مراراً الكفّ عن البحث في المناطق المسيحية، أراد أن يبرهن لأبيه صحة ما يعتقد. أعاد طلب الرقم مدعياً أن اسمه إيلي خوري: «أهلاً أستاذ، يمكنك القدوم وقتما تشاء لمعاينة الشقة»!

مرّت السنوات العشرون على انتهاء الحرب لتبرهن أن الاختلاط الذي أنتجته فترة سماح سببها الفوضى ولملمة الماضي، مجرّد كذبة. وكأن الرشد غادر اللبنانيين مؤقتاً، وما لبثوا أن استعادوه. عادوا يتكومون بعضهم فوق بعض طائفياً، رافضين الآخر.

لم يكن في الاسم الثلاثي لرلى أي دلالة على هويتها الطائفية. ذهب صاحب الشقة السنيّ التي أرادت استئجارها في وقاحته إلى النهاية. سأل عن مسقط رأسها وطائفتها. لم يكفه أنها سُنية، فارتباطها بشاب شيعي دفع المالك الحريص على منطقته إلى الاعتذار منها بصراحة؛ لأن «الشيعة ما أجرونا لمّا رحنا لعندون».

وأن يتجه ثنائي إلى منطقة رأس النبع بحثاً عن شقة، لهو التهور في ذاته. تحوم الأسئلة حوله: «كيف تنويان السكن في منطقة تماس بين السُّنة والشيعة؟».

وإن كان الشيعي خطراً على المسيحي، فللسُّني أيضاً نصيبه. عين الجديدة قرية مسيحية معروف أنها تعجّ بالمصطافين، مثل القرى التي تحاذيها. يروي ناسها قصة رجل اشترى قطعة أرض بُعيد انتهاء الحرب الأهلية وتركها على حالها، لكنه عاد قبل فترة محاولاً شراء العقار الذي يحاذيها لكي يوسع مساحته ويعمّر بيتاً له. تدخلت البلدية ومارست ضغطاً على صاحب الأرض كي لا يشتري من الرجل الذي صودف أنه من الطائفة السنية.

لا تقتصر المسألة على التقسيم الطبقي للناس. فالأصفار الستة التي يملكها بعض الشارين لم تعد جواز عبورهم وهجرتهم إلى غير بيئتهم الطائفية. ومَن كان علمانياً وخَبرَ العيش في مناطق معروفة باختلاطها تاريخياً، اختلطت عليه الأمور ودفعته إلى العودة مكرهاً إلى أحياء لطالما مقت العيش فيها. لكن اليوم لا خيار له إلا الاحتماء بالطائفة؛ لأن عامل الأمان النفسي والاجتماعي أصبح أولوية.

بعض اللبنانيين اختبروا الاختلاط الحقيقي حين اختاروا العيش في منطقة الطائفة الأخرى، متجاوزين سنوات الحرب ومخاوف المحيطين بهم، مقتنعين بتقبّل هذا الآخر لهم أو متجاهلين إياه ومتحمّلين الضيق الذي ينتج منه، لأنهم، انطلاقاً من نظرتهم العلمانية، يعرفون أن السلبيات لن تحسب أمام أن ينشأ أولادهم في بيئة غير بيئة طائفتهم لكي يعيشوا الاختلاف الحقيقي. هذه هي حال طارق، الشاب المسيحي الذي يرى أنه لا سبيل لزرع العلمانية في قلب أولاده، إلا إذا انتقل للعيش في منطقة ذات وجود طاغ للطوائف المسلمة. وتقول أسرة مسلمة اختارت السكن في فرن الشباك: «إذا كان لا بد للحرب من أن تقع، فليس بالضرورة أن يضطروا للعودة إلى مناطقهم (نسبة إلى الطائفة). فالبعض حمى جيرانه من طوائف أخرى خلال الحرب الأهلية». تجاوزت هذه الأسرة رفض المالك المسلم (علماً بأنه اشترى لاحقاً من بعض المسلمين) بيع شقق أخرى لمسلمين، مراعاة للبلدية التي اشترطت عليه لإنهاء معاملات بيع العقار وتسهيل حصوله على الأذونات، ألّا يشتري من غير المسيحيين. تجاوزت كل هذه الأمور لأنها أدركت أنها لن تستطيع العيش في المنطقة التي خصّصت لها اجتماعياً، لأسباب نفسية واجتماعية واقتصادية عدّة.
لكن، قد يجوز السؤال هنا: هل هذه الأسرة متأكدة من الحماية التي ستحظى بها إذا اندلعت الحرب؟ وماذا عن موقف جيرانها المسيحيين منهم؟ تقول إنه لا تجمعهم بجيرانهم سوى التحيات الصباحية والمسائية، نظراً لانهماكات الجميع، إلا أنهم لا يشعرون برفض هؤلاء المسيحيين لهم أو بجفلتهم منهم.
الوضع في لبنان دخل «أسوأ حالاته الديموغرافية ومستقبله الاجتماعي»، انطلاقاً من تكريس الفرز الطائفي والمذهبي في الأحياء والأبنية. هذا ما يقوله عالم الاجتماع زهير حطب. قد يكون هذا امتداداً صامتاً لفترة الحرب الأهلية، التي لم تستطع بعدُ انتشال الخوف من نفوس جميع اللبنانيين. حتى الجيل الجديد الذي لم يعش الحرب، تحوّل إلى ضحية لهذا الماضي الذي يرفض أن يوضع جانباً.
يتطابق تحذير حطب مع كثرة تداول الشائعات أو الحقائق عن فرز طائفي بدأ عدد من البلديات المسيحية تطبيقه علناً. هذه الشائعات طاولت بلديات الحدث وجزين وكفرشيما. يقول المسلمون، الشيعة منهم خصوصاً، إن بلدية الحدث أصدرت قراراً يمنع بيع المنازل والأراضي التي يملكها مسيحيون. قرارٌ نفاه رئيس البلدية جورج عون بشدة (رغم أنه تحدث عنه جهاراً على إحدى الشاشات)، لكنه لم ينف وجود مثل هذه الإجراءات. تبريره أنه ليس قراراً بقدر ما هو إقناع مسيحيي الحدث بعدم بيع ممتلكاتهم والبحث عن السكن في أماكن أخرى، رائياً إلى جهوده على أنها للحفاظ على هوية الحدث تكريساً للاختلاط الطائفي بين المناطق، وليست فرزاً!
دائرة نفوس الحدث تشير إلى ديموغرافية المنطقة على الأرض قبل الحرب. كانت مكونة من 9 آلاف ماروني، ألفي أرثوذوكسي، 700 كاثوليكي، 700 شيعي و700 سني. دائرة النفوس حافظت على أرقامها هذه حتى اليوم، إلا أن واقعاً جديداً فرض نفسه بعد الحرب، ويتمثل بـ«التمدد الشيعي».
يضع عون خريطة الحدث فوق مكتبه. يشرح ديموغرافيا المنطقة حالياً ويقسمها قسمين متساويين: الجزء الذي تعرض «للتمدد الشيعي» كان عبارة عن أراض زراعية غير مسكونة، باعها أصحابها المسيحيون من الشيعة بعد انتهاء الحرب، حتى كوّنوا الغالبية. أما القسم الآخر، الذي يعرف بالحدث الضيعة، فهو ذو الغالبية المسيحية، وهو الجزء الذي تسعى البلدية إلى طمأنة ساكنيه وحثهم على عدم مغادرة بلدتهم، فيما التنسيق جار مع حزب الله للمساعدة على تفهم الوضع ومحاولة الحد من توسع المسلمين إلى أكثر من الحدود المرسومة لهم.
يضيف عون أن نحو 60 في المئة من التلامذة في المدارس (المسيحية) هم شيعة.
«الشائعة» نفسها تنسحب على بلدية جزين. ينفي رئيس البلدية وليد الحلو هذه التهمة، مشيرأ إلى أنه «لم يعد هناك أراض للبيع في المنطقة».
كيف يمكن تصنيف مناطق الحدث وفرن الشباك وبعبدا وقلة غيرها؟ يقول حطب: «انقضى عهد الاختلاط الطائفي، وبتنا نتّجه نحو الفرز الطائفي والمذهبي في الأحياء والأبنية». يرفض استخدام عبارة اختلاط لأنها، في رأيه، وصف خاطئ للوضع القائم، مفضلاً كلمة تجاور، بمعنى عائلتين تسكنان جنباً إلى جنب بلا إضافات. ولتقريب فكرته، أعطى مثالاً زوجاً وزوجة يجلسان على كنبة واحدة، فيما يدير كل منهما ظهره للآخر.
ويعطي حطب مثلاً آخر عن الجامعة اللبنانية. يقول: «كان الاختلاط الطائفي أمراً واقعاً. اليوم، طغى اللون الواحد على الجامعة». يتابع أن «ما نسبته 90 في المئة من الطلاب هم من لون واحد، مقابل 10 في المئة من طوائف أخرى، لكنهم مرغمون».
واقعٌ فرضته الحرب وكرسته فترة ما بعد الحرب. يستذكر حطب أنه أجرى مسحاً سكانياً في عام 1973لحي السيدة في رأس النبع، بالتعاون مع المطران غريغوار حداد، وبلغت نسبة المسيحيين في ذلك الوقت 65 في المئة. أما الخط الممتد خلف الترامواي (شارع محمد الحوت)، فكان يقطنه 80 في المئة من المسيحيين. في ذلك الوقت كان الاختلاط «فعلياً». كأن تجد مبنىً تقطنه عائلتان مسيحيتان وأخرى مسلمة.
الغوص في الأسباب يعني البحث في التاريخ السياسي والنفسي الاجتماعي لأجيال أرادت حصر نفسها باللون الواحد. يقول حطب إن السبب الأساسي يكمن في «فقدان التصور الإيجابي عن الآخر، لأن الطائفة عرفت الأخرى في الأوقات الحرجة. وما إن يلتقي أحدهم الآخر حتى يعيد تشغيل الأسطوانة التى تتضمن الصفات المسجّلة فتزدحم في رأسه عفواً الأفكار المسبقة وتسيطر عليه». في المقابل، لأن الأمان مفقود في البيئة الطائفية المختلفة، يشعر الفرد بأنه «كلما زاد في عدائه للآخر نال استحسان جماعته، ما يزيده عزة ونفوذاً».
ماذا عن حارة حريك الشيعية اليوم، تلك التي عرفت الاختلاط قبل الحرب؟ بين بساتين الليمون التي حلّت محلها الأبنية، اختلطت الطائفتان المسيحية والمسلمة. كانتا تشعران بأمان باغتهم بسرعته في الانقراض. بدأت الحرب وترك المسيحيون الحارة بسبب الفلسطينيين لا اللبنانيين المسلمين، كما يقولون. غادروها، باعوا ممتلكاتهم باحثين عن مكان آخر. اليوم، يأتي بعض «الحارَويين» المسيحيين إلى ضيعتهم الأم لحضور قداس الأحد. باتت الكنيسة هي المكان المشترك الوحيد بين الماضي والحاضر. إلا أن هذا الحنين لم يدفع أحداً منهم إلى العودة. صحيح أن البعض يعترف بأن الخوف من بيئة حزب الله كان أحد الموانع الأساسية، إلا أن تفاهم الحزب مع التيار الوطني الحر جعلهم يجرؤون على النزول إلى الضاحية للمشاركة في القداس، فيما استقرار الجميع في أماكن أخرى يمنعهم من العودة إلى الحارة.
لم يعترف أحد بأن الحنين إلى «الحارة» ليس إلى حارة اليوم التي تغيرت ديموغرافياً، وهذا سبب رئيسي للبقاء خارجاً. على كل حال، سيظهر مدى الحنين في حال تجاوُب مسيحيي الحارة مع مشروع أبرشيتها بإنشاء مبنيين سكنيين بغية تشجيع المسيحيين على الإقامة في المنطقة.
بعض مسيحيي الحارة تجاوزوا الماضي، ولو بحذر، وباتوا يزورونها. في المقابل، حتى اليوم، لم تطأ قدما نزهة «المنطقة الغربية». تشعر بأن خطراً يتهددها بمجرد وصولها إلى ذلك المكان الغريب. صديق ابنها مسلمٌ، وقد اعتاد الإقامة عندهم في فترة الامتحانات. لم يكن ينتابها تجاه هذا الشخص المختلف طائفياً أي شعور بالخوف. إلا أنه بمجرد أن يقرر أحد أولادها الذهاب إلى «الغربية» تضع يدها على قلبها وتطلب من هذا الصديق المسلم حمايته!
تعكس نزهة وجهة نظر لا تزال سائدة لدى جيل الحرب. إلا أن هذا الجيل نقل تجربته إلى الجيل الشاب، الذي ترسّخ في لا وعيه خوف قد يفرض عليه ممارسات مختلفة حين يتطلب الأمر.
حتى سائقو سيارات التاكسي فُرزوا مناطقياً. تخيل نفسك واقفاً على جادة سامي الصلح وتطلب خدمة التوصيل إلى عين الرمانة؛ أي المسافة نفسها إلى المشرفية. ستعرف فوراً أن من يرفض إيصالك هو مسلم ومن يقبل هو مسيحي يعمل في حدود منطقته.
يقول حطب إن الوضع في لبنان هو أشبه بالمقبرة. يتجاور الموتى من دون أن تجمعهم كلمة واحدة. كلٌّ في قبره. هذا يجاور ذاك. لكن الكلام مقطوع. الجميع يديرون ظهورهم للجميع.


31 October 2010

* Lebanon and Iran make uneasy bedfellows

I think it should be a Beirut Diary this week. Deep background, you understand. The truth. Believe me, it is.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the palace dining room to eat with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week – Saad being the son of ex-premier Rafiq who was murdered by ... we'll come to that later – Saad made sure that Beethoven was on the public address system. It was the Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Freedom". The moment the Iranian President sat down, he turned to Saad and said: "Let's skip the lunch. Let's have sandwiches and go to southern Lebanon together."
Now here was a problem. Saad is a Sunni Muslim; Mahmoud, of course, is a Shia, and the Iranian President was inviting a Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon to visit the Shia south of Lebanon where he (Mahmoud, that is) would declare that southern Lebanon – he was speaking less than two miles from the Israeli border – was Iran's "front line" against Israel. Saad politely declined the invitation and Mahmoud went on to Bint Jbeil to rally his lads and lassies on his own. Lucky that he was even in Lebanon. The Beirut air traffic control boys (they are, indeed, all lads) had already expressed their concern when the Iranian President's Boeing 707 aircraft made its final approach. Wasn't there a ban on ancient 707s arriving at Beirut's ultra-modern airport? Ban overruled.

Then there was the rally in the southern suburbs of the capital – Hezbollah's (ie Iran's) section of Beirut. Long live Ahmadinejad. Many choruses. Long live Lebanon. Many choruses. Long Live Hariri. Many booes. This was a difficult one. Is Lebanon the "lung through which Iran breathes" (thank you, the late Sayyed Fadlallah) or just the front line against Israel (potentially even worse)?
Posters the previous day on the airport road. Next day, they honoured southern Lebanon. Khomeini, Khamenei ("Supreme Leader", as we all know) and Ahmadinejad pictures clustered the houses of southern Lebanon. And that half-cut apple that is the symbol of the Islamic Republic. "Could we have our flags back?" the Iranian embassy asked the Lebanese army two days later. Indeed they could, immediately replaced with billboards of half-naked ladies and watches, swimming costumes and whisky. The Syrians were very pissed off with the Iranians. Why no posters of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria whose Hezbollah-Iranian relations are second to none?
Stopping over in Damascus, Ahmadinejad told Assad he wanted Nouri al-Maliki to be Iraq's prime minister. Assad told his Syrian cabinet – the source is impeccable – that "our friends want Maliki". And Ahmadinajed, like the Syrians, opposed The Hague tribunal which may – so Hezbollah's leader (Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, close friend and confidant of Ahmadinajed) – blame Hezbollah members for the murder of Rafiq Hariri.
Nonsense. Wasn't it supposed to be the Syrians who killed Hariri (or so The New York Times and the London Times would have us believe) that blew Hariri's motorcade up – along with the 21 others whose names we have all forgotten – on St Valentine's Day of 2005? Nope. Since the Syrians offered their assistance to the United States in Iraq, it's been the pesky Iranians (courtesy The New York Times and The Times of London) who, through their Hezbollah allies, have been blamed for the mass slaughter Notice, by the way, how the Syrians and Iranians were blamed for Lockerbie and then, post-Syrian help in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the Libyans?
Anyway. Amadinejad poured scorn on the UN's Hague tribunal which may – or may not (watch this space) – accuse Hezbollah of killing Rafiq (son of Saad) on Syria's behalf? And lo and behold, on Thursday morning this week, two officers of The Hague tribunal turned up in the southern suburbs of Beirut to examine the records of a gynaecological clinic.
Yes. GYNAECOLOGICAL CLINIC?, I hear you ask. Well, The Hague spokesmen/spokeswomen won't say what this is about. But I can tell you. Between 15 and 17 Shia Muslim women from the southern suburbs of Beirut – who are having pregnancy tests at the clinic – are sisters or wives of leading Hezbollah officials, and The Hague guys wanted their mobile telephone numbers to match them with calls made from the same numbers on the afternoon of Hariri's murder, perhaps by their husbands.
Now, 11 members of the Lebanese Alpha mobile company (Mr Robert's mobile, by the way, belongs to the same company) have been arrested and charged with spying for Israel. Hezbollah claims that Israel has inserted mobile calls into the record of the 14 February 2005 calls – the originals came from the British listening system on Mount Troodos in Cyprus – in order to plant evidence. So The Hague men arrived at the clinic with the usual horde of Lebanese security men to protect them. But they were met by up to 150 ladies, minibussed to the clinic by – Hezbollah? – to complain at this grotesque personal intrusion. Hezbollah denies all knowledge of the affair. Of course. But the women pulled the hair of the Hague's female interpreter and so jostled The Hague men that they managed to get their hands on one of their briefcases.
Needless to say, The Hague won't identify the nationality of their own two foolish officials who thought they could brazenly walk into Hezbollah's fiefdom with their secrets intact in a briefcase. I can reveal that one of them was French, the other Australian.
They had asked for a 9am appointment with the head of the clinic – this appointment was, of course, betrayed to Hezbollah – and they didn't get those mobile telephone numbers. They just lost their briefcase. As I write, the contents are being translated by Hezbollah. What hope The Hague tribunal? What hope Lebanon?


29 October 2010

* Beirut’s property boom prices many Lebanese out

Beirut used to conjure up images of clear skies, sparkling sea and red-roofed Ottoman-era houses, but cranes and new buildings now puncture its Mediterranean skyline and the cacophony of bulldozers has shattered the idyll.

All over Beirut, developers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars building luxury flats for high-income Lebanese, and prices are soaring, especially in the central district widely dubbed Solidere after the company that rebuilt it from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war.

While analysts insist no property bubble is looming, price rises are forcing middle income Lebanese out of a capital city some refused to leave even in the midst of war and unrest.
"I'm frustrated. It's going to be a while before I can afford something and I'll have to get a loan and pay for it for a long time," said Labib Ghulumiyyah, a 35-year-old doctor, who has been trying to buy an apartment for two years.

"With all the problems in Beirut, I'd still rather be here."

A 2010 report by property consultants Cushman and Wakefield said Beirut was the 30th most expensive retail rental city in the world, up three places from last year, and the most expensive compared to 10 cities in the Arab world.
Retail rents in Beirut's Solidere area stood at 1,470 euros ($2,063) per square metre, ahead of Luxembourg, Stockholm and Tel Aviv.
In Beirut's central district, a mixture of restored period properties and new buildings, property sells for anything from $7,000 to $13,000 a square metre. Other prime Beirut neighbourhoods see prices in the range of $4,000 per square metre, several real estate experts have said.
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said the sector was worth $10 billion a year in sales and projects.
That may seem small compared to even single developments in the oil-exporting Gulf, but is a lot of money for Lebanon.
To put the numbers in perspective, Lebanon's government budgeted total spending of $12 billion for 2010.

Unfazed by politics
Demand in Beirut has been driven up by Lebanon's large community of expatriates, who are either returning or want a foothold in the city though they do not live there full time.
Wealthy Gulf Arabs and Lebanese who are buying flats as an investment for their children have also pushed up prices.

Analysts and real estate experts insist, however, that this is not a property bubble in the making because the buyers are end-users, not speculators, and many are either paying in cash or borrowing amounts they can afford.

"I don't believe there's a bubble in the market. It's true that prices have risen significantly, but they emanated from a low base so prices today are more in line with regional and international benchmarks," Marwan Barakat, head of group research at Lebanon's Bank Audi, told Reuters.

Salameh, the central bank governor, said Lebanon's property sector was not overleveraged so he did not expect a price crash.

"The credit linked to the real estate sector does not exceed 8 per cent of the total balance sheets of our banks. Usually you have negative effects on real estate prices when there is high debt attached to that sector," he told Reuters.
"We expect prices to level after this big increase and historically we have seen this pattern in Lebanon, where you have a quick rise, and then a levelling and then another rise."
Only a dramatic deterioration in security could hit demand for property, but even that does not seem to faze developers who are breaking ground on projects across Beirut.
Indeed, Lebanon's resilience has translated into an average of 8 per cent growth for the last three years, driven by strong consumer confidence.
Property prices have risen 30 per cent each year since 2007, Barakat said, impressive for any city let alone one that has seen dozens of bombings, weeks of protests, days of deadly clashes and a war with Israel in the last five years alone.
House prices fell only 2.3 per cent during the a 34-day war Israel fought with Hizbollah in 2006, according to a December 2009 Global Property Guide, and residential property prices in central Beirut rose 40.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2009.
But in a 2010 report, the guide warned that Beirut properties were becoming too expensive.
"Lebanon is now overvalued, in our opinion," it said.

More projects under way
There are now more than 20 developments under construction in the prized area of central Beirut.
One is the $500 million Beirut Terraces project, developed by Benchmark, where the asking price for an apartment starts at $7,200 a square metre and reaches $12,500 a square metre for the penthouse, with delivery in 2014.
Beirut Terraces, which boasts an "open air sparkling marina coastline" and "lush suspended gardens" has been 30 percent sold off-plan - a trend that is growing and that helps developers finance construction without resorting to too much borrowing.
Zina Dajani, Benchmark's managing director, admits the market for luxury properties is smaller than that for more affordable homes, but says demand for high-end real estate remains strong enough to justify such projects.
"Those who are looking for a deal are not the clients we are looking for," Dajani said. "In Beirut, prices have been raised enough not to allow you to cater to the mid-income level."
Bank Audi's June 2010 research says real estate sales grew 19.5 per cent a year between 2004 and 2009, and more than doubled in the first five months of this year.
But despite Lebanon's resilience to political upheaval, tensions have grown in recent months amid reports that an international tribunal could indict Hizbollah members in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Al Hariri, the former prime minister who was the driving force behind Solidere.

Sectarian rhetoric has grown and some politicians have even warned of a return to civil war.
Anthony Al Khoury who is developing the $250 million District//S in Solidere said there is still demand but that political worries make it difficult to conclude sales.
"The political factor is the biggest risk to the market, for us as a developer, this is how we see it," he said.


27 October 2010

* Saudis Push Lebanese PM Hariri to Quit

In a sudden about-face, the Saudis on Monday, Oct. 25, urged Lebanon's pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down without delay and make way for an administration dominated by pro-Syrian ministers and Hezbollah. King Abdullah, according to Middle East and Beirut sources, sees no other way of saving Lebanon from tipping over into civil strife over Hezbollah's demand to disband the international tribunal probing the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Last week, Hariri confided to US Deputy Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman he was close to resigning and giving way to the Saudi King, long a friend of the Hariri family, now siding with its antagonists. When Riyadh saw he was sticking to his guns, the Saudi mouthpiece Asharq al-Awsat published an article of a sort rarely seen in the Arab media telling the Lebanese prime minister in no uncertain terms that he had no choice in the matter.

Chief Editor Tariq Alhomayed warned Saad Hariri that he had run out of options and the only thing left for him was to follow his father's example and resign as prime minister as Rafiq Hariri did in late 2004. A few months later, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. "Afterwards," said Alhomayed, "you will become, wherever you may be, a sanctuary" because only then will the Lebanese public and Arab leaders appreciate the threat against them.

DEBKAfile's sources spell out this "threat" as the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah conspiracy to break up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in time to pre-empt the indictments of nine senior Hezbollah security officials for involvement in the assassination due to be published before the end of the year.

Asharq al-Awsat acknowledged that no Lebanese leader stepping into Hariri's shoes would be able to invalidate the tribunal's legitimacy or dismantle it because this would condemn Lebanon to the anarchy of civil war. Nonetheless, the writer stood by the demand for Hariri to remove himself from office without delay as the only viable option left in the unfolding crisis.

Our sources note that a new Lebanese government under the thumb of Damascus and Hezbollah will waste no time in annulling the tribunal and so be free to parrot the Hezbollah charge that Israeli intelligence was behind the Hariri murder. When the tribunal asked Hezbollah for evidence of its charge earlier this year, it received no answer. Raising it again may well have the effect of precipitating a renewed Lebanese-Israeli clash of arms which a new government would not raise a finger to prevent.


05 October 2010

ديوان المحاسبة يدرس قطع حساب موازنة العام 2008

عقد مجلس ديوان المحاسبة جلسة طارئة بدعوة من رئيسه القاضي عوني رمضان، الذي استهل الجلسة وفق بيان للمجلس، بعرض موضوع قطع حساب الموازنة العامة عن سنة 2008 واللغط الدائر حوله في بعض الأوساط.
وبعد المناقشة، تبين بحسب البيان أنَّ "قطع الحساب لم يرسل إلى ديوان المحاسبة بعد، وأنَّ مديرية المحاسبة العامة في وزارة المال أرسلت قطع حسابات السنوات 2005 و2006 و2007، ثم طلبت استردادها شفهياً بغية إعادة صياغتها مجدداً، ولما طلب إليها تقديم كتاب خطي بالإسترداد، لم تفعل، لكنها لجأت إلى إرسال قطع حساب سنة 2005 مرة ثانية إلى ديوان المحاسبة، مغاير للأول".
كما تطرق المجتمعون إلى موضوع قطع حساب الموازنة الذي يعتبر مرتبط عضوياً بحساب المهمة، وأنَّ عدم قيام وزارة المال بإرسال حسابات المهمة إلى ديوان المحاسبة منذ سنة 2001، حال عملياً دون تمكن الديوان من تدقيق قطع حسابات الموازنة وفقاً للأصول.
وبناء عليه، قرر مجلس ديوان المحاسبة "الطلب رسمياً إلى وزارة المال المسارعة إلى إيداع الديوان قطع حسابات الموازنة عن السنوات الماضية، بما فيها قطع حساب سنة 2008، بالإضافة الى حسابات المهمة العائدة إلى السنوات 2001 الى 2008 ضمناً، وذلك بعد التدقيق فيها من مديرية المحاسبة العامة لدى الوزارة عملاً بأحكام المرسوم رقم 3373 تاريخ 11/12/1965 (تحديد أصول تنظيم الحسابات المالية ومهلها)، لأنَّه يستحيل على ديوان المحاسبة، من الناحيتين الحسابية والعملية، أن يدرس قطع حساب سنة معينة ويدقق فيه بمعزل عن حساب المهمة العائد إلى السنة عينها".

04 July 2010

* Lebanon Moves To Pass Hydrocarbon Law

Noble’s announcement of the Leviathan prospect and its plans to drill later this year have provoked a number of claims from Lebanon that the field extends into its offshore territory and has prompted the Lebanese government to fast track a new hydrocarbon law so that it might prepare to begin offshore exploration work of its own. In recent weeks belligerent statements have been exchanged between Israel and Lebanon. 
Commenting on the Lebanese parliament’s interest in passing a hydrocarbon law quickly, Jubran Basil, the country’s Energy and Water Minister, said on 28 June: “We need to approve this quickly so we don’t lose time,” adding: “We will protect our rights with all our strength.” Earlier Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau had warned Beirut that Israel would use force to protect “the rule of law…and international maritime law,”. Offshore boundaries between Israel and Lebanon – as well as Israel and Cyprus – have yet to be determined, but relations between Cyprus and Israel are friendly. The Leviathan prospect is 130km west‐northwest of Haifa and is reported to lie close to Cypriot waters. Seismic acquisition in Cypriot and Lebanese water is being carried out by Norway’s Petroleum Geo‐
Services (PGS).

A paper prepared by PGS staff and posted on the internet in May 2009 said high‐quality 3D data show “several attractive large sub‐salt four‐way dip closures and new stratigraphic plays offshore Cyprus and Lebanon.” It added that “numerous DHI’s [direct hydrocarbon indicators] associated with the prospects indicate several active petroleum systems and reduce the exploration risk in this frontier region.” The US Geological Survey stated in a recent report that the Levant Basin in the East Mediterranean holds potential reserves of 1.7bn barrels of recoverable crude oil and 122 tcf (3.4 tcm) of recoverable natural gas. Most of those potential reserves lie in deep water.


18 May 2010

* Miss USA Rima Fakih from Lebanon

Miss Michigan Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA on Sunday night, for doing whatever it is you do to win these things. The Lebanon-born Fakih is the first Arab-American Miss USA.

02 April 2010

* Lebanon Druze chief turns page on Syria ties

Lebanon's influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Thursday he has turned a page on past enmity with former arch-foe Syria for good.

"It was not that easy... but the past is over," Jumblatt told a news conference at his Beirut residence a day after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

"We were able to overcome certain parts of the past and get straight to the subjects that will lead to the stability of Lebanon," Jumblatt said.

"We agreed on the importance of supporting the (Syrian-backed Hezbollah) resistance."

The Damascus visit was Jumblatt's first since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a massive Beirut seafront bombing in 2005.

The Druze leader at the time accused Syria of the killing, branding Assad "the dictator of Damascus... a savage... an Israeli product, a liar... and a criminal."

Once Lebanon's main powerbroker, Syria has consistently denied involvement in the murder but pulled its troops out of Lebanon in April 2005, ending a deployment of almost three decades.

Jumblatt had also previously blamed Syria for the assassination of his father Kamal Jumblatt in 1977.

But he backtracked earlier this month, telling Al-Jazeera television his attack on Assad was "unworthy and unusual, unsuited to the ethics of politics even during a quarrel."

The 60-year-old began to show signs of a political about-face following a general election last June, when he defected from an alliance led by Hariri's son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to reconcile with the rival Hezbollah camp.

Since then, he has repeatedly stated his desire to "open a new page" with Damascus and Hezbollah has played a mediating role in the rapprochement in recent weeks.

"This strengthens Lebanon's position in the face of Israeli aggression," given Syria's support for anti-Israeli militants, Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussaoui told AFP.


* Fitch upgrades Lebanon to 'B'; outlook stable

Fitch Ratings has upgraded Lebanon's Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) to 'B' from 'B-'. The outlooks on both ratings are stable. Fitch has also upgraded Lebanon's Country Ceiling to 'B' from 'B-' and affirmed its Short-term foreign currency IDR at 'B'.
"The upgrade reflects the significant decline in Lebanon's public debt to 148% of GDP in 2009 from 180% in 2006, the favourable prospects for growth following improvements in the regional political and security situation, and the authorities' success in maintaining macroeconomic stability through multiple stress tests since 2005," says Purvi Harlalka, Associate Director in Fitch's Sovereign Rating Group.

Lebanon's rating is also underpinned by the size and depth of the local banking sector (350% of GDP in 2009), which is the main holder of Lebanese government paper (60% of the stock) and allows the government to sustain a higher level of debt than conventional indicators would suggest. The banking system's willingness and ability to finance the government is testament to the resilience of its non-resident deposit base, due partly to a strong home bias but also to conservative supervision and cautious interest rate management. Sustained deposit inflows are critical to the rating, given the domestic savings deficit, as they buoy growth and support the public finances.

Renewed confidence, spurred by the resolution of the domestic political impasse and the return of a functioning government, saw non-resident deposits rise by 23% last year, sustaining output growth at a rapid 8% in 2009. Given that the current political entente appears sustainable in the short-term, Fitch expects capital flows to remain high during 2010 and output to continue expanding robustly, although at a more moderate 6.5% pace this year. Together with the revival in tourism (arrivals reached a record 1.8m in 2009), these inflows should also continue to add to Lebanon's foreign exchange reserves (FXR) excluding gold, which rose to an unprecedented $26bn (75% of GDP) in 2009 from $17bn in 2008 (57% of GDP).

The substantial stock of FXR means that the Lebanese public sector was a net external creditor (on a residency basis) to the tune of 58% of GDP in 2009, while the public sector in the average 'B' range sovereign was a net external debtor to the extent of 14% of GDP. The accumulation of sizeable international reserves has also served to strengthen the credibility of the exchange rate peg, which is vital to the stability of Lebanon's financial and monetary systems given the high, albeit falling, rate of dollarization (64% in 2009).

The Stable Outlook reflects Fitch's forecast that the public debt ratio is likely to stabilise at current levels. The agency understands that the 2010 budget, which when passed will be the first approved budget since 2005, will be slightly expansionary, given the need to increase infrastructure spending. As capital expenditure has been restrained to the budgetary levels legislated in 2005, this rise is long overdue. It is to be accompanied by revenue raising measures, including a possible increase in VAT.

However, while spending growth is likely to outpace that of revenues, the authorities intend to maintain a small primary surplus to prevent any deterioration in debt dynamics. As a result, Fitch expects the general government deficit to widen to 10.7% of GDP in 2010 from 9.1% of GDP in 2009, but the debt ratio to remain constant at about 148% of GDP.

Nevertheless, this will remain the second-highest ratio amongst Fitch-rated sovereigns, after Japan, and indebtedness is unlikely to fall significantly further over the medium term in the absence of long-mooted measures, notably the privatisation of Lebanon's lucrative telecoms business and the reining in of the electricity company EDL's deficit. Achieving either of these structural reforms remains politically challenging. As a result, Lebanon's substantial debt burden, which consumes about 45% of government revenues in interest service and leaves the republic vulnerable to growth and interest rate shocks, will continue to restrain its rating.

Lebanon's rating is also constrained by its susceptibility to regional and domestic political tensions which renders the sovereign's longer-term growth prospects and reform outlook uncertain. However, Lebanon's high per capita income, liberal business environment, and unblemished debt service record provide important support to its creditworthiness. 


15 March 2010

* Lebanese Druze leader makes Syrian overture

One of Syria's harshest critics in Lebanon has now said his earlier statements were "improper" and called for a new page in relations between the two countries. A reconciliation between Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, and Damascus could boost Syria's role in Lebanese politics years after its troops were forced out of the country. For five years following the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Jumblatt was a stern critic of Syria. In re
cent months, however, he has broken with his former Western-backed allies.

His comments come as Syria is emerging from its isolation and is improving relations with Arab and Western states. Jumblatt's harshest verbal attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad came on Feb 14, 2007 in a speech marking Hariri's assassination. He told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters that Assad was a "snake" and a "tyrant" and called for revenge against him. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the assassination, a charge Syria denies.

These comments were improper, unfamiliar and unsuited to political ethics," Jumblatt said in a live interview with Al-Jazeera satellite channel late Saturday. "I said, at a moment of anger, what is improper and illogical against President Bashar Assad. It was a moment of ultimate internal tension and division in Lebanon." "Is it possible for them to overcome this moment and open a new page?" he added.

There was no comment from Damascus but Syrian state-run newspapers, Al-Thawra, Tishrin and Al-Baath published Jumblatt's comments on their front pages yesterday. The comments might well results in a Syrian invitation to visit Damascus. A shrewd politician known for his shifting loyalties, Jumblatt walked out from the Western-backed coalition last year and said he will take a neutral stance in Lebanese politics.

Also in 2009, Jumblatt reconciled with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, one of Syria's strongest allies in Lebanon. Nasrallah is said to be working for reconciliation between Jumblatt and Syria. Jumblatt, 60, was the main force behind the creation of a Western-backed alliance that led massive street protests to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following Hariri's assassination.

The Syrians pulled their army out of Lebanon in April 2005 ending nearly three decades of domination of their smaller neighbor. A longtime leftist and a one-time close Syrian ally, Jumblatt shifted after Hariri's assassination to the Western-backed camp after being a main beneficiary of Syrian goodwill when Damascus had the final say in Lebanese affairs for close to 30 years.

Since the 2005 break with Damascus, however, he became a staunch critic of Syria in Lebanon, calling for the overthrow of Assad's regime and blaming Syria for the 1977 killing of his father. Tensions between Jumblatt's Druse followers and his allies on one side and Nasrallah's Shiite militants erupted in street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, killing 81 people and nearly plunging Lebanon into another civil war. Since the clashes, Jumblatt has moderated his anti-Syrian rhetoric.


* New Druze Group Mocks Jumblat: Regaining Rationalism is a Blessing!

A new group calling itself the "Free Druze" has distributed a statement in the Shouf Mountains, criticizing Druze leader Walid Jumblat for underestimating the minds of fellow Druze citizens.
"We tell Jumblat, congratulations on regaining both your rationalism and political maturity," said the statement signed by the Free Druze.
"Congratulations on having the blessing of forgetfulness, the blessing of switching policies and moving arms from one shoulder to the other," added the statement carried by the daily Al-Akhbar on Monday.
Dubbing Jumblat as "ruler of the mountain" and "Caesar of the Shouf," the Free Druze criticized the PSP leader's "twisted policy."
"Your twisted policy is no longer a source of confidence," it said.
"The mask fell and Socialism is buried. Enough underestimating the minds of the Druze."
"We will not allow you, or your lawmakers or your men to use us to make a fortune in the name of the Druze," the statement threatened.


02 February 2010

* Al Hoss to Mufti

الحص: ما قيل عنك هشّم كرامة الطائفة وجّه الرئيس سليم الحص، أمس، رسالة إلى مفتي الجمهورية محمد رشيد قباني، هنا نصّها:
صاحب السماحة
عليك بتبرئة نفسك... أو الاستقالة، والخيار الثالث... والعياذ بالله، إهدار كرامة طائفتك.
أنت في موقعك يُفترض أن تكون فوق كل شبهة في استقامتك ونزاهتك. أوَليس هذا ما يأمرك به الدين الحنيف؟
إنك تتولّى القيادة الروحية لطائفة السنّة من المسلمين، مع أن الحقيقة، كما يجب أن تعلم، أنه لا كهنوت في الإسلام.
فكيف تتقبّل ما سيق إليك من اتهامات تطاول استقامتك ونزاهتك؟ كان المفترض أن ترد على هذه الاتهامات الشنيعة، أو أن تتولى دار الفتوى الرد نيابة عنك. أما وأن الرد المفحم لم يأتِ من جانبك، فالناس يرون، وبحق، أن السكوت على الاتهامات كل هذه المدة هو دليل على صحتها وصدقيتها.
خطر لي يوماً أنك قد تكون ثائراً لكرامتك. فكتبتُ إليك أحضّك على إقامة دعوى قدح وذم ضدّ مَن كال لك كل تلك الاتهامات. فما كان منك أي حراك في هذا الاتجاه. فكان سكوتك هذه المرة شاهداً قاطعاً على ضلوعك في الارتكابات التي اتُّهمتَ بها. فكنتُ أتساءل، كما كثير من الناس الذين كانوا يحترمونك، لماذا لا يبادر سماحة المفتي إلى مقاضاة مَن وجّه إليه الاتهامات إذا كان بريئاً منها؟ فما جوابك عن هذا السؤال؟
أعطاك الناس فرصة رحبة لإثبات براءتك مما نُسب إليك من القبائح، حتى لا نقول فيها أكثر من ذلك. فإذا بك لا تبدي حراكاً. كأنك تراهن على أن الوقت كفيل بمحو ما نُسب إليك. إن كان هذا حقاً ما تعتقد فإنك مخطئ، مخطئ، مخطئ. إن ما قيل عنك هشّم كرامة الطائفة بأجمعها، ولم يصدر عنك ما يخفّف من آلام الناس الذين كنت تتولى قيادتهم الروحية.
إننا نناشدك باسم الناس الطيبين يا صاحب السماحة أن تتحرك، أن تفعل شيئاً، ونحن نشير عليك بأن تفعل أحد أمرين: فإمّا أن تقدّم دعوى قدح وذم ضد مَن تجرّأ على توجيه كل تلك الاتهامات إليك أو أن تستقيل من منصبك ليحل محلك مَن يعنيه أن يحفظ كرامته في سلوكه وتصرفاته وأقواله، لا بل يعنيه أن يحظى برضى الله عزّ وجلّ.
في حال بقائك في مقامك الذي لم تعد جديراً به، فإننا نخشى أن يكون بقاؤك في يوم من الأيام سبباً لتفجير فتنة في صفوف طائفتك لا سمح الله. إذا وقع ذلك لا قدّر الله، فسيكون وزر الفتنة المدمرة في عنقك. ألا يكفيك ما في عنقك من أوزار ما ارتكبت حسب الاتهامات الموجّهة إليك؟
بالله عليك، برّئ نفسك مما اتُّهمتَ به أو ارحل بسلام. فربّ العالمين لا يغفر لك إهدار كرامة المسلمين.
أجل. بعبارة مختصرة: عليك بتبرئة نفسك أو الرحيل بسلام. وسلام على مَن اتّبعَ الهدى.
ولا يغرّنّكَ أن في هذا البلد جهات سياسية تخصك بالدعم والتغطية على معاصيك. فحبل دعمها، كما تغطيتها، قصير وعرضة للانقطاع في أي لحظة.


29 January 2010

* Black Box found

BEIRUT: A US navy vessel located on Wednesday the flight recorders from an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed off the coast of Lebanon two days ago with 90 people aboard, a security official said.
"The US ship located the black boxes 1,300 metres underwater and 8 km west of Beirut airport," the security official said, adding that search teams now had to assess the best way to retrieve the recorders.
Flight ET409, a Boeing 737-800, was carrying mostly Lebanese and Ethiopian passengers and was heading to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The plane apparently broke up in the air before plunging in a ball of fire into the Mediterranean during a thunderstorm early on Monday.
The security official said it was still too early to say whether the USS Ramage, brought in to help with the search, had also located the plane's fuselage.


* Farayya these days :)

28 January 2010

* Gulf Gap in Davos Belies Booming Economies in Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar

By Henry Meyer and Arif Sharif Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) — The program for this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos features no speakers from Qatar, Dubai or Abu Dhabi in any of the conference’s 230 events. Five spots are occupied by Saudis and four by Kuwaitis. “I think the absence of the Middle East is quite conspicuous,” said Ibrahim Dabdoub , chief executive officer of the National Bank of Kuwait, interviewed in the conference center in the Swiss village. “It’s a pity that Gulf involvement is so low.” Especially for anyone looking to make money.
Six weeks after Dubai almost defaulted on $4.1 billion in debt, the region as a whole is set to prosper. Oil prices, which account for 75 percent of the revenue of the six monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council , have more than doubled from their February 2009 low of $34 a barrel. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi are spending $600 billion by the end of 2013 to build roads, railways and new cities while expanding energy and manufacturing.
The GCC countries are forecast by HSBC Holdings Plc to post an average expansion of 4 percent or more in 2010, after no increase last year. That compares with projected growth of 2.7 percent in the U.S. and 1 percent in the 16-nation euro zone, according to the International Monetary Fund . Serious Opportunities “As a region I think we are on the cusp of some very very serious growth opportunities in the years ahead,” said Arif Naqvi , CEO of Dubai-based Abraaj Capital Ltd., the biggest private-equity company in the GCC, in an interview in Davos. “It is probably higher than in other parts of the world. There is liquidity and there is a desire.” The new spending may benefit Munich-based Siemens AG , Europe’s largest engineer, which said in November it is looking to win more contracts in Saudi Arabia to tap rising demand for power generation. Paris-based Total SA , Europe’s largest oil company, said Nov. 24 it is in talks with Qatar to build a petrochemical cracker, a fuel-processing plant.
Emad Mostaque , a Middle East equity-fund manager in London for Pictet Asset Management Ltd., which oversees more than $100 billion, plans to add to Saudi shares that currently represent a third of his portfolio. Saudi Arabia’s benchmark Tadawul All Share Index jumped 28 percent in 2009, the best-performing of the Gulf markets , followed by Oman. “Saudi Arabia is where we see the most potential,” Mostaque said in a phone interview. He said he recently bought more shares in Riyadh Bank, Riyadh-based Saudi food producer Almarai Co. and Riyadh-based Saudi Basic Industries Corp. , the world’s largest petrochemical producer. Pipes and Building He plans to acquire stock in Jeddah-based Saudi Cement, Riyadh-based pipe manufacturer Saudi Arabian Amiantit Co. and Zamil Industrial Investment Co., a Dammam-based maker of building materials. The kingdom last year announced that it would spend $400 billion on projects including three new railway lines and six new industrial cities over five years. It is the largest stimulus package in the Group of 20 nations as a share of gross domestic product. This year, almost $70 billion will go to roads, railways, airports and other projects, a 16 percent increase over 2009.
Crude prices, which have rebounded to about $75 a barrel, are likely to boost Saudi oil revenue in 2010 to $151.7 billion from $116.7 billion in 2009, according to EFG-Hermes. The Saudi 2010 budget was based on an average oil price assumption of $46 a barrel, according to Riyadh-based Banque Saudi Fransi. New Airport Qatar, which has the world’s third-largest gas reserves, is spending more than $100 billion over three years on projects including a new financial center and an airport. Abu Dhabi, the largest sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates, is allocating $100 billion to such investments as a $40 billion project to build an island tourism and leisure destination. Abu Dhabi holds 8 percent of the world’s oil reserves. “Oil prices will be a very important driver of confidence in the region,” said Dubai-based Monica Malik , chief Middle East economist at EFG-Hermes, which forecasts an average price of $80 a barrel in 2010. The six Gulf Arab nations in the GCC supply about 20 percent of the world’s oil — two-thirds of that crude output in Saudi Arabia alone. Growth will be slower in the smaller Gulf nations of Oman and Bahrain, which have less oil wealth, and Kuwait, where political infighting is slowing spending programs, said Simon Williams , chief Middle East economist at HSBC. Less Risk In a sign of the economic disparity, investors see less than one-fifth the risk in Saudi Arabian bonds compared with Dubai’s, according to trading in credit-default swaps. The cost of protecting against Dubai government default stood at 473 basis points on Jan. 27, CMA Datavision prices show. Bond-default risk for Abu Dhabi was 138, for Qatar 97 and 83 for Saudi Arabia. The seven-member U.A.E. will grow by no more than 1 percent this year because of a continuing contraction in Dubai, the IMF forecast Jan. 26. Saudi Arabia will post growth of almost 4 percent, according to a Jan. 13 forecast by Banque Saudi Fransi. Qatar, which plans to raise its production of liquefied natural gas by 42 percent to 77 million tons by September, is expected to have GDP growth of 17 percent in 2010, according to a median forecast of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg in November to December 2009. The country is considering an investment in Petroleo Brasileiro SA , Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Qatari Energy Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah said on Jan. 21. The next day, Brazilian Energy Minister Edison Lobao said Qatar may invest in a refinery joint venture with Rio de Janeiro-based Petrobras. Credit Squeeze The Gulf region as a whole suffered from a credit squeeze last year provoked by the global financial crisis. That, along with the sharp fall in oil prices from a peak of $147.27 a barrel in July 2008, led to the slump in 2009. Dubai, where real-estate prices have plunged 50 percent since their 2008 peak has fared the worst as it struggles under at least $80 billion in debt. Dubai World, one of three main state-owned holding companies, avoided default in December only with an infusion from neighboring Abu Dhabi that allowed it to repay a $4.1 billion Islamic bond. Bank lending elsewhere in the Gulf was also upset by the default of two Saudi family conglomerates. Eighty lenders, including BNP Paribas SA and Citigroup Inc. , are owed at least $15.7 billion by the two groups. Bank credit in Saudi Arabia declined 6.6 percent in the 11 months through November, 2009, central bank data shows. This year, government spending will remain the key driver of growth in Saudi Arabia as well as in most other Gulf economies as banks remain reluctant to lend, said John Sfakianakis , chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi. In addition, Abu Dhabi has sovereign assets of about $426 billion, one of the world’s largest funds, according to RGE Monitor in New York. Saudi Arabia holds a fund of $358 billion, Qatar $75 billion and Kuwait has about $271 billion. To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Dubai at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net ; Arif Sharif in Davos at asharif2@bloomberg.net

 Go here to read the rest:
Gulf Gap in Davos Belies Booming Economies in Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.