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What we find charming, business finds alarming

What we find charming, business finds alarming

Millions of tourists each year overlook shortcomings in the infrastructure of countries such as Lebanon. Business can’t afford to be so nonchalant, says Katherine Azmeh.

June 13, 2010 12:04 by

The holiday edition of the Economist ran an article last year that analyzed the allure for some of “being foreign.” To live as an expatriate in another’s land is perhaps more common now than at any other time, and research seems to suggest that some personalities are keenly suited to the role of “the stranger.”

For some of us, being foreign revitalizes the ordinary with newness. Things seem less routine – even the routine things. And the unexpected is present to a greater degree in the activities of daily living. Everything has the potential to be an adventure again, much like when we were children.

A trip to the grocery store in Lebanon still retains an element of surprise for me, after more than a year here. Sometimes, I feel conspicuous staring for too long at a product on the shelf, turning it over, trying to figure out what it is, where it was made. When things “go wrong,” I feel less inclined to blame myself – it’s all part of the learning curve of being new in a foreign land. When a police officer stops 12 lanes of traffic at a four way intersection in downtown Beirut so that I can cross the street where no crosswalk exists, I find it charming, and memorable.

But business investors find it a big red flag.

A few months after arriving in Lebanon, I was driving through Beirut with a friend from the US and our Lebanese host. We were entertaining her with stories of things that can happen “only in Lebanon.” My friend, a life-long resident of Beirut, told the story of an English friend of his who had lived a decade in the country. As the story goes, one day, the man pulled his car up to a traffic cop, motioned at a traffic sign that indicated no U-turn, and asked the officer if it would be alright to break the rule. The officer obliged him, and went the extra mile, by stopping all oncoming traffic to facilitate the man’s illegal U-turn. I thought it was somehow charming; she didn’t.

“It is things like that, that discourage me from pursuing business opportunities in Lebanon,” she said, frankly. And, months later, I am reminded of what she said nearly every morning, when I see headlines like these:

“Lebanon faces urgent need to modernize public sector.”
“The specter of constant electricity cuts is haunting the Lebanese again.”
“Lebanon’s water and electricity sectors suffer from poor management.”
“Poor broadband costs Lebanon $435 million a year.”
“Lebanon’s telecommunications sector continues to suffer.”

By failing to make significant improvements in the delivery of basic services, like water and power, waste disposal, roadways, and technological infrastructure, countries like Lebanon will continue to put obstacles in the way of business. And while perpetual travelers like me chalk it up to charm, businesses and investors simply don’t.

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