“Que Vaut Le Liban?” Or: What is Lebanon Worth?

what is the place of the century old infrastructural development tool as an urban reform tool in Lebanon today, and what alternative development types could be used towards an inclusive and legitimate governance model?

Since the end of the Lebanese Civil war in 1990 the prominent vision of rebuilding Beirut as a revived pre-war Paris of the Middle East dominated the governance imaginary in Lebanon. Beginning with the government authorized vision of the late prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and not ending with Merkel’s predominantly economic visit to Lebanon this June, which is supposed to have focused on refugee issues, and the surge of international development projects implemented and underway in Lebanon post the refugee crisis reforms, development seems to be the dominant trend.

While novel projects are taking place, the fact remains that development as socio-urban reforms remains over a century old tool in Lebanon initiated by Ottoman and french mandates that treated the city as a territory to intervene on through urban reform. While today voices such as that of the Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil contend that the international community is looking to settle refugees, hence implicitly question the ulterior motives behind such development projects and practices, other concerns regarding development ought to be considered beyond the demographic: Mainly, (1) the place of development as an urban reform tool in today’s cities and (2) whether governments could or not use development reforms as tools through which they derive their legitimacy and the citizen’s consent to their reforms.

The Lebanese started reaping the benefits of such development through participating in the different initiatives and development projects that equally address refugees and host communities since Lebanon’s response plan to the crisis in 2015 identified the necessity of addressing Lebanon’s needs and increasing the attention to the Lebanon’s poor as much as to Syria’s displaced communities. However, what really changed since the french outlook to reforms since the french mandate?

The 1919 Huvelin mission to assess the potential and the politics of economic development in Syria in the report* “Que Vaut La Syrie?”, or “What is Syria Worth?” is heavily centered on Syria and was to serve as the french economic policy towards a colonized, french Asia. Lebanon was marginal in the assessment. The outlook of the report to Lebanon with respect to the worth of Syria was as a gateway or circulation role to the Syrian wealth. Two aspects frame this outlook to Lebanon’s role in Syria: The first is the sense of entrepreneurial morality that the Lebanese could lend Syrians, the second, however, acknowledges its frailty and the territorial competition Lebanon had with the Palestinian harbors which then provided better connections to Damascus.

The subsequent infrastructural developments in Lebanon during the french mandate were to serve this gateway role. Little or no regard to social development meant that the urban antagonisms that tagged along infrastructural developments had since set the stage for the politics of governance through infrastructural development and resistance to development. The history of the unfinished french star urban type in Nijmeh Square in Beirut bears witness to the disjunction between development and the peculiarities and forces of social life.

Such was the outlook to Lebanon in 1919, but: Que vaut Le Liban today? What could we tell about Lebanon’s worth for international actors, but more important, to the Lebanese, from the vantage point of the nature of developments taking place today? Lebanon’s territorial worth with respect to Syria is still paramount, with a major change in the sense of directional flow as gateway. In place being a gateway to Syria’s wealth, Lebanon now represents a major gateway to refugee flows from Syria to the world. A disenchantment with international development investments in Lebanon is therefore one with a development of a gateway-cum-terminal destination to syria’s refugees, which resonates with Bassil’s disenchantment with the international community’s outlook to the refugee crisis in Lebanon. Economic development in Lebanon today is still a development of terminals as it was a century ago, although the terminals are less transit oriented and more so towards the creation of jobs for host and refugee communities alike. And by all means, this is a good thing. However,there is more to be considered regarding the place of development within the general development of the socio-economic and political life in Lebanon. With over 280 infrastructural development projects planned ahead for the next government and the emphasis on job creation, the question that concerns Lebanon’s worth, the types of development that enable the realization of this worth/value is more important than ever. Such a thinking is the salient mark of a country developing quantitatively and qualitatively. The realization of such development visions would equally be the hallmark of a legitimate governance qua the role of governments in such a visionary development and the reception/consent of the Lebanese to such visions.

Among the changes in the urban governance models and paradigms the Lebanese -governments and citizen- could consider  against socio-economic urban development are the following:

1- Foreign investments’ influence on the sense of ownership of cities and on the reality of a national governance model: Saskia Sassen warns that an Urban Take-over of cities through foreign investments and Buying of urban spaces have serious consequences for equity, democracy and rights, which should concern us all. Skepticism alone, the Lebanese should be at least concerned about the way development is influencing their culture, their urban life and the tissues of this life, and the ability of those without power to innovate and co-create the urban life in their cities. How much of this is considered through investments and development? Strikingly, the will to development with the Lebanese, the Syrians  and the international investors in mind both creates a cosmopolitan Lebanon but also legitimates worries on “national” grounds.

2- Political participation and census techniques: Lebanon has for long evaded census, and for long suffered ineffective political participation mechanisms. With the refugee flows into Lebanon, and the Lebanese fears of what present and future changes they may effect on local economy, culture and society, candid census may become as it used to be for the early sociological studies, a vehicle for the formation of stronger local communities and social ties rather than nightmare statistical figures. In the same way, effective political institutions could reinforce local political participation and enhance trust in political systems. This should also mean better governance models and more ability to handle a complex situation such as the one created in Lebanon as the war in Syria developed.

3- Infrastructural Development Vs. Entrepreneurial Development: There is a need for the assessment of the potential of a shift from infrastructural development by both national government and international actors towards real entrepreneurial development. While some of the development initiatives by international actors and donor organizations address the development of entrepreneurial projects in various sectors, and few address the roles of local governments in handling refugee crisis, there is no evidence as to whether governance level entrepreneurial development models are researched or implemented. David Harvey acknowledges the necessity of an entrepreneurial approach to governance especially in countries suffering fiscal and economic erosion: How to recognize competitive advantages and possibilities? What is being done to develop culture rather than just enterprise levels of development? What is the governmental outlook to creative research and technology in such development? How could inter-urban competition help Beirut step out of its cliche’ role as Paris of the Middle East, and become the economic suture to other Lebanese cities in constructive economic competition? How could this be invested in the creation of more diverse notions of citizenship beyond local or factional affiliations and towards perhaps cross-regional citizenship and a Modern Lebanese Political Economy?

4- Governance and Resistance: A salient feature of resistances to governments in Lebanon, especially in the recent years stems from governmental divides and therefore ineffective capacity to address urban problems such as environmental and social problems. In Lebanon, it is highly questionable whether institutions –health, medical, prison institutions, etc.…- are actually in control. The reason is that governance in Lebanon has always been too weak to establish such an institutional control (Lefebvre wittingly realized this**). What actually supplanted this state control were the various forces (merchants, regional competition, missionary, military and political influence) which historically acted –and perhaps still act to date- on the socio-spatial organization of Lebanese cities. Powers which sought to dominate did so through the domination of these spaces. Instances of this model of poor, belligerent and ineffective governance as a result of failure to acknowledge “other” forces are present within the urban tissue of cities across Lebanon, with detrimental effects to a democratic urban participation, restricted circulation, poor economy and general stagnation. Disciplining citizens through mutilating the urban tissue is the sign that governance in Lebanon does not in the least consider the perception of security by the public -which does not help a wider acknowledgement of the government by citizen, nor the fact that they find alternative ways to connect socially. It is high time that all such resistances and connections are acknowledged. Instead of the deadlock of a governance/resistance model of co-participation or struggle in political life, perhaps a mapping of the bifurcations of resistances in Lebanon may reveal ideological and political crossroads, and redraw more real political maps. While a common political imaginary may or may not be pertinent for a society like Lebanon, the deliberation of political life could certainly use more than a new political imaginary. This involves construction, albeit of a different kind, it involves the building of a new political culture.

The alternative development reforms’ To-Do List goes on, and to avoid becoming a growing nation bereft of qualitative socio-political growth/development, attention to the above, and more, should be given, beyond an outlook to governance as mere infrastructural urban development. While this may not resolve the persisting refugee crisis, it would certainly create a resilient environment to govern the crisis and to govern itself.


*Huvelin (Paul).- Que vaut la Syrie ? Fasc. I, section économique et compte rendu de la mission française en Syrie (mai-septembre 1919).- Paris : Honoré Champion ; Marseille : Chambre de commerce, [1919].- 56 p.

**Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.



Occlude is an independent private advisory agency, offering expert research, design and development consultancy in the areas of Architecture and Urban Design, Urban Ecology and Urban Sociology, especially in the context of Lebanon.

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