Lebanon’s landscape should inspire long-term thinking, dotted with millennia-old ruins and centennial cedars. But its planning sticks close to the present.
A forwards-looking conference in Beirut in December carried the title ‘A world on edge: What to expect in 2018’. Prime Minister Saad Hariri kicked it off – his recent return from his short-lived resignation lending an air of relief to the scene.
While Hariri leads the Future Movement party, his emphasis is on the need for others to help his country move forward. He calls for investment from the international community to ease pressures he associates with the influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees – which has increased the size of the population by almost a third. Poor planning and neglected infrastructure (poor roads, little public transport, frequent blackouts, water shortages) compound the difficulties Lebanon faces – as well as ongoing regional instability. Progress at home is hampered by both corruption and a tricky to navigate power-sharing pact across the Christian, Sunni and Shia parties.
All of this lends the day’s conversations a passive hue: ‘What do we need to anticipate?’ rather than ‘What can we do?’
Which factors are on the radar for a country very much on edge?
1. Populism affects geopolitics
Trump’s refuted declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel prompted the reflection that old frames of reference no longer apply to geopolitics. Populism is overriding national and international interests, making it even harder to anticipate how dynamics could shift. This makes trans-border and regional conversations even more important.
For two weeks in October 2016, the Swedish retailer built a concrete 25 square-metre replica of a real Syrian family's home - almost totally bare except for some rugs and meager furnishings - inside IKEA Slependen, its Norway flagship. The objective?
Signal spotted by Dorothy Ng
2. The rise of civil society
The Arab Spring isn’t forgotten in the region – and did lead to some protests in Lebanon, even without a dictator to depose. Today, Hariri speaks hopefully of the potential for the country’s disaffected civilians to address ongoing issues. Will his party do more to encourage them? In 2015, Lebanon’s waste crisis prompted the civilian project ‘You Stink’, but it crumbled due to a combination of internal divisions and party opposition. What’s left is Madinati, a municipal campaign which aims to address a broader set of issues across Beirut, but it lacks a cohesive vision and direction.
3. Digital tools for governance
Part of the problem for Lebanon is corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making which favours old allegiances. Some complain that too many leaders are fixated on oil, and look to e-governance as a possible way to overcome this. How far could digitalisation and the rise of fintech change the power dynamics?
Democracy Earth is using open source software and peer-to-peer networks to imagine and create a post nation-state world, where political intermediation is no longer necessary. Combining the internet with blockchain technology, the California-registered networked non-profit aims to replace the role of national governments in creating systems for identity, voting and representation.
Signal spotted by Louise Armstrong
4. The threat of cyber warfare
Israel is leagues ahead of other countries in the Middle East in developing cyber weaponry and security measures. But the threat of cyber warfare goes beyond states, beyond big budgets, and beyond the geographical reach of traditional weaponry: an attack could come from an unaffiliated actor with average means in an unknown location. Its impact depends on the health of relationships and the security of systems on the ground.
At the end of June, at least 20 ships in the Black Sea were hit by what appears to be the first documented case of GPS misdirection used as an attack, also known as spoofing. The affected ships' GPS systems incorrectly placed them 32 km inland, at Gelendzhik Airport.
Signal spotted by Joy Green
5. The rise in stateless populations
While Palestinians fight for the right to return, both they and many others in the region – including millions of Syrians – struggle with the assumption that they will ‘go home’, and so remain stateless: no papers, no provision for health, housing and education, no job security or banking. Now, more are using digital tools to map their resources, connect with each other, and access new opportunities. How will governments respond?
The Bourj Al Shamali refugee camp in Lebanon has hosted refugees since 1948 as a 'temporary solution' - it is now an overcrowded, informally constructed concrete city. Its residents don't even have access to an accurate map of where they live - online maps are of too poor resolution, and detailed maps are witheld by the governments and agencies that have them.
Signal spotted by Joy Green