A Joke That Explains A Lot About Lebanese Corruption

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“Lebanon’s embattled prime minister sought international support Tuesday for economic reforms announced a day earlier, which were intended to pacify massive protests calling for his government to resign,” the Washington Post reported two days ago. “Saad Hariri hopes the reform package will increase foreign investments and help Lebanon’s struggling economy.”

A close U.S. ally, Hariri — who a few weeks before the protests it Lebanon broke out was discovered to have given about $16 million to a South African model — is the son of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. He’s reportedly a billionaire, as are three of his brothers.

Other Lebanese billionaires include Issam Michael Fares, a former deputy prime minister, and Najib Mikati, a former prime minister. The latter, who is now a banker and said to be Lebanon’s richest man, was accused yesterday of “illicit enrichment” for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars in subsidized housing loans.

Foreign investment is not likely to help most Lebanese much because so much of it gets eaten up by corruption, which is a prime reason so many of the country’s people have been out on the streets. Government ministers, senior officials and members of parliament are said to get kickbacks on major foreign investments. Contracts are inflated and the extra amount is siphoned off into secret accounts controlled by politicians or their relatives.

That happens in a lot of places, of course, but Lebanon is the “perfect environment” for corruption, a businessman told me. “It’s got a great banking system…and the political system is totally rinky-dink so [foreign businesses] can get away with whatever they want,” he said. “Contract skimming, bribery and money laundering are routine.”

There’s an old joke in Lebanon that a local insider told me when I was visiting the country over the summer. A low-level, struggling Lebanese government official goes on a visit to an Asian country and is invited to the home of a minister, who lives in a lavish penthouse atop a huge residential skyscraper. “How did you accumulate enough money to buy this place on a government salary?” the stunned Lebanese official asks.

“Come over here,” the minister replies as he leads him out to a balcony. “You see that five lane highway over there?” The Lebanese official nods in the affirmative. “That was going to be a three lane,” the minister says.

Ten years later, the minister visits Beirut and goes to the home of the official, who is now a senior minister in the Lebanese government. The visitor is amazed that his once once struggling friend is living in a penthouse as lavish as his own, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean. “How did you buy this place on a government salary?” he sputters.

The Lebanese minister walks him out to his balcony and says, “You see that five lane highway over there?”

“I don’t see a highway,” the visitor says as he scans the horizon in all directions.

“Exactly,” says the Lebanese minister, who, if you missed the point, had pocketed the entire sum of money from a government contract for a highway project that was never built.

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