People – Still at the Center of Lebanese Society

Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

I first went to Saudi Arabia 45 years ago. There were no commercial hotels to speak of except for a converted TB hospital in Jeddah. In those days, you had to surrender your passport, which was returned when you departed. It was a bit unsettling for Western businessmen, seldom women, who were used to a bit more control. They hated the ambiguity – about the rules to master to get meetings, then showing up at appointments only to wait for their Saudi or Egyptian counterparts, or trying to find the next meeting despite the lack of street signs and landmarks.

Most of my work in those days was either producing World’s Fairs pavilions (’82, ’86), training expats on how to survive in the Kingdom, or preparing Saudis for training programs in-country or overseas, usually in the US. However, this is not a story about KSA, rather I’m sharing some of my memories of expats who spent time working under Saudi guidance to build their new country. It was a similar story in Kuwait and the UAE, my other assignments, where there was a premium on enabling locals to acquire English, science, and mathematics skills to take their part in the development projects. I also spent time in Iran, which, while another story, had a different set of challenges for expats and locals.

My clients (Saudi, US, and international companies) shared a common concern: that the locals and others Arabs were just not used to working the way that Westerners worked – set hours, well-detailed routines, reporting, records-keeping, and performance appraisals. We continually butted up against cross-cultural issues in building the local workforce. We were in a milieu in which the government felt obligated to provide an expansive social services subsidy program for every Saudi, from free health care and education to scholarships and subsidized mortgages. Of course, in those days, women and men were treated differently, customs which are only now starting to fade.

Being Lebanese-American and having previously worked for a year in (North) Yemen, I was able to navigate many cross-cultural challenges and enjoy a level of comfort. I was accepted by many I encountered either by sharing memories with Yeminis who staffed the souks and provided the bulk of the semi-skilled workforce, or benefiting from the general high regard that Arabs felt towards Lebanon, its institutions, and its cultural diversity.

While preparing for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN, I spent weeks with Aramco traveling throughout the Eastern Province gathering information for the design and content of the pavilion. It was not lost on me that whether I was in the agricultural areas of Al Ahsa oasis or the high tech headquarters of Aramco, usually the second question I heard was “min waynak?” The Arabs I encountered, from Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, were pleased when “one of their own” was working with them, and work they did. Contrary to the stereotypes of the day, Arabs worked hard, saved their money, and sent it home. These remittances were the lifeblood of those economies and they were willing to work long hours with very few benefits to support their distant families.

Time and time again, as I spent more time in workforce development, the same negative images of Arabs were repeated: lazy, hard to motivate, careless, unconcerned. I found that this was not the case at all for the Lebanese, who along with their Palestinian counterparts provided the skilled and professional workers for the first two generations working on development in the GCC. In banking, construction, computers, services, and myriad other jobs, the Lebanese excelled at building systems that would carry the GCC countries until their own citizens, educated and trained at home and abroad, stepped up to take responsibility for their national development outcomes, a process still ongoing.

These negative stereotypes thrive in states where personal initiative, merit-based hiring, and achievement are subject to the whims of government employees who are paid no matter the outcomes. One only has to look at the success of expatriate Arabs to appreciate the profound and important contributions they continue to make to their countries’ development – from the outside. In Lebanon, the biggest concern today, as a result of its multiple crises, is the loss of its most valuable resource – its skilled workforce. There are stories daily of education interrupted, difficulties encountered in emigration, restrictions on funds to start or restart business, inability to fund overseas travel, and the sadness of families facing separation and anxiety as loved ones emigrate, with or without papers.

Lebanon has always been a special place because of its people. Their initiative, inventiveness, diligence, and sense of adventure are their compass points to a better life – a future being denied them by the callous disregard for their futures by an oligarchy that treats its human resources as expendable.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.