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Lebanon's brain drain alarm
Posted on: 2/5/2007 1:38:00 PM

Two years ago, Ossama Kabbani was the poster boy for the newly rebuilt downtown Beirut.


In a slick television promotion put out by the ministry of tourism, over breathtaking pictures of the Lebanese capital and Lebanon, the architect and urban planner talked about how he put his soul into the glitzy project.


He had returned from the US in 1991, after the devastating, 15-year long civil war ended, and embarked on his dream: to help put Lebanon and Beirut back on the map with what he described in the advertisement as "the single largest renovation project on earth".


"Ten years ago, we had a dream, and now we're seeing the dream come true," he also said in the television spot, explaining that everything had been rebuilt and tourists were flocking back.


But the dream came crashing down last summer, on 12 July, when two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and eight others killed by Hezbollah, Lebanon's guerrilla movement and political party.


Young and skilled


Lebanon was getting ready for a record tourist season, but instead it went through an unexpected 34-day-long war with Israel.


The conflict sent shockwaves through the country. More than 1,000 people were killed in the shelling and Israeli air strikes caused extensive damage to the infrastructure.


Massive evacuations were also organised for foreign nationals and Lebanese, most with dual citizenships.


Many of those who left never returned and many more are leaving today as Lebanon goes through a brain drain that is being described as alarming by some observers, and depriving the country of its young, educated and skilled population.


Even Mr Kabbani is not sure he still believes in the dream and the future of his country.


He has sent his family to Dubai and is contemplating his options.


"The Israeli war in the summer and the closing of the airport, was a reality check, we felt trapped. You can't conduct business like that," he said.


"During the civil war, I was young, somehow I survived but now, when you have a family and a kid who's one-and-a-half years old, you don't want to put them through this."


Crisis after crisis


After the war ended, political tension grew inside Lebanon between the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian Hezbollah.


The height of the tensions came in mid-January with two days of strikes, rioting and sectarian violence, with scenes reminiscent of Lebanon's civil war.


Massive demonstrations, the assassination of a cabinet minister and a fledgling economy also sap confidence in Lebanon's future.


Many people say they have had enough of living with so much uncertainty, never knowing whether tomorrow will bring another war or another political crisis, and they are fed up with having to pick up the pieces, again and again.


In the 1990s there was a wave of people returning to Lebanon, when the country looked like it had a promising future again.


Disillusioned, many of those returnees are now leaving again, as well thousands who never considered leaving before.


More people still are lining up for visas in front of embassies.


Desperate to leave


Those who leave are mostly young professionals, aged 25 to 45, from all religious groups.


While there are no exact figures yet on the number of people who have left for good, there is considerable anecdotal evidence.


Carole Contavelis, a recruitment agent, has been making some frustrating phone calls, days on end.


She has been trying to fill a number of positions that have opened up in several companies only to find that more than half the candidates in her files have left Lebanon.


"I'm trying to find a general manager for a travel agency, I have in my portfolio 21 candidates that fit the profile perfectly," she explained.


"I last spoke to them in the spring, before the war. I called them again now to offer them an interview, and I found that only six of them were still in town.


"I contacted them by e-mail to ask if they were interested in the job in Lebanon. They said 'no'."


Mrs Contavelis also tried finding a lawyer from a pool of 45 who fit the profile for another job offer, but 90% of her candidates had left Lebanon.


Just a month before the war, half of those who are now gone had told her they would not consider a job outside Lebanon.


"It's not just noticeable, it's shocking, everybody wants to leave, people who never wanted to leave are now asking me for jobs abroad, they're willing to take a cut in their salary," she said.


Staying put


Gulf countries are the most popular destinations, as well as the US, Europe and Canada for those who can get visas.


Lebanese graduates and professionals, with their many languages and skills, are often sought after and can be found in top positions around the world.


Lebanon has always been a country of emigration but this wave is raising concerns.


A study by the Beirut Research and Development Center (BRDC) suggests that 22% of the population is actively working on an exit strategy, in a country of just over four million.


This would mean that almost 900,000 people are trying to leave the country.


The Lebanese Emigration Research Center conducted a study with a sample of 600 university student and found that 60% were hoping to leave Lebanon after they graduate in the summer of 2007.


Many of those who stay behind cannot afford the price of the visa or the plane ticket.


Others still feel a duty towards their country, like 26-year-old Salwa Razzouk, who lost all but one of her friends to emigration.


"If we all leave, who will be left to take care of the country? The people ruling it now obviously are not doing a good job.


"If we all leave, it will be a mess, we need educated people to stay in Lebanon," said the young woman, who works as a credit manager at an international chain hotel.


The consequences of the brain drain will not be felt immediately because the economy is not expanding at the moment, according to Riad Tabbara from the BRDC.


He said the wave of emigration helps reduce unemployment and with an average of $6bn (£3bn) in remittances per year, the Lebanese abroad also help keep the economy afloat.


But Mr Tabbara warned that once Lebanon is past this crisis, the absence of skilled, professionals able to contribute to the economy will be felt acutely.


Ossama Kabbani is not sure yet when that day will even come.


"People who visit Lebanon, especially Arabs from the region, they tell us 'we dream of having a country like yours, with mountains and the sea, and snow, and an urban culture. What's wrong with you guys, why can't you make it work?'


"It's true we have it all, I don't know why it's not working," said Mr Kabbani.


"We're at a crossroad now I think, we have 50-50 chance: either the Lebanese figure out how to make this country work or the country is doomed." (BBC News - By Kim Ghattas)


2007 Presidency of the Council of Ministers. All Rights Reserved.
This website was set up with the collaboration of OMSAR, InfoPro, and the Institute of Finance - Basil Fuleihan.