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40 Things I wish I’d known when I arrived in Lebanon

It started as twenty and then grew as everyone I spoke to had a different view. With the resources for finding answers, it’s a bit more than forty, but never mind. It’s split into four lists. The first three are issues and differences that have affected people enough to justify their inclusion here. The final list is a set of resources to help you find answers to questions posed and so to cope successfully with an experience we all hope will be both rewarding and fun.

 

Many thanks to all who contributed and commented; this could not have been done without you. Special mention is due to Anthony, Francois, Harriet, Mark, Paul, Richard and Simon. Any gaffs or errors of omission are mine.

 

The advice I got was “don’t touch Arab (sic) pride and don’t touch Arab women”, but I’d already married one and my coach knew that! Hopefully this is a little more helpful.

 

Political and Cultural

 

1.The political make-up of Lebanon is very complex, try to get some feel for it before coming here. Many seasoned MENA veterans find Lebanon so totally different from what they have been used to in the GCC or other Levant countries.

2.Lebanon is unpredictable.  Trying to plan everything in advance - as one does /is accustomed to doing in the UK - won't work here.

3.Bureaucracy Rules.  When dealing with any official entities, expect delays, bureaucracy and the need for "wasta" – it really is who you know and not what.

4.You won't learn Arabic living here.  Most Lebanese speak English and/or French and, when learning that you are a foreigner, will practice their own language skills on you.

5.The postal system just doesn't supply a reliable delivery/mail service. More no financial or business transaction can be sent in the mail, e.g. bank statements must be picked up in person

6.Time management – Many Lebanese seem to have little idea of time which can give the impression of a lack of respect for your time especially if you come from a culture where time is sacrosanct. A consequence is that you are seldom expected to be on time.  An invitation to dinner at 8.00pm may well mean 9.30 or 10.00pm, except during Ramadan, when you are expected to turn up as the sun sets and not a moment after.

7.Most Lebanese operate on short time horizons. This makes them appear spontaneous and can be appealing but in a business context tends to lead to short sighted decision making

8.Many Lebanese attempt to multitask in way that appears (and often is) chaotic and unproductive. They find it hard to give you or anything their undivided focused attention for any length of time.  This is not intentionally disrespectful though it can appear to be at first sight. For example, if their phone rings or an SMS arrives during a meeting with you, they will usually break off and take the call.  Equally, they will not be concerned if you do the same.    

9.Because of trying to do several things at once, they will often appear rushed and harried, they will rush through work (repairs and the like); any finished or repaired product should be closely inspected before accepting it.

10.Useful tip – NEVER change your plans in reliance that a Lebanese will do something when they say they will e.g. arrive to fix your plumbing (this is especially true of handyman types - plumbers, electricians etc.).  It will be far less irritating to continue to do whatever you were going to do and agree a time when lateness or non-appearance will not matter to you

11.Lebanon is a Mediterranean country with a typically relaxed lifestyle – this manifests itself in ways that can be charming or infuriating depending on context and occasion

12.Law enforcement starts with good intentions but quickly becomes lax. Traffic lights are more for illumination than anything else and a recent smoking ban in restaurants and pubs was steadily relaxed for various groups, which now seem embrace diners and drinkers!  

13.You will need a "Plan B" for everything, from sourcing electricity (there is not enough electricity, so all locations undergo daily power cuts to “power share”, so you need access to another source, either your own generator on a balcony, or, for example purchasing extra power from a bakery!) to telecoms to access from and to the country.

14.Bribery and the expectation of it exist. Get your coping strategy ready.

15.Warning to all British males! There is a surfeit of ladies, so acquiring a Lebanese wife has proved a much more common hazard than many realize and has afflicted all professions. Diplomats, bankers & engineers have all fallen.

 

Starting to live in Lebanon, you and your family

 

1.How to find and rent an apartment, what to expect to pay and whether it’s worth buying. Anyone who plans to be here for several years should seriously consider purchasing an apartment. Rents frequently exceed $20,000 per year, which over a few years would provide a substantial contribution to the purchase price.

2.How to buy & register/rent a car. If you buy one, a car over two years old needs an annual “MOT” including emissions check to get the annual licence known as the “mecanique”. And if your apartment doesn’t have a parking space, be aware that most external garages want a set of your key keys, a problem for most government staff. Or if you want to bring your own in .

3.How to do temporary importation of cars, and maximum allowed age of imported cars.

4.How to get a work permit.  The process is long and the new recruit should be informed that they will not be able to travel for possibly two or three months whilst the process unwinds. N.B. There should be a minimum of 18 months remaining on the validity of the national passport, and always try to renew on a trip back to the UK, its much quicker.

5.How to get a residence permit, how long it takes and that you won’t have your passport during that time (see comments on work permit).

6.How to get a driving licence.  

7.How to clear personal effects through Customs and how much it should cost. Get advice before starting, for example via those references in the resources section.

8.How to or get an appointment with a doctor and how the medical system works

9.How to cope with motor bikes, who can go and do whatever they like, as the traffic laws and rules don't apply, indeed in any accident, a motor cyclist cannot, by law, be blamed

10.Security and armed people are everywhere in Beirut along with visible military vehicles and cordons – do not be alarmed, this is normal, best to ignore it

11.Driving techniques are very aggressive and can be alarming but don’t be too concerned, most drivers are highly skilled and in any case, because of the poor road system and numbers of vehicles, speeds are slow. The last thing most drivers want is to have an accident, they will do all they can to avoid one.

12.If you get lost in Beirut, the mountains will be to the East of you – the mountain ranges in Lebanon run broadly North to South, and the sea to the West

13.The 300 metre rule – you can buy almost anything or service you can dream of within 300 metres of where you currently are – your challenge is to locate the shop.

14.Where to send the kids to school. For most, the choice dictates apartment location & need (or not) for a second car. Most importantly, it may influence whether the employee signs his or her contract, or whether the family remains in the home country.

15.Where to shop for food/clothes.

16.Where to go out at night/for the day

17.How much to pay for a taxi as there are no meters. As in many countries, taxi drivers exploit foreigners. At the Hariri Airport arrival floor, take the escalator up to the departure terminal and there, taxi drivers will happily greet you and accept LL20,000 for a ride to central Beirut because they’ve just dropped off a ride

18.Internet speeds are lower than in the UK so, for example, skype interviews are very difficult to conduct.

19.And later on perhaps – how to get married! In Beirut it’s complicated and sometimes impossible, if the couple are of different faiths and/or want a civil wedding. Some travel agents organize marriages in Cyprus but the information is frequently contradictory.

20.How to choose a bank: find one that is familiar with nationals from outside the region.

 

In business

 

1.Types of company and corporate structure that exist (SAL, SARL, JV etc.)

2.How to form a company and what percentage of shares can be foreign owned

3.Positions foreign nationals are allowed/not allowed to take up in a company

4.How much is a reasonable retainer for a lawyer and auditor

5.You, your staff and company will spend at least 20 days of the year not working due to the huge number of public holidays, many of which are announced at the very last minute.

6.Compared to Western operating practice, decisions have to be referred to a higher level, and everybody is afraid to make a one, whether in a private organisation or government, and a corollary to this is

7.Management Style – most Lebanese rely on Prestige and Face, their management approach (especially but not limited to older people) appears dictatorial and “control freakish” to people more attuned to western management styles. They greatly value age and experience (sometimes to a fault), they also have a respect and admiration for anything foreign (such as you).  

8.The Lebanese are extremely family oriented. Many businesses are still family owned, so criticism of family members, even if richly deserved, is not wise in virtually all cases. As a new employee, even in a senior capacity, expect to be excluded from all important decisions  

9. and if you are working with the government, Lebanon spends long periods (up to a year) without one, during which time, no new law can be passed.

10.The consequence of the previous fact means that those working in ministries spend long periods unable to do anything much for the future, affecting motivation and level of interest in what you are trying to achieve.

11.Employment law is a minefield; get a brief before hiring anyone.

12.There are no green paper consultative documents produced, salaries increases have been imposed twice in the last five years with little warning, for example. This makes cash flow and P&L planning both tricky and essential!

13.Induction courses, even with “large” companies can be sketchy, chat to the veterans, but take all with a pinch of salt.

 

 

Top resources

 

Books and Publications

 

1.“At Home in Beirut” published by Turning Point, stocked by Libraire Antione chain, this is an excellent reference which can be the first point of call for almost all the business and living questions

2.HSBC Bank, British friendly with simple to/from UK transfer facilities

3.Country Risk Review and Lebanon This Week published weekly by Byblos Bank, both are publications packed with regional wide numbers that actually mean something. You can access the latest on their web-site’s media section.

4.British Embassy UKTI, the current head is Paul Khawaja and he knows everybody

5.Local staff and colleagues if you’re lucky enough to already have them

6.“The Daily Star” an English language newspaper

7.Libancall – an approximately English language breaking news SMS service

8.The British Lebanese Business Group, for contacts and networking

9.Naharnet website, a news service covering the region in general and Lebanon in particular

10.Five Index for finding suppliers of just about anything

11.The Duke of Wellington pub’s Friday night “Happy Hour” and “The Greedy Goose” pub for meeting other ex-pats

12.Henry Heald for shipping/customs/etc. They’ve been doing it since 1837 (!) and again are British friendly.

 

Video clips:

 

•Middle East Airlines are the national carrier; their in-flight entertainment has quite a good advertisement for Lebanon, showing shopping, restaurants, hotels, clubs, cosmetic surgery, beaches and ski resorts. This is a shortened version.

•And if you want to get a touristic look, here’s a quick tour of some of Beirut’s landmarks.

 

Contributors

 

•Anthony Ussher, Banker, Various roles including CEO at Standard Chartered, HSBC & Credit Libanais

•Richard Collyer, Consultant working for the EU commission

•Richard Cook, was UN and now consultant

•François Pascal de Maricourt, CEO, HSBC

•Harriet Joly, CEO, Henry Heald

•Paul McInerney, Financial Consultant

•Simon Smith, General Manager, Lifestyles Health Club

•Mark Timbrill, General Manager, Rotana Gefinor Hotel

Handy Hints for Living in Lebanon

A tongue in cheek review