Friday, December 14, 2012

In Tripoli clashes, economy biggest loser

[Originally posted at NOW]

Of all the streets in Lebanon on which a budding entrepreneur might choose to launch a new business, Tripoli’s Syria Street must surely rank among the very least enticing. The bullet-speckled front line of the regular clashes between the rival Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods was still largely closed for business when NOW arrived on Wednesday, three days after a ceasefire ended another round of bloodshed that left 17 dead and some 80 wounded.

The few who had dared to pull back the thick metal sheets that are their only protection from rifle and rocket fire and open their doors could only snort with derision when asked how trade was going.

“Very bad, of course,” said Nour, a vendor of ladies’ clothing. “I closed last Monday, the day before clashes began, because we knew things were tense. I didn’t open again till this Tuesday. Even now, there are no customers. People used to come from all around to shop here, but no more.” Despite this, Nour – whose selection includes a line of conspicuously adventurous lingerie – evidently hasn’t lost her sense of humor. While she’s talking, a friend pretends to reach into her handbag and pulls out from his pocket a live hand grenade. “Look what she’s got!” he exclaims.

“It’s not mine!” she laughs. “They’re always playing these jokes on me.”

At the Hayat pharmacy further down the street, it’s much the same story. Like everyone else, the owner, Omar Dabbagh, closed for the entire week of clashes. As far as he can remember, this is the ninth time this year he’s had to close due to violence. He estimates it’s reduced his sales by 60 percent compared to 2011.

And the effects are not limited to closures. “None of us has had electricity for eight days, because the fighting broke the connection,” he tells NOW as a convoy of army APCs rolls by outside. “I used to stay open till 8 p.m., but now I close at 4 p.m. even in ‘peace.’ It takes weeks after clashes end for customers to start returning, and by that time, shooting usually breaks out again.”

Nor is the damage confined to the immediate geographic vicinity. On Azmi St, Tripoli’s prime commercial boulevard several kilometers away, the manager of Zoabi Grill restaurant told NOW that only 30 percent of shops there were open last week – partly a result of a shell falling on a nearby street for the first time. “Even in al-Mina,” the farthest point from the clashes in the city, “shops stayed open but business was dead,” he said.

These factors combine to aggravate what is already a dire economic situation in the city. A report released last month by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that 51 percent of Tripoli residents live on less than $3.80 per day. Moreover, 25 percent of households earn a total income of less than $500 per month – a figure that jumps to 76 percent in the Tabbaneh neighborhood, bordering Syria Street. Indeed, across a wide range of indicators – including literacy, education, health insurance coverage, access to drinking water and job security – Tabbaneh ranks the lowest of the city’s neighborhoods.

Adib Nehmeh, author of the ESCWA report and a Tripoli native, told NOW that violence has long been a cause of the city’s economic woes. In the mid-1980s, heavy fighting in the city center interrupted the traditional commercial links between the far-north region of Akkar and the Zgharta, Koura and Batroun areas to the south, diminishing Tripoli’s historic standing as the business capital of the north. By the time the civil war came to an end, Tripoli had largely become disconnected from the national economy.

And the situation is even worse today. “Now there is no activity, no local economy,” he told NOW.

Fawaz Hamidi, director of the Business Incubation Association in Tripoli (BIAT), told NOW that while “there are still a few investors and entrepreneurs in the city, against all odds,” the city has “suffered the worst of the nationwide brain drain” as a result of the perpetual instability. He also cites a flight of capital from sectors such as real estate and a decline in tourism as further casualties of the conflict.

The solution to this overall predicament, says Nehmeh, is twofold. First, the state must decisively address “the issue of violence and the security situation because no one is going to invest if this is not radically solved.”

Second, there needs to be “an integrated strategic development plan, at the macro level, that starts with the implementation of five or six major projects.” These include regenerating the international exhibition center, creating free zones by the port, re-opening the oil and gas refinery, and jump-starting the tourism sector. “The government has to work closely with the local authorities, the municipality and the private sector.

“Unfortunately, this has not happened.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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