In 2008, I as a young lad, moved to live in the Middle East in Qatar. when I arrived, It was a small country of around 1million people. When I left, it was 1.8million. People from all around the region flooded in to live and work there. That’s another story, but as a result, whilst there I made numerous friends who were from the region. In particular, Lebanese.
The defining feature of most of the Lebanese that were my age was their good humour, desire to be the best, and to party like maniacs. They told me tales of massive night clubs, rooftop bars, and amazing beach parties. Wow I thought, this is not the Middle East I thought of.
In 2017, I finally got the opportunity to visit Beirut and I loved it. I went to my good friend’s wedding which was in true Lebanese fashion, a huge and crazy party. Bottles of Whisky and Vodka adorned the tables, and we had a feast of delicious French cuisine.
I could not have been made to feel more welcome and was a mini-celebratory as the only non-Lebanese at the wedding. We ended the evening on the roof terrace of the Bride’s brother’s apartment high up on the mountains above Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean.
We all met up the next day and went to some swanky roof top bars and beach clubs. Everyone was out. Middle aged parents go clubbing with their adult children. There was a feeling of everyone being care free and pleasure seeking, and it was so much fun.
Part of the culture in Lebanon almost requires you to spend lavishly. You must buy the best and fanciest thing you can. Affording it is irrelevant. People will compete to pay for dinner, which is a reflection on the generosity and hospitality of the Lebanese. People spend $100,000 (USD!) on weddings. You are expected to spend your entire salary every month. I put this extreme hedonism down to a country that endured 12 years of horrific ethnic and religious conflict and the people want to make the most of the good times. And why not?
Not all it seems on the surface
Was this the best country on earth? Location and climate wise, quite possibly. It’s well rumoured that you can ski in the mountains in the morning, and swim in the Med in the afternoon. However, there were a few things that didn’t seem right. . My Lebanese friend enlightened me on some of the issues that maybe would not have been apparent to a foreigner like me.
For example, on my arrival, my friend took us through the Hezbollah controlled area (to save time) which had military check points and was effectively a state within a state controlled by Iran. At the beach club I was advised to only go in the pool and not the sea, due to the massive sewage and trash problems the city was having. The city was completely gridlocked, all the time. Red traffic lights were for guidance only. And everything was so expensive, but there was clearly a majority of people who were extremely poor. The country had been taken over by the Prime Minister’s property company and the entire CBD district was empty as no one could afford the rents. The owners were so rich they didn’t care and never lowered the rents preferring it all to decay.
The Lebanese Crisis
Fast forward 3 years and the country is on its knees. 60% of people are living in poverty. The country’s currency has crashed from 1500 Lebanese pounds to the USD to 10000 on the black market. Inflation is at 56% per month. Banks are restricting withdrawals to $300 a time due to a currency shortage. An economy reliant on imports for its 80% of it’s food, and other supplies, this is very bad.
My friend reports that many of the care-free and fun people I met at the wedding in 2017 are in suffering and have resorted to growing tomatoes and cucumbers on their balconies because food is so expensive. Any savings people had have lost almost all their value. There is no work and the wages are almost worthless due to inflation.
I’ve seen reports of people desperately selling their possessions to get food, or exchanging items of value. This CNN report on the suffering in Lebanon is heart breaking.
My point is that although things are really terrible in the UK right now, they are no where near as bad as in Lebanon.
We are lucky but don’t even realise it
The root cause of these problems stems from corruption, poor leadership, extreme wealth disparity, a failure of the political system and lack of rule of law. I am not qualified to comment any further on that. Although we are close to extreme wealth disparity in the UK, the rest are reasonably under control.
It is on the back of our strong institutions that the UK’s prosperity, and ability to undertake something such as FIRE, is founded. I know that my savings and investments will likely be in one piece in 20 years time. If I lived in Lebanon, or another similar country, I couldn’t bank on that. People have had their life savings snatched within months. And that perhaps explains the love of partying and living for the here and now of the Lebanese.
My conclusion is, we are VERY lucky to be able to pursue FIRE, but we can learn from the Lebanese that its ok to live our lives a little bit too. I’m desperately sad to see the friends I made there suffering, and I also pray that the suffering of the Lebanese people will end soon, but I’m afraid the future is not looking bright.