Lebanon has long been a country divided by its politics and its religion and now it might be further divided by its oil.
Many Lebanese are elated by the discovery of large reserves of oil and natural gas just off its coast, lying beneath the waters of the Mediterranean in an area between the Lebanese coast and the shores of Cyprus and Israel.
Yet this gift that comes as a gesture from the gods, which if properly administered could resolve much of this little county’s large financial burdens, and would place Lebanon almost on a par with some of the oil-rich sheikdoms of the Gulf, is not pleasing to everyone.
And with cause.
Ironic as this may seem the Lebanese government minister responsible for the future extraction of oil and natural gas country is none other than Gibran Bassil, currently the government minister responsible for water and electricity, two vital elements constantly missing in Lebanon today.
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More than a decade after the end of the civil war the country still suffers daily power outages, some lasting up to 21 hours. And water in Lebanon, despite its abundance beneath the city, remains at times as rare as the electricity.
So it is understandable to see why many Lebanese would be highly skeptical of any promises made by government officials and particularly by Mr. Bassil, who has kept the country in the dark– -- quite literally -- for as long as he has been in office.
Dreaming of oil, Mr. Bassil speaks of high-powered trains traveling beneath the surface in Beirut. Said the minister at a recent conference, “our country has oil so we have a transport network.”
The minister launched a first-round of bidding for contracts some weeks earlier and spoke of potential riches befalling the country in “billions of dollars.” He spoke of visions of a modern rapid metro system running beneath the streets of Beirut. And yes, he even spoke of the unthinkable in today’s context: round-the-clock electricity. Hah!
This is all very well and good. In fact it is no reason why any of these dreams cannot be realized. If the Gulf Arabs have made the desert bloom, (again, quite literally) there’s no reason why the Lebanese should not use the oil revenues in a productive manner. In fact they should be one step ahead seeing that Lebanon is the only Arab country without a desert. The country is already in bloom.
However, scratch that idea about the Metro. Digging a project such as a metro system beneath the streets of the Lebanese capital would never fly for a number of reasons.
The primary reason is the city’s geography which does not lend itself to an underground metro system crisscrossing beneath the city streets.
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Beirut is built, partially at least, on a large rocky promontory which would make it very difficult to cut through. Well, given the number of explosive experts in the country, that problem could be easily resolved.
More difficult would be the number of wells lying beneath the surface. The city’s name originates from the Roman Beritus, which according to some scholars comes from a Semitic word meaning "well", or "source."
In any case Mr. Bassil has his work cut out for him, starting with the current infrastructure that is so bad that Lebanon was ranked a few years ago in 144th place out of 144. It couldn’t sink any lower.
What is very likely to happen with the oil as with everything else in the country is that the various factions, political parties, religious sects and sub sects major families, and clans are all going to fight over who gets what share, how many barrels of oil per day will go to the Shiites, how many Sunnis are to be employed by the administrative department of the Ministry of Petroleum as opposed to the number of Greek Orthodox. And whether the director general is likely to be a Druze, as opposed to the Maronite or a Melchite. Lebanon may end up being the only Arab country rich in oil but nevertheless poor.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an the editor of journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.