Monday, September 5, 2011

Passport Series: Lebanon: Part 1: Country Background

This month’s Passport Series focuses on Lebanon! Lebanon is a country with stunning mountain scenery, a beautiful Mediterranean climate, and a highly diverse population. Follow us throughout the month of September as we learn about Lebanon’s background, its microfinance sector, and Kiva’s presence within its borders.


Lebanon is a Middle Eastern nation that sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Its bustling capital, Beirut, is located on its western coastline. The earliest known inhabitants of Lebanon were the Phoenicians, a maritime civilization that occupied the country more than 7000 years ago. Numerous empires ruled Lebanon following the Phoenicians, including the Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and the Ottoman Turks. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Lebanon was mandated to France. When the country gained independence in 1943 it established a confessionalist government. Confessionalism is a political system that allocates power to a number of religious communities in an effort to prevent sectarian conflict. A version of confessionalism still exists in Lebanon today and it is the subject of intense controversy. Many Lebanese believe government posts should be appointed according to merit only and that religion should not be taken into account.

Downtown Beirut - Photo Credit: Evan A. Hamlin

Lebanon’s advancement as a nation since independence has been impeded by episodes of regional violence, war, and political turmoil. These episodes include a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, recurring conflicts with Israel and Syria, and numerous violent flare-ups of internal sectarian tension. The 2005 assassination of a former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, led to the country’s most recent period of instability. A United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the killing generated intense political tensions because its findings implicated members of Hezbollah, an influential Shi’a Muslim political party and militant group. These tensions eventually led to the collapse of Lebanon's government in January 2011. The country rebuilt its leadership after 5 months of political negotiations. For more on the current state of Lebanon’s government, read the NY Times World Report on Lebanon.

Geography and Demographics

Map of Lebanon - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Lebanon is bordered to the north and the east by Syria and to the south by Israel. Lebanon’s landscape is dominated by two mountain chains that run along its eastern and western borders. The ancient root of the word “Lebanon” means “white”. It is believed that the country’s name was chosen in recognition of its snow-capped mountain ranges. The Beqaa Valley, which lies in between the ranges, is Lebanon’s major agricultural region.

Southern Lebanon - Photo Credit: Evan A. Hamlin

In ancient times the country was home to dense forests known as the “Cedars of Lebanon”. The trees were culturally significant to many civilizations; however, centuries of deforestation have reduced them to a small portion of their original size. A number of environmental groups have initiated efforts to rehabilitate the forests. The Lebanon Cedar still serves as the national emblem of the country and is represented on the country’s flag and coat of arms.

The Lebanese National Flag - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Lebanon is the smallest mainland country in the Middle East, consisting of only 4,036 square miles. In 2010 its population was estimated to be 4.3 million. However, no official census has been completed in the country since 1932 due to the sensitive political balance that is maintained between the country’s religious groups. The population is estimated to be about 60% Muslim and 39% Christian.


Although Lebanon has experienced several periods of prosperity and economic growth in the past several decades, its intermittent periods of war and unrest have taken their toll on the economy. After each setback, the government has had to borrow extensively in order to rebuild its infrastructure. The result is that Lebanon’s public debt is 133.8% of its GDP - the fifth highest level in the world. The instability experienced by the country has also had some surprisingly positive effects, however. In an effort to protect the economy, the Lebanese banking industry has developed strict regulations. These regulations are acting as insulation for Lebanese banks during the current financial crisis. Currently, Lebanese banks are relatively high on liquidity and well-known for their security. Lebanon’s stable banking system is one of the factors contributing to its encouraging GDP growth rate in recent years. The World Bank reported that the country’s growth rate reached 7% in 2010!

Another factor contributing to the growth in the economy is the country’s booming tourism industry. Lebanon’s beautiful climate and vibrant culture have served as magnets for tourists for decades; Beirut has been referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Nearly 65% of the Lebanese population works in the service sector due to their significant tourism and banking industries. This sector accounts for 67.3% of annual GDP. Foreign remittances have also bolstered the Lebanese economy in recent years. Large-scale emigration from Lebanon has established an international commercial network, which has become the source of $7 billion or one fifth of the Lebanese economy.

People and Culture

Lebanese culture reflects its history as a meeting place for a wide array of religious and ethnic groups. Although the vast majority of the population speaks Lebanese Arabic as their main language, many Lebanese are multi-lingual. French is taught as a second language in 70% of secondary schools; English is taught in the other 30%. Armenian and Greek are also common second languages. The country has a vibrant tradition of music festivals with a diversity of styles, representing the country’s legacy as a crossroads of civilizations. The festivals are often held at World Heritage sites such as the centuries-old Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon.


Lebanese cuisine is known for its rich Mediterranean flavors including plenty of garlic, fresh herbs, olive oil and lemon juice. One of the country’s most famous dishes is hummus, a delicious chickpea dip or spread that has become popular all over the world. Also well-loved is mezze, the colorful Lebanese version of Spanish tapas or Italian antipasto. A typical mezze plate often includes tabouleh (a finely chopped salad made of bulgur wheat, tomato, cucumber, parsley and mint), baba ghanouj (a smoked eggplant dip), kibbe (a meat patty made from finely minced meat), pickled vegetables, pita bread and of course, hummus. Finally, for dessert, Lebanon’s baklava has found its way into the hearts of foodies everywhere. Baklava’s delicate layers of filo pastry are filled with crumbled nuts and generously soaked in syrup or honey.

A Mezze Plate - Photo Credit: Christine Ness

Mouth-watering Baklava - Photo Credit: Nathan Fox

Stay tuned this month for an exploration of Lebanon’s microfinance industry and for a closer look at Kiva’s work in this fascinating nation.