Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher

British Ambassador to Lebanon

8th February 2013 Beirut, Lebanon

Beirutopia

Diplomats hate making predictions. Churchill once said that you could ignore every other page of Foreign Office advice, because it tended to be in the form of ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. The files are full of pre-election telegrams that hedge their bets.

There are good reasons for this. We don’t like being wrong. And the more we study international politics, the more we realise how unpredictable it all is.

So this blogpost is no crystal ball. But – amid the short term pessimism – many people have been talking to me about the future of Lebanon. So I wondered what my successor would write in his report following the 100th anniversary celebrations in Lebanon in 2020. Here is one of several possible versions.

“Dear Foreign Secretary,

I represented you at today’s centenary celebrations in Beirut.

There were many international leaders present. Lebanon’s new wealth, the result of huge amounts of offshore gas, is attracting great interest. The Eurozone President commented to me that Lebanon was now Singapore with more skiing, or Qatar with more culture.

The highlight of the celebration was the participation of so many talented poets, musicians and film makers. Since the end of the Syrian occupation, Lebanon has re-emerged as the epicentre of the Arab Cultural Renaissance, as you know from the high numbers of film and music downloads in the UK.

The newly elected Syrian President was guest of honour. The Treaty of Recognition and Cooperation signed between Syria and Lebanon in 2014 established an equal relationship. The border was demarcated, and Lebanese businesses and community leaders of course played a key role in the reconstruction of Syria following the terrible 2011-13 civil war.

I spoke to many MPs in the margins. Most are now under the age of 40, the post civil war generation. Many returned from ex-pat jobs overseas to help lead the country. Where once we spoke of a Brain Drain, we now see a Brain Gain. New technology has allowed the Lebanese diaspora to create one of the world’s most dynamic global business networks, with Beirut as the hub between Europe and Asia. In her speech, the President (one of the first citizens to have a civil marriage with a partner from another confession) said that as global power shifts South and East, we are on the cusp of a new Levantine age.

The 2014 Beirut Accord still seems to be working well. Of course, Lebanon wouldn’t be Lebanon without some animated debate over political representation. But most parties feel their interests are safeguarded. For me, the key moment was the rebuttal by Lebanon’s leaders of international offers to oversee the ‘reset’ of Lebanon’s constitutional settlement. By insisting that this should be a Lebanese-led process, they ended the vicious cycle of external meddling and patronage. For the first time, the constitutional settlement is truly Lebanese.

There was little political debate at the ceremony itself, though politics is as lively as ever. The key dividing line is over what to do with the income from gas. The One Lebanon (centre left) party want to give each Lebanese citizen a dividend. The One Nation (centre right) party want to retain a sovereign wealth fund. I bumped into two older MPs, the last to still use the labels March 8 and March 14. The only party to retain a sectarian basis lost its last seat at the 2017 elections, though the Senate continues to act as the safeguard for cross-confessional interests.

Alphabetical protocol meant that the Ambassadors of Israel and Iran were sat near to Great Britain, both in animated conversation. The 2015 peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon has of course been a key part of the regional gas boom. Borders were settled in the South, and both sides pledged no further aggression. The establishment of Palestine the same year, following intense US-led engagement, meant the return of many Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. Western tourists now visit Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon on the same trip, and many Lebanese Christian and Muslim pilgrims from Lebanon visited Jerusalem last year.

Lebanon’s kaleidoscope nation was out in force, a vivid reminder of the different groups who have made this land their home over the centuries. Having paid the price in the past for sectarian division, Lebanon is now a talisman for coexistence, and delegations regularly visit from countries in conflict to study the lessons. Among the leaders present, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed that his party remain strongly committed to the reform process and – under their 2014 charter – renounce violence and put Lebanon’s interests before those of any external country. As in Northern Ireland, it is remarkable to see how far a number of former militias have come, committing to a genuinely national project. They have more political power as a result. The National Guard, including many former resistance fighters, marched proudly alongside the rest of the Lebanese army, many of whom have now returned from peacekeeping missions on several continents.

I arrived at the ceremony on the new citytrain, one of the flagship projects of Lebanon 2020, a private sector driven modernisation project. Beirut now has the world’s first car-free city centre, and oil and gas revenues have funded the repair of the National Grid, leaving generators a distant memory. The effort to discover and renovate ancient ruins remains at the heart of the remarkable tourist boom of recent years. Beirut is now the top citybreak destination for Brits, and many will I’m sure join me in Sky Bar tonight to continue the celebration.

Lebanon at 100 is an extraordinary, talented, resilient, hopeful, diverse, beautiful and enchanting place. I look forward to the next Royal visit.

Yours, HM Ambassdor Beirut

PS, it was a pleasure to see my predecessor Tom Fletcher win the 100m and 200m at this year’s Olympics.”

A fantasy? Naive? It depends on you. Tell us what you think. #Leb2020

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328 comments on “Beirutopia

  1. Dear Mr Fletcher,
    Let me just start by saying as a British Lebanese, it is my utmost pleasure to have you as our Ambassador. Wow what an article what can I say, you brought tears to my eyes reading it. You remind me of the saying “I Dream of a country” or John lennons song “IMAGINE”. For now I have to say what Gebran Khalil Gebran once said “You have your Lebanon and I have mine”.

  2. Very Optimistic because Lebanon reflects the state of the entire world. If all religions and ideologies can put their differences aside in Lebanon that means such peace and harmony can be attained globally.

    As a Lebanese who knows very well his country and the mentalities of Lebanese citizen, I can assure you this scene will not be seen unless a new miracle takes place. but who said miracles are impossible, they are possible if there is honesty and good will to believe in them when they appear.

    Dear Ambassador, If you are ready to help bringing such miracle not only to Lebanon but also to Northern Ireland and the entire planet, then the next time you are in the UK, hopefully we can meet for a chat and I will hand you a book which describes how to realise the miracle we are all looking for.

      1. Woaw! Beirut car free?!?! What a fantasy!!! I wish we can start working on such projects and forget allll abt politics and their stupid ramblings and just be proactive for our community…..wow this post makes us remain hopeful……

  3. His excellency…
    Very well said… Beirutopia sums it all… This is the Lebanon we dream of, we long for and we hope for !!!
    Naive ? Maybe… But it doesn’t hurt to dream, to have faith or to start working on making it happen… Every great achievement started actually with a dream… A dream that wasn’t forgotten at sunrise !!!!

    Thank you for helping us keep faith in a Country who’s leaders unfortunatly have turned their backs on us and forgot that they are there to serve …

    With all my respect

    Grace
    A simple citizen who is still struggling to stay in Leb.
    But not sure for how long I can keep dreaming !!!

  4. Living in Beirut? Imagine like living near a volcano, or on the fault lines where earthquakes are recurring, or in some seashore shantytown. Every other year, you’d have 10 to 15 thousand people dying… The difference is that Beirut’s fate is not a matter of elements of nature. It’s man made. But perhaps these men are behaving without considering the implications of their actions, maybe that makes them as senseless as the elements of nature. So you’d better live with it unless aunt Sumayya from abroad sends you an invitation. Patriotism only gets you so far.
    Versus is a separation between two entities, often if not always, antagonistic. The Sharks and the Jets, the Caputlets and the Montagnes, the north and the south, the good and the evil. But is there not a meeting point for antagonistic entities, for contradictions? And what if the reference point or axis of classification was inverted, does not this mean that what was north is now south and vice versa, what was good is now evil and the opposite true?
    Finally, someone had understood that the meeting place was more important than what it was meant to separate. Versus no more. Welcome to contradiction. Welcome to a city, much like snake, having to shed its skin periodically in order to survive. Welcome, you are entering Beirut.
    Beirut, the space between the Yin and the Yang.
    See you in 2020!

  5. A fantasy indeed. Will Israel recognize a Palestinian country and accept the return of the refugees ? I highly doubt it. That is the origin of the problems in the ME , your excellency , that is…
    Enough dreaming , peace isn’t only an imaginary thing.

    J.K.

    1. We’ll see. A two state solution is the only way of stopping the vicious cycle – international community needs to deliver on it.

      1. I was very touched by your post, Mr Ambassador.
        All the more touched because I have an aversion towards diplomats because of all the lies they are used to say, behind an innocent smile. Especially that your country has not really promoted peace in our region, far from that, the origin of all the plagues we have, i.e the creation if Israel, is because of your country and the infamous Lord Balfour.

        So perhaps today, is a chance to compensate, somehow, and broaden your vision. Maybe, as an humanist, in love with my country, (these are some of the qualities I read behind your lines) you could contribute to that, Mr Ambassador.

        That is to say that I do not agree a two-state solution would be “the only way of stopping the vicious cycle”, as you say. Actually, I think that having this rigid idea is one of the reason why middle east is in a deadlock. So maybe, you could suggest that your country and the international community look at alternative solutions to this conflict. Have you read Edward Said?

        Regarding your great post:
        Allow me to add:
        – what about renewable energy? We have plenty of sun, and some wind too.
        – we could take advantage of water, too. Lebanon could be selling mineral water from the springs of our beautiful mountains.
        – We have reestablished some of the craftworks that made the Phenicians prosperous : purple dye, blown glass, potery.. to name only a few.

        Best Regards
        and good luck

  6. That article was a pleasure to read. It is really a beautiful world that i hope it will become true! And the ending is hilarious, i hope sir Tom Fletcher win the olympics. Just wondering, when the race will happen ?

  7. This is more than hopeful. This is nauseatingly hopeful. This is almost a duet between Fairuz and Pitbull, though I am someone who is working hard, everyday, to make sure we get to the Lebanon you are describing. I’ve lost all hope though after having lived here for 7 years and tried hard. This place is beyond repair because the younger generation is more corrupt than that which witnessed the war.
    .

  8. We certainly hope that is the future of Lebanon … But with all the foreign counties east and west trying to settle their issues at the Lebanon expense I doubt this would come true … In fact I would be scared of more political interference to see who gets the biggest share of the oil like it happens in all the Middle East and other war torn countries .

    1. Thanks. I agree oil could be a curse, not a blessing. That’s why you need maximum civilian oversight. I’ll be doing some speeches on this in coming months.

    2. Thanks Sabine. It is right to steel oursleves to cope with shocks to stability. But Lebanon also faces an opportunity, for the first time in a generation, to settle its issues without foreign interference. Looking to outsiders for the answers is a habit we all need to break.

  9. one of the best article i have ever read full of hope thank you for thinking in a positive way about Lebanon, hope our politicians read this 😉

  10. Everybody’s calling it a ‘Dream’ because we are living in a nightmare…
    But what if this ‘Dream’ was the the fruit of all what we wouldn’t have done throughout the years that have passed? What if Tom Fletcher was pointing on the things we missed and the blindness that was in everybody’s eyes? Maybe it shouldn’t be as perfect as cited in tom’s scenario but at least half way through.. Elections after elections nothing is progressing in my country nit even the basics.. Maybe this is a call to all of us to wake up and realize that we need a change and this change will never be done without consistency and peace if mind..
    When we want to achieve at our best we should put in front of us the perfect scene and this is what the article is all about! Very inspiring! Thank you!!

  11. Everybody’s calling it a ‘Dream’ because we are living in a nightmare…
    But what if this ‘Dream’ was the the fruit of all what we wouldn’t have done throughout the years that have passed? What if Tom Fletcher was pointing on the things we missed and the blindness that was in everybody’s eyes? Maybe it shouldn’t be as perfect as cited in tom’s scenario but at least half way through.. Elections after elections nothing is progressing in my country not even the basics.. Maybe this is a call to all of us to wake up and realize that we need a change and this change will never be done without consistency and peace of mind..
    When we want to achieve at our best we should put in front of us the perfect scene and this is what the article is all about! Very inspiring! Thank you Tom!

  12. You have lived most of your life in the UK. As far as you can remember, have you witnessed any power shortage? or has your electricity shut down in your home because you put on the kettle and exceeded your amperage? Have you ever witnessed such appalling corruption in people, police, schools, government etc? Have you ever witnessed such blatant racism against colored people, mixed Lebanese and domestic workers? (CNN ran a story on racism in Lebanon a few days ago).

    My point is, the infrastructure of this country is so appalling that it will need years and years to fix; people’s attitudes need to change. Most Lebanese still follow various political parties that do nothing for them; they complain and then vote them in again. It’s a real mess, I wonder how all this will change in 2020.

    About a Palestinian state, well its been 50 years and trying, it will be a miracle if that happens; does Israel really want peace?

    Having said that, I wish your dream comes true.. and hope you win the race at the Olympics!

    1. Thanks Hanz. Actually, I’ve lived much of my life in the Middle East and Africa, so I have experienced many of the issues you mention. I’ve also seen that the challenges are not always as insurmountable as they appear.

  13. From a non Lebanese living this wonderful country for 11 years.

    What a wonderful dream.

    And you know what they all say to make one’s dream come true? Go for it.

    Derek Anthony

  14. Dear Ambassador,
    I believe you have earned the Lebanese citizenship big time… Your passion for our country is very much glowing from between your lines..it’s passion with a plan..I propose granting you the citizenship(though not much of a temtping offer) and maybe you can run this country for a while putting it on the right track for 2020 centenary celebrations and generations to come…or else it would be me, myself, and millions of other lebanese expats watching this celebration on TV from some other capital in grieve…

  15. Your post reminded me of M. L. King’s ‘ I had a dream…’ , and it surely gave me a little bit of hope …. Maybe I should start dreaming again :) thank you :)

  16. Everybody’s calling it a ‘Dream’ because we are living in a nightmare…
    But what if this ‘Dream’ was the the fruit of all what we wouldn’t have done throughout the years that have passed? What if Tom Fletcher was pointing on the things we missed and the blindness that was in everybody’s eyes? Maybe it shouldn’t be as perfect as cited in tom’s scenario but at least half way through.. Elections after elections nothing is progressing in my country nit even the basics.. Maybe this is a call to all of us to wake up and realize that we need a change and this change will never be done without consistency and peace if mind..
    When we want to achieve at our best we should put in front of us the perfect scene and this is what the article is all about! Very inspiring! Thank you!!

  17. Very touching words ….and thank you for still having some faith in our beloved country. Most of us have lost it!

    Reading your article brought tears to my eyes because you reminded me what Lebanon and the Lebanese are all about!

    Hope one day I’ll get the chance to meet you so I can thank you in person!

    Habib Wehbe

        1. I think the main problem is to do build sustainable institutions, and constructing such institutions incur high costs that noone is willing to pay. If we recall the british rule of law introduced in the usa, australia, nz! Look where they are today
          France should ve invested more in institutions back then 😉
          I am not puting the blame on anybody but history does matter and we have lots of evidence of the long run impacta of institutions on performance
          Lebanon could be a special case, but resilient rule of law cannot but inhibit any sort of racism or discrimination

          1. Thanks Tania, I’m going to dodge the invitation to compare UK and French rule of law. But you are dead right on institutions. Important to build the infrastructure of the state. Only then can it deliver essential services for citizens in a way that replaces the traditional structures.

  18. “The Eurozone President commented to me that Lebanon was now Singapore with more skiing, or Qatar with more culture.”
    I’m not sure what would be better, what we have now, or another Singapore or Quatar.

    Lebanon is a nice country, make no mistake, but it is plagued with scum politicians. Something that we see in every country, but it is actually much worse in Lebanon, and the descendants are waiting in the “margins” as you said. Like their father before them, and their father before them. It’s been going on for generations.

    Yes, lots of great things come out of lebanon, and expats coming back can be a good thing, but make no mistake, The cliché of the “new generation” having lived abroad has been used and recycled ad-nauseatum. Look no farther from our great neighbour, Syria, and Bashar… do you guys really have such a short memory?

    Truth is, Lebanon has a lot of talent, but the market is small, the economy slumbering, and any little vigor and compeition that arises in promising sectors is promptly obnubilated by the ruling cartels which are backed by billions of dollars and have their arms reaching deep into the state.

    And at a lower level, people die from criminal negligence and have no realistic legal recourse, due to corruption and/or comatose archaic justice system. Areas are out of reach of the police. The palestian camps are a haven for criminals. Hezbollah are a different state, and the police or army need their approval to operate in a “Hezbollah area”, and police or army need their permission to operate their or risk being shot at.

    It’s no wonder you need a visa for almost any country in the world when you only have a Lebanese passport.

    Lebanon is a heaven for criminals, and I wonder where you got your inspiration.

    Sorry, Lebanon is in a sorry state, if you look at it from that perspective, and “Europeans”, like you, with their attitude of knowing better and bringing good stuff, are obliviously cheering and clapping. Their “system” is not better than any other system, but I’d expect them to know better than judge things by their apparence.

    I have long since been disillusioned and don’t expect to change much with such a text of mine, or make many followers, but part of me still tells me that there is sense and reason in others, so I have to keep writing.

    And even if you were right, and if Beirut was a new Singapore or Quatar in the making, this might be pretty bad news. Let’s not aim too far, let’s start by aiming for a “new Jordan” or a “new Turkey” or “Greece” for a start, and let’s hope that Lebanon retains it’s soul.

    Consider this to be on behalf of a big group of Lebanese. I can’t count how many of my friends would agree with that.

    Get real. This is not a case for constly bad-mouthing a country that’s not so bad after all, but to show some respect by looking at real problems and harshipt that it’s people are suffering from, and to acknowledge these.

    And as an ambassador, frankly, you don’t hold the candle very high.

    1. Well Rolf, I’m glad you have had a chance to re-read the post, and to see that I’m only presenting one possible scenario. There are many more, and the answers lie with the Lebanese people, not with us outsiders. I make no apologies for refusing to be fatalist.

      By the way, I agree with you passionately that Lebanon must not lose its soul.

      For the rest, I think you’re wrong that I’m coming at this thinking I know best. I have never talked Lebanon down – ask anyone who has been to one of my speeches. And I reject the allegation that we don’t take seriously the hardships faced by people here. Have a look at some of my earlier blogposts for more on all of these themes.

      Keep the comments coming. I’m all up for a bit of a debate, and one of Lebanon’s greatest strengths is its freedom of speech, even if you use yours to talk down my candle holding skills…

  19. PS: I see the title is “Beirutopia”… and well I should have been more careful, your text is kinda ambguous.
    So anyway, sir, feel free to edit out the last sentence of my previous “Comment”, or any insulting parts if you prefer to publish it.
    I get all worked up about that topic, and make it personal, because once you live long enough in Lebanon, as a Lebanese, you end up paying with your blood, like the 100 000 persons who paid for their blood during the Lebanese civil war, and the same big heads are in power right now.

  20. Hi Tom,

    we can practice for the Olympics and hope for the best for the rest,
    private initiative is king,we master those skills until we can prove ourselves
    in defining our country’s destiny.
    i don’t think that your description is far fetched, it will only take a little effort
    and goodwill,the rest is available.

  21. Will the UK let it be, the way you imagine it, Sir Ambassador?
    For the past 200 years, it has been intriguing and promoting the opposite, i.e. false promises, wars, injustice and intolerance…
    Instead of studying international politics, maybe the UK ought to be reviewing parts of its “glorious” history concerning the ME…

    Anyway, thanks for the entertaining wishful thinking.

    1. Dima, I think you overstate our ability to influence events, and our perfidiousness. There is plenty in our history in the Middle East to question, but please judge us on what we’re trying to do now.

      1. What is the UK trying to do now, Mr. Ambassador? Can you tell us more about it? It has so far been a proxy for the US in ME politics.
        We have seen Tony Blair’s actions and we know UK’s interest in Lebanon’s gas and oil, as well as the stakes of its global oil companies… I don’t want to seem like Thomas, but I need to put my finger in and see, before trusting…
        And BTW, you did a great publicity for the Sky Bar there. I’m sure the whole embassy would get a free drink there soon 😉
        Enjoy it.

        1. Thanks Dima, have a look at http://www.ukinlebanon.fco.gov.uk for more on what we’re trying to do. Our embassy effort is centred on Lebanese stability. Not just because its a good thing in itself, but because its also in our interests. To support stability, we have programmes to help train the army/police, back reform, support the political process and improve the commercial relationship (including, as you say, oil and gas).

          And yes, I think some of the team do get to Sky Bar very occasionally.

          1. Thanks for the reply Mr. Ambassador. I’ll look into the site.
            Would the UK sell or maybe give (which is less likely) some war planes to the Leb army, or at least some anti war planes weapons, to defend its country from neighbouring agressions?
            When this will happen, I must say I’ll start believing that the UK trusts the Leb army and is starting to become a little fair, then I’ll start trusting the UK. Till then,…
            Would it, along with the other powerful “democracies” allow a strong, honest and bright true patriot to get to the top and start reversing things and annihilate corruption and corruptors?
            I personally doubt.
            Our country was designed as a ‘failed state’ by and for the powerful “democracies” to be able to play around in and with them according to their interests, without having a direct colonial rule, which morally makes them non-“democratic” (to their own public opinions first) and stains their image…

            Oh, and maybe some of the UK embassy staff ought to spend some time with people in Lebanon such as those that are unable to enter a hospital and have a decent treatment, those who have no place to stay or school to go to, those who are represented by no one, and those that make it on their own with great difficulty or even dishonesty; and not only with the “fils à papa” or mafiosi and other sociopoliticoeconomical lobby members that spend their nights at the SB, and constitute a very small percentage of the population…
            It would be much interesting and enlighting to take a look at the whole wide spectrum of the exploded Lebanese society. But I understand that one should not mix business and pleasure (or work and leasure, put it as you wish). Kind regards.

          2. Thanks Dima. Most of our support to the military is in the form of training. Watch this space for more on that this week. The army are working on an important capability plan, which will help donors identify where bestto support.
            I can promise you that the UK has no problem at all with honest patriots getting to the top.
            Finally, yes, I agree that it is important to get out of the bubble. Our team try to do this as much as possible.

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About Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011.

Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford College), graduating with a First class degree in Modern History. He has an MA in Modern History, and is a Senior Associate Member of St Anthony’s College for International Studies, Oxford.

He is married to Louise Fletcher and they have two sons, Charles (born 2006) and Theodor (born 2011). Tom enjoys political history, cricket (Strollers CC), and mountains, and is the co-founder of 2020 (a progressive think tank).

Tom was awarded the Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 2011 New Year’s Honours, for services to the Prime Minister.

Tom posts on Lebanon and the Middle East on this site. For posts on innovative statecraft, please visit Naked Diplomat-Foreign Policy without the Frills.

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