By NADIA MICHEL
With its winning blend of spice, heat and sweetness, Levantine cuisine has been predicted to be one of the biggest food trends in 2020.
Sometimes you look far across the sea horizon, and it appears that there is nothing there. But I assure you: with the right binoculars, you’d see some boats and ships. And if you were in a densely populated area and near a bustling Middle Eastern port, at least one of them would be heading your way, filled with goods.
Lebanon has had double, brutal blows over the last couple of years. First, the country entered a deep economic crisis after a dubious banking system, puppet mastered by some of the world’s most shamelessly corrupt politicians, could no longer carry on with the charade. And as the population revolted, demanding systemic changes from their impotent government, COVID-19 came along, shutting down the last few remnants of an economy on its last breath and sending protesters home. If it were an MMA fight, it would look like a technical knockout.
But the Lebanese are nothing if not enterprising. A few of them in the upper strata of society have been quite savvy at hatching world-class schemes that have enriched their families beyond most people’s wildest imaginations, in their own countries and abroad (think Mexican-Lebanese tycoon Carlos Slim or the legally-challenged Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn, and the non-Carlos, Swiss-Lebanese Nick Hayek, who runs Swatch.) From the educated middle class have emerged some of the world’s most recognizable designers, making their way into global pop culture (Jennifer Lopez in Zuhair Murad, Victoria’s Secret $2 million Fantasy Bra by Mouawad, Beyonce’s last album cover featuring a headpiece by Nicolas Jebran…it’s a very long list).
It’s no secret: creative talent in Lebanon, mostly concentrated in Beirut, exists in quality and quantity. But the humbler and numerous working-class is also quite industrious. The country’s streets are brimming with never-ending shops, cafes, sandwich shops and bakeries that make some of the best street-food in the world. (Though in full disclosure, I haven’t been to Asia yet, and I know there’s more to it than bat soup.) Lebanese love to eat, they indulge in beautiful things, they live to the fullest from dawn till dawn, and none of that is about to vanish along with the value of the Lebanese Pound.
So once the country hits true rock bottom over the next months, there will only be one way to go and that’s up. As the country is forced to become increasingly self-sustaining, thanks to a currency that has lost more than half its value even after prices were already 30 percent higher than in neighboring countries before the crisis, (already back in 2018 EuroCost International’s cost-of-living survey for expatriates reported that Beirut was the seventh most expensive city in the world) entrepreneurs will have a wide-open market ripe for locally-made, high quality products that cost less.
From agriculture to fashion and furniture, Lebanon’s industry is about to kick into gear. It’s a country that is rich with natural resources, talent and the shrewd, astute business minds to bring it all together and swiftly. During a recent interview on The Men’s Room podcast, Joe Tabet, the Lebanese founder of Dubai-based JT +Partners, explained how he gave up a high-paying position five years ago to start his own business from scratch, now a world-class architecture and engineering firm with over 70 employees. “In the Middle East you have a kind of ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ mentality. Instead of taking six months to negotiate you negotiate in five minutes and prepare the paperwork simultaneously.”
Anyone in the world that’s thinking of building a business right now has massive opportunity ahead, but that’s especially true in Lebanon. “You need to think big and act big. That’s major for the success of any story,” Tabet reminds us. It’s an oldie but a goodie, and that’s the X-factor what will determine the future for this proverbial phoenix, a tiny but feisty country on the Mediterranean Sea.