A responsible and happy citizenry forms the fundamental underpinning of a happy nation. How does gas and oil figure in the happiness equation?
Gas and oil are the latest drama in Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus. While all three states, for different reasons, are failed products of imperial Europe, Lebanon – a gravely distorted democracy with regional ailments – may be the one to gain the least and lose the most from gas and oil discoveries offshore.
Still buried under water, gas and oil are yet scarcely resources that pay. Instead, they have already fueled monkey-shine politics in the tradition of all Lebanese public affairs. Hence their discovery has chiefly provoked nepotism among the usual oligarchs-cum-politicians who are experts in organized looting.
Any honest direction or genuine effort to extract the damned natural resource is frustrated when the good, the bad and the ugly must share decision-making at the highest levels of the unaccountable executive, legislative and judicial branches and departments; but dividing up the national pie is at stake. Observers in this pseudo-country are mesmerized, to say the least, by the ability of the Lebanese political establishment to achieve new records of abuse.
In this miserable condition of political leadership, it is no surprise that the ultimate power of governance is wasted upon creating a state of perpetual confusion, rather than resolving the chief issue of concern to citizens: the national and individual pursuit of happiness.
While eternal happiness is the desire of the next Al-Qaeda-inspired, oil-financed suicide bomber, a majority of citizens do not care to meet him in heaven. Nor will the Lebanese reach nirvana with the discovery of oil destined to finance the already bloated pockets of the stalwarts of March 8 and March 14 across the sectarian gamut.
No, the chief concern of the citizen is happiness and economic well-being, while the gas and oil discovery might well lead to new-old oil authoritarianism, a derivative of the kind mastered by Gulf states since the 1920s. A gas- and oil-producing Lebanon, like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar and Nigeria, is not exactly energy-rich Norway. Without transparency and good governance it is a disaster in the making. Similarly, gas and oil minus real citizen participation adds up to the potential of making people’s lives and future worse.
Consider this: Lebanon’s public debt has been swallowing national income since the 1990s, and private banks continue to gain it all. Enter the discovery of oil, which will eventually see the light of production. Gas and oil might very likely create runaway government spending, and more looting. A spending binge fueled by gas and oil will further increase the pressure on the debt and its servicing. Even in the presence of gas and oil, private banks shall necessarily continue to make enormous profits; ditto for an even bigger real-estate bubble. You will not see investments in human capital, science, technology creation, or research and development.
Arab Gulf states are experts on vacant, mega-real estate projects, binge spending, and dictatorial brilliance. In their current efforts to subdue Lebanon’s political factions and apply all sorts of financial and economic sticks and carrots, they may force a capital flight out of the Lebanese economy, thus exacerbating the oil curse.
In such a scenario, domestic gas and oil might recreate and reinforce the Arab model of governance and economic policy in Lebanon: that is, reliance on gas and oil without real economic growth and without sustained increments of the national happiness index.
The notion of happy citizenry does not mean turning society into a mob of sentimentalists. The peoples of this tortured and tired region need a dose of practical happiness: social and economic. A happy nation yearns highest for responsibility, good governance and communal living, just like a successful business depends on skilled and happy staff to please its customers. From a top-bottom perspective, Arab government patriarchs, who have aligned their self-interests with those of global powers, are a yawn behind the Arab citizen’s hand, ruining the taste for simple, wholesome, happy living.
But the equation works well from the bottom up. The character of happy citizens could inform the national character. If the private citizen and the public servant were as competent at delivering good services as the average politician is at robbing the public, then the market and the nation together would be at a much higher level on the happiness scale. Unfortunately, in Lebanon and across the region, national happiness seems to be an ever elusive promise. Gas and oil may be yet another retardant on the path to happiness.
Imad Atalla is managing partner at happometer.com. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.