Aside from a visit by then-President Elias Hrawi to an Islamic summit in Senegal in 1991, Lebanese statesmen have been conspicuous in their absence from official visits to Africa.
Yet Lebanese have been present on the continent, in nations such as Senegal and Ghana, for over a hundred years, building businesses, families and livelihoods.
The visit this week of President Michel Sleiman to West Africa is therefore to be welcomed and encouraged. Over the years, the Lebanese in Africa have become citizens and active members of society.
As the continent booms, the Lebanese have become major players in local economies, but unlike other expats, they have done so with minimal support, financially or politically, from their government. This is in contrast to their direct competitors from countries such as Israel who have been well supported in their foreign endeavors and as a result have flourished.
The president’s visit is a step in the right direction, accompanied as he is by businessmen from various sectors including banking, commerce and advertising.
Such visits should be one of the main functions of a president, as they have long been among the world’s other leaders, to act as global representatives for their country. The leaders of France, the United Kingdom and elsewhere never shy away from efforts to see that their country’s products have the best ambassadors.
In addition to boosting bilateral ties, a trip such as this is also an important opportunity for the president to advertise Lebanon to the world. This is particularly vital at a time when the country’s reputation is sinking ever lower in the world’s eyes, with Beirut still a byword for chaos and insecurity all these years after the Civil War.
This image must be erased in the world’s eyes, and there can be no better than the president, as neutral a figure as the country has, to do so.
The president’s latest visit comes in the wake of a similar trip to Latin America last year, another continent home to millions of Lebanese who have never forgotten their roots, even though their government appears to have forgotten them. It is therefore to be hoped that such trips would become a regular part of the presidential schedule.
It is also important that they go further. As a priority, the Gulf states deserve a high-caliber, well-prepared visit, given the importance and special nature of ties between Lebanon and the GCC.
With Sleiman visiting Qatar later this month, the time is ripe for Lebanon to plan a well-executed presidential visit to the GCC countries, particularly in light of recent strains in their historically strong ties.
If there is any gray cloud in relations between Lebanon and such countries, it is imperative that Sleiman himself is there to try and clear the skies. By doing so he will prove that the president of Lebanon, at least, is able to rise above the country’s harmful petty politicking and act in the best interests of the country.