The news that Lebanon’s handling of its oil and gas exploration requires serious action to prevent disarray and further delays represents the sounding of a serious warning bell. The caretaker energy minister, Gebran Bassil, has sounded the warning and this is a commendable step, but the warning should be addressed to his political faction and all other groups in the country.
The inability to agree on a new Cabinet for Lebanon, after months of wrangling and firing verbal salvos, is what lies behind the Lebanese state’s inability to move forward with oil and gas exploration, after an initial burst of hope that the development would provide tangible benefits for a reeling economy.
While it will undoubtedly take years for this endeavor in the realm of gas and oil to provide long-awaited revenues for the Treasury, there are shorter-term benefits, in terms of foreign investment and job creation, which are urgently needed. The state of limbo in the executive branch of government, and the equally paralyzed situation of the legislature, are only contributing to Lebanon’s latest failure to get its affairs in order.
Bassil urged that Cabinet be convened to discuss this issue, and unilaterally announced that the tendering process had been delayed by two months, with more delays expected. But the entire problem stems from two overarching problems. One is that Lebanon’s political class has been unable to determine what is legal and constitutional under a caretaker government, whether this involves convening the Cabinet or Parliament. Amid this drift, political considerations have dominated in dealing with how to proceed with the tender process. Until Bassil and his allies in the March 8 camp can sit down for serious talks on such issues with their March 14 rivals and the bloc of so-called “centrists,” then more gridlock and time-wasting are certain to ensue.
The second problem is that Bassil himself is a controversial figure, and represents a political faction that is hell-bent on waging battles against the very government in which it’s represented. If a smooth outcome for the oil and gas issue is desired, the minister for this portfolio should be someone who enjoys the trust of the Lebanese public, the confidence of international firms, and the status of a problem-solver, and not a lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
The critical task at hand is to take the politics out of the oil and gas issue, because a daily dose of point-scoring will benefit no one, and certainly not a public waiting to see progress on this key national issue. Politicians and officials should remember international oil firms are perfectly ready to take their investments elsewhere if the tendering process is periodically pushed backward on the calendar. As it is, it will take years for the benefits to flow, but not even the fact that Israel and Cyprus are moving ahead full-steam has been enough to shake Lebanon’s politicians out of their lethargy.