BEIRUT: The presidential vacuum threatens to mire bilateral relations and dampens the prospects of potential investment deals between Lebanon and Australia, according to Glenn Miles, Australia’s ambassador in Beirut.
“I think the biggest challenge is the presidential vacuum and political deadlock which essentially complicates the bilateral relationship and makes it difficult to promote trade and investment here in Lebanon,” Miles told The Daily Star during an interview Friday.
Miles, who assumed his post in January after previous appointments in Ramallah, Kuwait and Amman, views the 13-month presidential vacuum as the greatest obstacle to achieving his goal of improving the country’s business ties with Australia.
Despite “huge economic opportunities between both countries” in sectors ranging from agriculture to construction, Lebanon’s political crisis makes the country a harder sell.
Although Lebanon faces political turmoil, Miles lauded the country’s people and security services for maintaining calm in Lebanon. “At the moment it is relatively stable, which we are happy about, and I think that’s a credit both to the Lebanese people ... as well as to the Lebanese security services. They’ve done an excellent job in keeping the peace.”
According to Miles, Lebanon is “in some ways miraculous ... it’s like this island of calm in the eye of a tornado.”
Miles said that the Australian government appreciates the burden Lebanon has shouldered because of the Syrian crisis, and that his country was a major donor to humanitarian plight. Both Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese have benefitted from support provided by the Australian government.
But the specter of instability remains a concern for the country, he acknowledged.
When asked about a number of Lebanese-Australians who have been involved in terrorist activities, including Islamist Sheikh Hussam Sabbagh and notorious ISIS members Khaled Sharouf and Mohammad Elomar, Miles said that radicalization among Australian citizens is certainly not limited to those with ties to Lebanon.
“It’s not confined to a particular community or group in Australia. What we’ve seen is radicalized youth in Australia from all different backgrounds heading or seeking to head to Syria,” he said.
Arrested in Tripoli last summer, Sabbagh was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after he was convicted of belonging to a terrorist group, fighting alongside the group in Iraq and attempting to carry out terrorist operations in Lebanon.
Sharouf and Elomar are accused of committing atrocities on behalf of ISIS in Syria.
Miles said that the Australian Embassy was not involved in tracking Australians or radical groups in Lebanon, but added that his team “works very closely with the security services here.”
Miles declined to comment on the visit of Australian intelligence Chief Nick Warner to Lebanon this week.
There are between 20,000 and 30,000 Australian passport-holders currently residing in Lebanon, and there are more than 400,000 Australians of Lebanese descent currently living in Australia, he added.
Diversity, he said, is one of Australia’s greatest strengths.
As an ambassador, Miles said “people-to-people links” are of utmost importance. To that end, Miles said his office works to engage Australians in Lebanon and works closely with Lebanese community groups in Australia.
He has also cultivated an active Twitter presence, tweeting and retweeting on a variety of subjects both serious and lighthearted.
“You can engage in a range of issues that otherwise is difficult to do,” Miles said.