Location and geography
A small, mountainous patch of land on the eastern Mediterranean Sea (10,452 sq. km/2,036 sq. mi), Lebanon has been at the crossroads of civilizations over the centuries. It is bordered in the north and east by Syria and in the south by Israel.
The name Lebanon (Lubnan) is derived from the Aramaic word laban, meaning 'white', a reference to snow-capped peaks of Mount Lebanon.
Since the time of the Phoenician traders, Lebanon has flourished as a center of trading and commerce in the region. The capital city of Beirut, built on an irregular promontory on the Mediterranean sea, has survived earthquakes, tidal waves, fire, occupation, and a civil war.
Unlike most Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon is characterized by religious and cultural diversity - with 17 distinct minorities officially recognized. Maronite Christians and Shia and Sunni Muslims are the largest sects. The Christian/Muslim dichotomy is a salient feature of Lebanese society.
Culturally, Lebanon is considered the most Westernized country in the region - the weekend is observed on Saturday and Sunday - though much about its culture is typically Middle Eastern. The average Lebanese wears Western clothing. Many Beirutis dress smartly in European fashions, but many Muslim women wear headscarves or shawls, the hijabs, and conservative clothing that fully conceals arms and legs.
At the time of independence, Christians in the north of the country and the capital were a slight majority. Muslims are currently estimated at 70 percent of the population today, as many Christians fled the country during the civil war. The country's official language is Arabic. Most Lebanese are fluent in English and French as well.
Beirut: newcomers' expectations
During the civil war years, from 1975 to 1990, Beirut became synonymous with war and destruction. But since the 1989 Taif Accord, Beirut has risen again like its nickname - the 'phoenix'. However, the continuing crisis in the Middle East has the potential to jeopardize what may be a fragile peace and precipitate war once again between Lebanon and Israel.
For newcomers, much about Beirut has defied expectations. Beirut became once again a thriving, cosmopolitan capital with a vibrant nightlife, stylish shops, and gourmet restaurants. Sophisticated Beirutis enjoy a Westernized lifestyle - and a penchant for European fashions, eating out, and drinking arak, a local anise-infused liquor distilled from grapes.
Beirut has been a hospitable and pleasant city for expatriates. In the space of an hour, its possible to travel from the beaches of Beirut to ski slopes in the Mount Lebanon mountains. The Lebanese, well educated and literate, are known for their legendary entrepreneurial spirit, hospitality, and enjoyment of life.
Government and politics
The Greater State of Lebanon was created in 1920, after the League of Nations granted France a mandate - administrative authority - for Lebanon and Syria. The constitution was written in 1926, but not codified until the 1989 Taif accord. Following the end of World War II, the Republic of Lebanon (or Al Jumhuriyah al Lubnaniyah and Luban in Arabic) was granted independence in 1943.
Lebanon has the longest surviving democracy in the Middle East. Suffrage, granted to women in 1953, is universal for men and women at the majority age of 21.
Lebanon has a unique form of parliamentary democracy: the complex sectarian agreement devised in 1943 allocates powers among the three largest religious sects, also known as a 'confessional' system.
Under this agreement, the country is ruled by a Christian Maronite president elected for a six-year term, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim as speaker of the Parliament. The agreement was based on the 1932 census, the last official census taken in Lebanon. The 128 members of the unicameral National Assembly (Majlis Alnuwab in Arabic, Assemblee Nationale in French), elected by popular vote, are distributed based on sectarian divisions for four-year terms. The prime minister, in consultation with the president and the National Assembly, choose the Cabinet.
The confessional system is criticized for perpetuating sectarian divisions, which erupted into a 16-year civil war in 1975.
Unlike neighboring countries, Lebanon lacks natural resources, such as oil and gas. Lebanon is a service-oriented, free market economy. There are no religious or cultural prohibitions on the way business is conducted. The largest economic sectors are banking/financial services and tourism.
Lebanon has strict secrecy in its banking laws, much like Switzerland. During the war years, the banking industry suffered, but has rebounded. More than 60 licensed banks operate in Lebanon, including international banks with branches or majority shares in Lebanese banks.
Light industry and export of manufactured goods are the next largest sectors, including jewelry, wood and wood furniture, textiles, as well as manufacturing cement, mineral and chemical products, oil refining, and metal fabricating.
Agriculture accounts for only about 15 percent of the gross national product (GNP). The main crops grown in the fertile Bekaa Valley are citrus, grapes, tomatoes, apples, vegetables, potatoes, olives, and tobacco. Local wines produced in the region are considered excellent.
Renewal after the civil war
In 1992, Lebanon embarked on a massive reconstruction program under newly-elected Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese/Saudi businessman who served until 1998 and then again from 2000 to 2004. Under Hariri, the government introduced an austerity program, reducing government expenditures and increasing revenues, such as implementing a value-added tax (VAT).
The Lebanese pound, the local currency, was pegged to the U.S. dollar in 1999 to stabilize the economy.
The Lebanese way of life returned rapidly to normality. A new airport - Rafik Hariri International Airport - was constructed and roads and highways repaired and built. Known as the 'Paris of the Middle East' before the war, the government committed resources to reclaim that reputation. Beirut's restored central business district, luxury hotels, trendy shops, and restaurants, are attracting tourists and business travelers, mostly Middle Easterners and Europeans, and, to a lesser extent, other Westerners.
Economic growth trended upwards as of 2001. However, the ecomony stagnated after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2004; tourism was seriously affected by this high-profile event. It was anticipated that the ecomony would improve with increased privatization, foreign investments, and continued cautious fiscal policy.
The second half of 2006 saw a period of renewed upheaval, as Israel targeted Lebanon-based Hezbollah with military action. Though that war was short-lived, the country's turmoil would not be. Tensions with Syria and violence surged again, and as of summer 2013, several governments are still warning against non-essential travel to Lebanon. Contact your company's security specialist or your country's embassy for more information.
Lebanon is a small country, with just over four million people. The Lebanese workforce is well-educated and literate. In addition to Arabic, most Lebanese are fluent in English and French.
Unemployment is high, especially among Lebanon's youth and well-educated workers. There is a high emigration rate to nearby countries, as many of the jobs available - or created recently - require a low skill level.
The Lebanese culture of commerce and trade has flourished since the time of the Phoenicians. The Lebanese people are hard working, resourceful, and ambitious in the pursuit of affluence.