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Could a Lavish Billionaire Save the Crumbling Lebanese State?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Lebanon's prime minister-designate Najib Mikati in Baabda, Lebanon, on Wednesday.
Lebanon's prime minister-designate Najib Mikati in Baabda, Lebanon, on Wednesday.Credit: Dalati Nohra / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Reuters reported in May that telecom and internet companies operating in Myanmar had been told to install eavesdropping equipment so that the government could monitor cellphone and landline users. It seems the order was a key part of the army’s preparations in the weeks before its February 1 coup.

The Reuters article didn’t reveal anything new to the Norwegian telecom company Telenor, which was among the companies ordered to install the spyware. In a December 3 statement, the company expressed concerns about Myanmar's plans to “directly access each operator and ISP’s systems without case-by-case approval” because the country didn’t have adequate regulations to protect privacy and freedom of expression.

Pegasus scandal: How the Mossad pushed invasive spyware to friendly dictators. LISTEN

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Around the time Telenor announced in early July that it was considering leaving Myanmar, a move that shook the local telecom industry, the military junta barred foreign and local executives of major telecom companies from leaving the country without permission. On July 8, Telenor announced it was selling its Myanmar unit for $105 million to whoever would buy it.

The buyer ended up being M1, a holding company that already had telecom businesses in Myanmar. M1 is owned by the brothers Najib and Taha Mikati, who are believed to be the richest people in Lebanon, with an estimated fortune of $5 billion.

The Myanmar deal wasn’t the only recent big event for the Mikati brothers. This week Najib Mikati was named prime minister-designate of Lebanon by President Michel Aoun, with the mission of rescuing the country from its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Mikati's yachtCredit: Concept Design by ABC/crn-yacht.com

Mikati is a billionaire with style. He owns a yacht that was custom-designed by an Italian company for an estimated $100 million – almost the price tag of Telenor’s Myanmar business. The boat is filled with sophisticated gear but at 79 meters (259 feet), it’s a little shorter than his brother’s yacht. The brothers also have two luxury private jets for shuttling among M1’s far-flung operations.

When Mikati isn’t plying the seas or skies, he has a luxury apartment in Monaco and a palace with a view of his yacht north of his hometown of Tripoli. The boat, which has a crew of 24 and room for 12 guests, is another moneymaker for Mikati, who rents it out for $1 million a week.

Mikati indicted

Tripoli, by the way, is Lebanon’s poorest city and the site of constant protests by the unemployed, people who struggle to buy food and medicine and, needless to say, pay for a home.

Mikati doesn’t lack for anything, but it seems even Lebanese billionaires don’t look askance at government benefits they might be entitled to. In 2019, he was indicted for allegedly defrauding banks by taking subsidized housing loans intended for people in need worth millions of dollars. The lender was Bank Audi, in which he is a shareholder.

A branch of MTN, South Africa’s biggest cellular operatorCredit: Bloomberg

The trial is due to get underway, but the chief prosecutor in the case was dismissed after she sought to also investigate Mikati (and other former prime ministers) for his possible role in the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

That's right. Mikati isn’t only a billionaire. He has served as Lebanon’s prime minister twice. He was in office in 2013 when a ship was allowed to leave its cargo of ammonia nitrate at the port, which set off last year’s blast. The suspicion is that Mikati knew of the danger and did nothing about it.

Now that he’s on his way back to the premiership, it’s fair to assume that the government will bury at least that part of the probe.

Mikati and his brother amassed their wealth via giant projects in Abu Dhabi at the end of the ‘70s; today they head one of the biggest construction companies in the Middle East. In 1982, the two formed Investcorp to invest in the Middle East, South Africa and Western Europe. When Bashar Assad came to power in Syria in 2000, he awarded Mitaki a 15-year telecom license in exchange for a share of the profits.

In 2006, the company was sold to MTN, South Africa’s biggest cellular operator, for $5.5 billion and a 10 percent stake in MTN. MTN, by the way, is suspected of paying protection money to the Taliban in Afghanistan and bribes in Iran to stay afloat in violation of international sanctions.

Tripoli, Lebanon's poorest city, last month.Credit: Emilie Madi / Reuters

Hezbollah’s support

Mikati’s immense wealth and alleged corruption not only didn’t prevent him from serving twice as prime minister, it hasn’t stopped a majority of Lebanese lawmakers from approving his appointment again.

Big money is an integral part of Lebanese politics, as was the case with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and his son Saad, who was once prime minister, then resigned, was later tapped again and gave up last week after failing for 10 months to form a government.

Mikati has the support of Hezbollah MPs, as well as Hariri’s political bloc and the Shi’ite Amal movement, to which Speaker Nabih Berri belongs. But the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party closely associated with the president and led by his son-in-law, as well as Lebanese Forces, another Christian party, didn’t openly back Mikati’s nomination.

Mikati represents the old, rich and corrupt elites who have been the targets of the protests in Lebanon over the past two years. His appointment is seen as a continuation of the rotten government that created Lebanon’s economic crisis.

It’s unclear how long it will take Mikati to form a government; last time he needed five months. If he succeeds, he’ll have to reform the banking system, probe the central bank, investigate the system of sectarian monopolies, and establish a mechanism to supervise the funds that Beirut receives from donor countries.

Protests in Beirut, two weeks ago.Credit: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The conflict of interests among his companies, which are tightly connected and dependent on the banks, and the demands for good government are bound to keep foreign donors like the International Monetary Fund and the donor countries concerned.

For the Lebanese people, who have long ago lost influence over their leaders, Mikati’s appointment is a joke. Concern for the poor and the million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon won’t be top priorities for a leader living in a palace and sailing in a yacht.

But he’s Lebanon’s only hope at this point. He must form a government soon so that Lebanon can borrow money that will help pay for natural gas to feed its power stations, not to mention for medicine, vaccines and basic goods.

Mikati made a name for himself as a fixer who not only founds businesses but also forges political coalitions. Paradoxically, despite his business efforts, which have supported tyrannical regimes in Myanmar, Yemen, Sudan and other African states, he’s also now the hope of Western countries fearing for Lebanon’s future.

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