|Made in America, in Beirut (Daily Star)
|Exhibition touts Us brands, ties to Lebanon
Despite regional political uncertainty, many firms say business is booming.
Amid intense pressure on the Syrian government and its allies in Lebanon's ruling class, US Embassy officials here are celebrating "Made in America" with a cross-section of locals who turned out to support the long-standing - albeit tumultuous - trade relationship between the two countries.
Uncertainty over the status-quo, a critical vote at the United Nations Security Council and memories of battlefield Beirut - burned into the minds of so many Americans - were far from the minds of those inside a balloon-filled pavilion awash with American and Lebanese flags. Times could not have changed more dramatically since the infamy of 1983, when both the US Marine barracks and the US Embassy were leveled here.
Today hundreds of US citizens are studying or working in Beirut, a Washington-led consortium has just won a contract to manage the capital's lucrative port terminal and, on Wednesday, the State Department-backed "Made In America" exposition - the only event of its kind in the Middle East - welcomed over a thousand guests in just its second year.
From Phizer to Starbucks, over 150 US corporations were out in full marketing force, distributing colorful brochures and complimentary trinkets to an array of visitors who enjoyed free ice cream, popcorn and snow cones. Be they business folk or family groups, scantily clad young female promoters or veiled women, the variety of visitors illustrated the unshakable foundation for commercial ties between Lebanon and the United States.
"We cannot live without American equipment and products," said Hassan Hajjar, general manager of Federal Express in Lebanon.
He said business has been "extremely well" for the US-based courier, which has seen a 45 percent increase in sales over last year.
"We can't even produce a bicycle in Lebanon. So if we can learn from them and improve ourselves, why not?" he asked.
Sales are also booming for cash transfer service Western Union, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Lebanon and now boasts 528 outlets in a country of no more than 4 million inhabitants.
"It's a great business," said assistant general manager Noha Abu Zeid.
Yet economic growth was not limited to the private sector exchanges. Several American non-governmental organizations were also on hand for the three-day event, touting rural development programs that, with the help of grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) claim to have improved life for hundreds of thousands of impoverished villagers.
The State University of New York has poured $56 million in USAID funds into its country-wide assistance programs, working with some 650 municipal governments to modernize aging bookkeeping and tax collection procedures.
"Budgets were being kept in notebooks. ... Some municipalities were collecting taxes illegally," said Trudi Hodges, who has been working with the university in Lebanon for the past four years.
"This is one of the safest places I've lived, especially for my children," she added.
But locals are divided about USAID programs, and several civic groups, including a number of resident US citizens, are holding a boycott of American products. Some protestors distributed leaflets that read, "Did you know you are supporting Israel without knowing?" outside the expo, which is being held at the Beirut Port.
The event is being guarded by hundreds of Lebanese police and military troops.
"Instead of making people feel grateful through charity, we would like the US to quit supporting the Israeli occupation," said Kirsten Scheid, a Princeton doctoral student and a member of CBSI, Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel.
Scheid, who has lived in Lebanon for 11 years, says US companies like Microsoft, Coca Cola, and Philip Morris have invested heavily in Israel's economy and developed programs that exclusively benefit Jewish communities - sometimes on land that once housed Palestinian refugees who now live in Lebanon.
"We are not targeting any nationality or group; this is a campaign against ethnic and religious supremacy," she said.
But Michel Bayoud, wearing a tie splashed with a bright American flag print, disagrees with the boycotters. He is the local managing director of the US-based pest control company Boeker, and says business has been "fantastic," this year, with 30 percent growth over 2003.
"I don't agree with the US government criticizing our resistance movement," he said in a reference to Hizbullah, which the State Department has called a terrorist organization. "But I definitely agree that no foreign country, such as Syria, should be interfering with our business."
The Daily Star