Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher

Former British Ambassador to Lebanon

Part of UK in Lebanon

15th December 2011 Beirut, Lebanon


I have now been in Beirut over three months. The Lebanese tell me that the more you learn about this extraordinary country, the less you understand. So I fear that my first impressions could become more confused over the next three years.

The contrasts of Lebanon are a well worn cliché, but still hit the new arrival. The brash new souk (with every top British brand) alongside the pockmarked Holiday Inn, a remnant of the civil war. Hijabs and hotpants. A government in debt, but Mercedes on every corner. Excess and abstinence. Huge flat screen TVs and power cuts. The mental scars of civil war and occupation, and the physical scars of a capital that has more cosmetic plastic surgery than any other. Beirut has the swagger of Sydney, the panache of Paris, and the dynamism of Dubai. It creates the enchanting and inspiring mix that has so entranced outsiders for centuries. But it also makes your head spin.

Lebanon has too often found itself a prisoner of history and geography. The persecuted of the 20th century sought refuge here. So, for many, success in the 21st century is survival. Mountain people: resilient, tough survivors who put family and clan first. And sea people: adventurers, dreamers and traders.

Caught between a rock to the East/North and a hard place to the South, maybe it is little surprise that so many Lebanese have opted to go West. For Lebanon is all too often a vector for regional instability, the place where others fight their battles. Seeing Lebanon as a test ground for the relative strength of interfering outsiders, we agonise over who is really in charge. But the Lebanese know that the battle for Lebanon’s soul is never truly won. Nor does any group really believe it ever will be. A fragile but somehow functional system of consent, patronage and compromise holds. And as a result Lebanon, through its diversity, remains the best place to take the pulse of the Arab world.

But the transformation of the region creates greater uncertainty and – given the past – fear. Each of the key groups is taking stock, marshalling forces, testing internal and external alliances. Lebanon is a cauldron of raw politics. There are no permanent allies nor enemies. Many fear sectarianism is getting worse – only 5% in co-education, compared to 40% a generation ago. The Lebanese are fatalist – “this is Lebanon” – about these problems. And they often have an outsider to blame, normally with good reason.

With so many challenges, for some observers it defies logic that Lebanon still works. My sense is that it is through a combination of money, the fear of going back to the past, and – above all – the talent, ingenuity and resilience of the Lebanese. But the downside of this adaptability is that the Lebanese tolerate and work around problems that should be solved. This doesn’t always make for perfect government – getting even basic legislation is based on constant negotiation and brinkmanship, which risks encouraging inertia.

External interventions in Lebanon tend to end in tears. As people here say: Lebanon is easy to swallow, but hard to digest. So should we marvel at Lebanon’s wonders but despair of change? Unsurprisingly, I think not. I believe that the forces holding Lebanon together remain stronger than those pulling it apart. And the UK should be very much in the former group. If we can’t win the argument for democracy, politics and co-existence in Lebanon, we’ll lose it closer to home.

Our embassy’s mission here is to serve Brits, through a prosperous partnership with a stable and sovereign Lebanon. In support of Lebanon’s stability, I think the UK can:

  •  bolster the state. We must be realistic about our impact, and not seek to fix every problem we find. We must press the Lebanese themselves to demand better delivery, and support leaders who are focused on reform, most importantly to unlock the internet, secure better power supply, and reform the electoral system. We can also play our part in protecting Lebanon from destabilisation caused by change elsewhere – so we are expanding our support to institutions such as the army, that underpin the state;
  •  invest. UK companies are already doing well in infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, tourism. I’m sure we can do more, including in design/fashion and ICT, and we will be pushing this agenda hard;
  •   engage, with independent and relentless purpose, to secure a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel, without which Lebanon can never truly find its equilibrium;
  •  encourage Lebanese leaders to take greater control of the country’s destiny, and look less to outsiders for answers, security and responsibility.  A start would be to get rid of the labels that continue to define politicians in relation to a Syria that is changing. I hope to encourage the Lebanese to spend more time talking to each other, rather than inviting outsiders to divide and rule them. Stand together, or fall apart.

Running through all these themes, I think we must focus on the future. Too much debate tends to be on the immediate. So I want to start a conversation on what Lebanon could be like in 2020, aged 100. See my next blog for more …


  1. Your words can not be bettered Mr Ambassador. That’s exactly what Lebanon is , a microcosm of the region and the world in general.
    If one can solve tiny Lebanon’s problems , then you can in theory solve the rest of the worlds . It ain’t going to happen anytime. 🙂
    Loved reading your Blog post.
    Well done sir !

  2. Must admire your sense of understanding of the lebanese mentality and the diversity of the lebanese society. Having said that , unfortunately the more one is dazzled and impressed by the lebanese way of life , the more one is convinced that THIS IS IT . No more no less . just a way of life , no sense of belonging with absolutely not even the tiniest hint of a potential COUNTRY in the making after 60 odd years of so called independence!!! Having cast my vote in four general elections in the UK and never in Lebanon , i dont see the point of holding these charades in Lebanon , more so when we see the standard of debates going on last couple of days on tv .

    1. Thanks Imad, but the country’s future lies in the hands of people like you. You’ve got to engage if you want to change things. Very much hope you will – no time for fatalism.

  3. I very true discription from a newcommer to the Beiur scene.I attended the seminar yesterday on “social midea” and found your
    opening lecture most interesting.I look forward in being introduced to
    you formallyand welcoming you to our city and showing you around if
    need be.I was born in Beirut and have dual nationality and until recently owned a supermarketwhich was called Smiths Supply & trading.looking forward to meet you personally I remain
    your most electronically Patrick Ogden-Smith

  4. I like…. and i wish that all Foreign interest and policies into Lebanon will look deep and see it from the same perspective!!!
    We deserve a better future!

  5. I can’t even start to describe how delighted I felt while reading your carefully written analysis of the lebanese condition, quiet frankly I must say that you managed to see in this marvellous country what others failed to notice or where too busy abusing his condition, allow me to say that even though our country has many contradictions and has the power to spin the world for any visitor, yet I couldn’t have chosen any better place to be born in. Lebanese people strive for perfection, they want it all and I believe many of us haven’t awaken yet from the terrorising nightmares that came and went over time, and find the idea of ruling ourselfs and deciding our own destiny rather odd and preffer to postpone it to a later date putting the trust in the hand of foriegners that sometimes take advantage of it to serve some rebellious needs.
    I’♏ delighted that I had a satisfying sneak-peek on what’s going on in your mind about my country and I think that we are lucky to have you here and hope you’ll come to think of lebanon as your second home!

    1. Thanks Wiam. Youre right- the key in the coming months is not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. I hope our #leb2020 project will help identify unifying strengths to carry us all through a tough period.

  6. Thank you and well done. Thank you for seeing Lebanon ‘with two eyes and a heart’ and well done for seeing anything at all in three months! I pray that your vision for the way the UK can encourage Lebanon to resolve its past and walk into its future do not preclude the need for honesty and transparency with reagrd to the way our neighbours (and Lebanon itself) are dealt with by the PR machine of Western politics and media.

    You are so incredibly right that Lebanon can never even begin to look at itself until the Palestinian people are safely ensconced in their own country and can choose to come to us as honoured guests and visitors. The Lebanese, for all our vanity, find it difficult to look in the ‘mirror’ sometimes as what we see is too excruciating to deal with. I do believe that the next priority for is is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, preferably under the tutelage of world elders such as Bishop Tutu.

    Once again, thank you.

    1. Suzanne, many thanks, and I agree in particular on vital importance of truth and reconciliation work. I worked on Northern Ireland for the last few years, and saw the impact of community driven reconciliation projects. The Rwanda examples are also very good. Take a look at conclusions of recent conference in Byblos, hosted by George Asseilly.

  7. Welcome to Lebanon Tom and I hope you enjoy your stay. Your role is very important for the country and its people and I am sure that during the coming few years you will contribute to making a difference. I read your article and I would like, as a Lebanese-British person who has lived and worked in both countries, to contribute to the conversation you started.

    Yes the Lebanese like to think that their country is extraordinary, as you wrote, but I believe that it is time that their attention is drawn to the fact that every other country in the world is also extraordinary in some manner, and many countries, unlike Lebanon, are extraordinary for reasons that they have the right to brag about. It is time now that the Lebanese realise that there are more important things to pride oneself on, other than being an economic and social enigma to oneself and to the rest of the world.

    Most educated Lebanese realise that Lebanon lives on the millions of Dollars that expatriates transfer daily into the Lebanese banks plus government debts! Your words above, about the reasons behind Lebanon’s survival:”through a combination of money, the fear of going back to the past, and – above all – the talent, ingenuity and resilience of the Lebanese” are flattering, but are not what the Lebanese need to learn or hear. To be realistic, and non-racist, let us admit that there is no ‘research’ that shows that the Lebanese, or any other people, are more talented, ingenious or resilient than other peoples of the world. I believe that such flattering only confuses the Lebanese. The Lebanese need to be told the truth. Had the Lebanese been that talented and ingenuous, Lebanon would been a proper democracy with less corruption and better services.
    A very popular Lebanese musician and comedian of the last century, the late Philemon Wehbe, uncovered the reason behind the problems of Lebanon in his little song “Ca ne fait rien” that he wrote and sang in the sixties. This French phrase, which translates into English as “never mind”, is a very commonly used Lebanese word: “ma’leish” and is actually behind most of Lebanon’s ailments. Ma’leish makes the Lebanese accept their status quo, tolerate corruption and allows double standards.
    The Lebanese ma’leish the faults of their leaders when election times come – they do not hold them accountable for their actions.
    Maleish deprived the Lebanese media from its freedom, it is never allowed to actually threaten the position of power of any strong politician. It allowed media to become controlled by a cartel who, though ready to engage against each other in civil wars, cooperate to protect each others’ turf.
    It is good that you intend to “press the Lebanese themselves to demand better delivery, and support leaders who are focused on reform”. But Lebanon’s problems are not due to the Lebanese leaders being “defined in relation to Syria” but rather the lack of accountability; neither through the media nor through the judicial system can one leader be really reached.
    I am sure that you have observed the swing of Lebanese leaders from one side to another – their political stand mainly defined by one factor: personal power.
    May I note that your article missed to mention the main way out for Lebanon: education. I believe that we all realise that the way to address Lebanon’s problems, and help Lebanon’s people, mainly by helping them improve their attitude towards accountability, it is through investing in educating them bout proper leadership, consistency of values, the damage that corruption causes and the importance of accountability.
    I believe that we can really help Lebanon mainly by launching, and strongly supporting, a serious, long term, strong campaign to educate all the people, leaders included, not just school children.

    1. Saad, I appreciate these points and you make a powerful case. 100% agree on education – look at our British Council work for details on how we try to help. As to analysing the Lebanese condition, I guess it is wrong to generalise. But I’m more optimistic and positive. Hope I still feel this way in three years. Keep it coming.

      1. To the readers of this blog: check out the time and date of Tom’s posts, 7.30am on 24 December: remarkable diligence, a good example to learn from.
        To Tom: Thank you for the kind answer; and I will definitely check the British Council website and try to visit them during my next trip to Lebanon.

    2. Thanks Saad, for such a thorough and thoughtful response. Yes, right – education, education, education. We’re trying to help, through the excellent British Council.

  8. I loved it u managed to describe Lebanon in its ups and downs with few words..I hope tht ur love and believe in this country dosent fade away with time nd be able to make a change tht we all have been wishing for…


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About Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011. Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford…

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011.

Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford College), graduating with a First class degree in Modern History. He has an MA in Modern History, and is a Senior Associate Member of St Anthony’s College for International Studies, Oxford.

He is married to Louise Fletcher and they have two sons, Charles (born 2006) and Theodor (born 2011). Tom enjoys political history, cricket (Strollers CC), and mountains, and is the co-founder of 2020 (a progressive think tank).

Tom was awarded the Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 2011 New Year’s Honours, for services to the Prime Minister.