Monday, September 10, 2007

Plus ça change…

I have recently re-read Kamal Salibi’s book on the history of Lebanon: “A House of Many Mansions” (IB Tauris, 1988). It is a rich book, which retraces how sectarian Lebanon was created. What attracted my attention this time was the issue of world trade, its influence on the breakdown of local economic systems, and the associated political meltdown (although the causality is far from being simple). Here’s the story I was able to put together from information harvested from Salibi’s book.

Western Europe started to dominate world trade at the end of the 15th century, when the Spaniards landed in America and the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope to reach India by the sea. The rapid expansion in Western maritime trade that followed reduced the importance of the Levant and its hinterlands. This resulted in economic stagnation in the Ottoman and Persian empires, which were debilitated by their endless conflict.

A booming trade created excess liquidity in Europe, especially with the appearance of American silver. Profits were reinvested into economic development and world commerce, which led to greater inflation. By the 17th century, this inflation reached Persia and the Ottoman Empire and destabilized their local economy. Their markets became dominated by European merchant companies (early day transnational corporations). This led to the impoverishment of the population and to the emergence of a local merchant class composed of urban elites, of politicians and of local rulers who were deferential to Western powers and to trading companies.

According to Salibi, “Western European traders preferred to deal with weak local Arab potentates rather than with the stronger Ottoman and Persian states. Thus, whenever they happened to have a special commercial interest, they encouraged local autonomies to develop at the expense of the Ottoman or Persian imperial authority. The road had already been paved for these autonomies by the weakening of the Persian and Ottoman states and by their continuing conflict which were exploited by ambitious local chiefs.”

The transformation of the agricultural sector in the Levant from local consumption to export-oriented can be traced to these times. Of course, there was trading earlier, but not at the expense of local food production. In the 17th century, food and other commodities were already being imported into the Levant. Raw material was exported, to be manufactured by Western industries and then sold back to the Levant. Lebanon’s (in fact Mount Lebanon and the coast) specialty in these times was silk.

Between the 16th and the 17th centuries, the production of silk increased in the mountain areas of Lebanon, especially in the Shouf and Kesrwan. The Druze Emir Fakhreddine, who is described by Salibi as “a Syrian strongman who was given leeway by the Ottomans to subdue and destroy other provincial leadership in Syria on their behalf” controlled Mount Lebanon in these times. He was interested in promoting silk production as a cash crop for export to Europe. He realized that there was a large world demand for raw silk, and opened the seaports under his control to European commerce. He established close links with the Tuscans and invited experts from Italy to help modernize local agriculture. The Tuscans fanned his ambitions for increased autonomy from the ailing Ottoman Empire, as they did with the Junbulads of Aleppo. This was to cause Fakhreddine’s and the Junbulads’ demise.

The silk trade was mostly in the hands of Christians, who traded with Egypt and Europe. Beirut became the main seaport for Damascus and the rest of Syria. Commerce flourished, and a new class of cosmopolitan Levantines emerged. European countries opened consular representations which dealt with matters of trade, but also interfered in local politics in collusion with the new merchant class. They often pitted one party against the other in order to weaken the Ottomans and further their own political and economic interests.

The invasion of Mount Lebanon and Syria by the industrial products of Europe, especially after 1840, devastated the local economy. Droughts and locusts ravaged the countryside around the same time (not mentioned by Salibi). The local food economy, which had been undermined by the mulberry monocropping for silk production, could not sustain the shocks. This led to serious social tensions in the rural areas. These tensions culminated in the war between the Maronites and the Druze in1860 and the ensuing massacres of the Maronites. Following the 1860 events, the Western powers interfered more vigorously. The Ottomans were forced to alter the way they ruled Mount Lebanon. They divided it, and it became a privileged administrative region under international guarantee.

What I can see is that things haven’t really changed in Lebanon. The trade interests of powerful nations and of multinational corporations still rule the world. The West still prefers to deal with weak local Arab potentates. In Lebanon, the farm sector is still ailing, and the token agricultural policies are geared towards increasing export and trade. The merchants are signing free trade agreements that are disadvantageous to the poor. The (special) services sector has replaced silk production (by the way, the silk spinning houses were known as karkhaneh, which is also the local name for whorehouse). Fakreddines have come and gone and so have massacres, but we’re always threatened with a new Fakhreddine and associated bloodbaths. And foreign consulates still consort with their local associates to further their own economic and political interests.


Ms Levantine said...

I would take Salibi with more than a few rains of salt. He made a career showing that we keep repeating the past in Lebanon. He has a few hits, and many misses.

Our Phoenicians ancestors were globalists who deplete murex and forests for trade.

Truth is, the Ottoman never cared about the eastern Med. in general and Leb. in particular. The area was too poor to fight over.

Venice had interests and then Fakhreddin tried to involve Florence, but it was not worth their time.

Local politics was left to the walis and a few dirt poor chieftains. Ottomans were interested in the Balkans, not Mt Lebanon.

Things changed after the Egyp.invasion in 1830's. For a good survey of the situation in the area before that, you should try Acre by Thomas Philipp.

Good fishing.


Rami Zurayk said...

MM what you say does not contradict what Salibi said, it completes it. Incidentally, it is corroborated by Labaki in his introduction a l'histoire economique du Liban.