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Overview

Lebanon


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Decades of warfare appear to have ended but conflicts can always resurface

Along its Mediterranean coast Lebanon has a narrow, flat coastal plain. Inland there are two parallel mountain ranges running north-east to south-west: the Lebanon Mountains, which ascend abruptly from the plain; and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the border with Syria. Between these two ranges is the fertile Bekaa Valley.

Almost all Lebanese are ethnically Arab, but they are sharply divided into ‘confessional’ groups—Muslim and Christian sects. At independence in 1943, political leaders established an unwritten National Pact that shared political power according to the proportions of each sect in the 1932 census. At that point, the most numerous were the Maronite Christians, followed by Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, Druze (Muslims), and Greek Catholics. Overall, Christians were in a narrow majority and for many years were politically dominant. Since then, waves of immigration, notably of Palestinians, have altered the balance. Of today's four million population, around 60% are Muslim, including around 200,000 Palestinian refugees living in camps as well as 300,000 migrant workers, mostly from Syria.

Prior to the civil war of 1975–90, Lebanon was one of the most developed Arab states—a major centre for trade, finance and tourism. Much of that was wrecked in the civil war which virtually levelled Beirut. Today, the Lebanese population remains highly educated with good standards of health, but many people are unemployed, income disparities are widening.

Until the 2006 war, Lebanon had been recovering slowly. Unsurprisingly, one of the most vibrant sectors has been construction. From 1992, money flooded in for the rebuilding of Beirut, often from Lebanese expatriates.

But as before, the main sources of employment are services of various kinds, many connected with trade, which account for three-quarters of GDP. The financial sector is also being redeveloped and tourists have been coming back—arrivals were rising at 5% per year. Many new manufacturing enterprises have also sprung up, most of which are small, engaged, for example, in food production, furniture-making, and in textiles and clothing.

Agriculture, despite favourable soil and climate, has been less significant: it now accounts for only 5% of GDP and employs 8% of the labour force. Farmers grow fruit and vegetables on the coastal plain, and wheat and barley in the Bekaa Valley, but there has been relatively little investment and many farmers find it difficult to compete with imports.

The PLO used Lebanon as a base

Lebanon's political troubles date back to the late 1960s when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) started using Lebanon as a base. The Muslims, many of whom supported the PLO, had long resented Christian political domination and from 1975 their disagreements erupted into a full scale civil war. In 1978, as part of its campaign against the PLO, Israel invaded and seized a ‘security zone’ on Lebanon's southern border.

The war stopped in 1990—after 150,000 deaths and $25 billion-worth of damage. The end came when Syrian forces took control, helping the government to disarm the militias. Israel finally withdrew from southern Lebanon during 2000.

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