Welcome to one of the most beautiful, vibrant — and dangerous — countries on the planet.
The Real Power in Lebanon
Phares identified the players in the terrorism/political power arena. “One is pro-Iranian Hezbollah, and the other is the al Qaeda-linked Jihadi militia. Both groups are armed and anti-Western, particularly anti-U.S. Back in the 1980s, Hezbollah attacked U.S. interests and citizens and took hostages. But since 1990, as it ascended to power in Lebanon, Hezbollah chose not to engage American targets.”
However, in view of the escalating situation in the region, “one has to monitor security developments in Syria and Lebanon to evaluate the Hezbollah risk to Western and U.S. business aviation,” he continued. “For the moment, it would be a calculated risk to fly over all of Lebanon, but using Beirut International Airport for business aviation is within the norms of acceptable risks. However, I would recommend a constant monitoring of the internal situation in the country. As far as al Qaeda-linked groups, they are not omnipresent in and around Beirut airport but in remote areas of the country.”
Banking and tourism are the two biggest industries in Lebanon, along with agriculture, viticulture, cement, mineral and chemical products, textiles, wood and furniture, oil refining and metal fabricating. In 2012, Lebanon's GDP was $63.69 billion, and its growth was hovering at 2%, down from 7% in 2010 as a result of a government collapse in 2011 and the tension from the Syrian war.
The country has five airdromes with paved runways, but four of these are military fields; consequently, everyone goes to Beirut International Airport and travels elsewhere within this small country by car, taking proper caution and protection on the roads. “Some areas are safer than others,” Phares advised. “Depending on the visitors, their nationalities and other factors, Lebanon has different zones with different levels of risks.”
In contrast to the rebellious background of the interior, Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport (OLBA) is a paragon of order and efficiency, rated as one of the best-run major airports in the world. Furthermore, unlike most major international airports, OLBA courts business and general aviation, with designated parking (and plenty of it) and a cluster of FBOs and on-site CIQ in a general aviation terminal.
Pilots we talked to universally praised the professionalism of Lebanese ATC, the quality of the airport and the high level of service they received, among the best anywhere in Europe or the U.S.
“So what's to be worried about?” asked Craig Hanlon, chief pilot, G550, for DuPont in Wilmington, Del., who's been into Beirut. “And here's where you should consult your corporate security. Hezbollah, which is both a political party and terrorist organization, has two seats on the ruling body of Lebanon. So Lebanon strikes me as a place you have to pay attention to, and if there's no trouble going on, it's a great place to go.”
Just how much of a threat to visiting Western businesspersons is Hezbollah or any of the other terrorist organizations that roam the interior of Lebanon? Phares responded that this was “a very difficult and complex question to answer. On the one hand, Hezbollah doesn't want to appear as a 'terrorist' organization going after Westerners. Although the group has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Australia — and may be by the EU in the near future — it struggles to appear tolerant of 'business activities' and wishes to appear as 'protector' of them.
“The reality,” Phares continued, “is that Hezbollah can at any time target these business activities if Iran decides that it should do so. Thus, Western businesspersons in Lebanon are at the mercy of Hezbollah's will. As far as the Jihadi groups, most are busy fighting the Assad regime in Syria. However, as in Benghazi, some could turn against U.S. or Western targets any time they decide to.”
The war and security situations aside, both in neighboring countries and inside Lebanon, Phares believes, “it would be considered safe for all civil aviation to operate within the Lebanese airspace system. But again, the country's good record on aviation management has to be contrasted with the shaky security situation that continues to develop. The main problem for all commercial and business air traffic is not safety issues, which can be found in many other countries in Africa, Latin America, or even Russia. The potential direct threat to general aviation in Lebanon is the multiple armed factions able to disrupt business aviation operations and menace planes, pilots and passengers.”