|Joined: 09 Mar 2007
Location: Jbeil Byblos
| Ground Rules: Personal finance, Transport, holidays and more
|The ground rules
Travelers to Lebanon arrive in the new Beirut Airport. The calm and efficiency of the terminal will no doubt impress, and assuage any anxieties about coming to Lebanon. The rapid transfer from airport to hotel will equally impress the executive.
Whilst the majority of business in Lebanon revolves around Beirut, there are major industrial centers in Tripoli, along the coast between these two cities and to the south. Most businesses, ministries and prospective clients will have their offices in Beirut, although there is an increasing trend for offices to move out of the center to the suburbs. When the new Beirut Central District (BCD) is finally complete, it is probable that more and more businesses and institutions will return to the heart of the city.
How then do business travelers conduct themselves and what precautions should they take? Is Beirut really so confusing? Over the next few pages some of the myths and difficulties will be explained to enable the business executive to travel in comfort and make the most of the visit.
Cash can be brought in to Lebanon in reasonable amounts with no restrictions on currency. When it comes to money and persuading customers to part with their money, the Lebanese are second to none, and can make it seem painless?
Cash and Lebanese currency
The local currency is the Lebanese pound or Lira, denoted by LL. The pound is theoretically allowed by the Central Bank to float freely and remained stable against the US dollar for many years. It fluctuates slightly against other currencies as a result of changes in the international value of the dollar. 1500 Lebanese pounds (LL1500) is approximately equivalent to 1 US dollar and LL2300 equivalent to 1pound sterling (2002).
The Lebanese currency is generally in paper notes, with an occasional coin still around. Notes available are LL 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000 denominations.
Payments for most things will be in local currency or in US dollars. Hotels may advertise their room rates in US dollars, but these days will usually take any currency. Although the Lebanese pound is freely exchangeable anywhere, it is still difficult to obtain Lebanese pounds outside Lebanon.
Dollars are still used anywhere and other currencies such as Sterling and Euros are readily exchangeable.
Banks and Exchanges
There are over 60 licensed banks in Lebanon, of which 14 are foreign.
Currency exchange desks exist in most hotels, certainly the large ones.
It is possible to get the hotel to change money through their own cashiers, if the formal exchange banks are closed. You will many exchanges in the major streets, and Lebanese bureaux banks are consumer friendly and will exchange most currencies in and out of the Lebanese pounds.
On the wider issues of personal banking, there are two British Banks represented in Beirut; HSBC (formerly the British Bank of the Middle East) and Standard Chartered. There are also associated investment banks, e.g. British Arab Commercial Bank (BACB which used to be UBAF). It is unlikely that the business executive or traveler will have any short-term need for personal banking services.
Other foreign banks are Citibank, Banco Di Roma, BNP, Société Générale and many Arab banks such as NBK, Arab Bank, ABC, etc
Most business travelers to Lebanon are likely to travel around by road, either by taxi or hired car.
Lebanon operates a ‘service’ taxi system. This means that a taxi will pick up passengers throughout its journey. Western travelers should not be surprised if they find their taxi stopping to pick up additional passengers.
Taxis have meters, which, by law, should work? The wearing of seat belts is compulsory. It is advisable before getting into a taxi, especially one of the taxis waiting outside hotels, to negotiate a price for a journey. Taxis from hotels are generally more expensive than one hailed in the street, but are usually cleaner and more mechanically sound.
It can be difficult to distinguish a taxi from any other car, although many now have a Taxi sign. They are generally middle-aged Mercedes cars with drivers. The best way to recognize a taxi is by its red number plate.
A useful tip for business travelers when taking a taxi from a hotel is to negotiate a daily or half-daily rate. Drivers will be more than happy to come to some such arrangement. They will wait while their passengers have a meeting, then carry on to another meeting or return to the hotel. If required to wait they are usually quite trusting and will not expect to get paid until the end of the journey. It can be very difficult to find empty taxis on the street, so this system is best.
Business travelers are unlikely to travel in a public bus even if they could identify one! There is, however, a bus service within Beirut and to Tripoli in the north and Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia in Syria.
Sadly no more - the remnants can be seen at the engine shed in Tripoli.
Private or Hired Car
Most hotels will be able to arrange a private car for hire with or without a driver. As parking, and indeed driving, in Beirut and beyond is extremely difficult, chauffeur-driven hire cars make it easier to carry out a program of meetings. It will of course be more expensive than and easier than taxis but perhaps more reassuring.
The ‘beautiful people’ of Lebanon can be seen at the various marinas and disporting themselves on boats at the weekend up and down the coast - as a mode of business travel this is an unlikely option.
After the war, the telephone system in Lebanon was in chaos. Few lines existed and those that did were likely to be illegal or at least have an illegal connection. To the Lebanese, who had relied on efficient communications, rebuilding the country’s communications infrastructure was a priority. The system now is one of the most modern in the region with access readily available for anyone.
Mobile phones were introduced into the country very soon after the war. Two networks soon covered the whole of the country, even in the mountains. Hotels will arrange the hire of a cellular phone if required.
Local Business Etiquette
Business in Lebanon is conducted in relatively straightforward manner. There are generally no specific pitfalls for the business executive; no sheep’s eyes, no sitting cross-legged on the floor, no bowing, etc. Lebanese have recently become used to being prompt for appointments. In the past and before the advent of mobile phones, the excuse of ‘terrible traffic’ was frequently used. This reason for a delayed appointment is not so widely accepted nowadays.
Before starting a meeting, coffee or tea will be offered. Coffee is usually understood to be Turkish coffee and is more likely to be served in more important offices. There will usually be a glass of water provided with the coffee, although in a big meeting there may not be one each. The water nowadays is generally bottled and safe to drink. Tea is likely to be served without milk, with a lot of sugar and in a small glass. These days it is also likely to be made with a tea bag, which will still be in place, and the problem arises of how to dispose of the bag. (Having wrung out the tea bag it can then be deposited into a saucer or empty ashtray.) Instant coffee generally known as ‘Nescafe’ is now increasingly offered. Other drinks that may be offered are Coke, lemonade or 7-Up or something similar.
Meetings will usually start, as in most countries, with a few pleasantries and a handshake. In Europe and America our handshakes tend to be a little perfunctory. In the Middle East, when shaking hands do not be in a hurry to withdraw your hand and even be prepared to hold hands for a little while. Introductory topics of conversation can be the traffic problems or English football - both quite acceptable. During this time the tea boy will take orders. Once the meeting has started, it is probable that the tea boy will reappear with the orders and so disrupt the meeting. The telephone too is likely to ring throughout a meeting and disturbances will inevitably come from the ubiquitous mobile phone. However, the younger and more considerate executives, and especially those who have had dealings with Western companies, will avoid unnecessary interruptions.
There is no special dress code for business meetings other than the obvious conventions of being smartly and modestly dressed. Suits for men are more usual, especially for important executives, although a blazer would be acceptable. It is discourteous to arrive in shirt sleeves only. Female executives should take more care with their attire for meetings, with at least half-length sleeves covering arms and reasonably long skirts; trousers are acceptable.
Communal (majlis) meetings, where the prominent person conducts several meetings at the same time, are not as common in Lebanon as in other parts of the Middle East. Interruptions are still likely to occur, with people arriving and departing throughout, although serious business meetings would be conducted in private. It is possible that a warm-up act may be employed to welcome the visitors and to get the pleasantries out of the way allowing the ‘great man’ to arrive with the maximum impact when everyone else is settled.
Receptions (often arranged for visiting groups or missions) last for about two hours and while requiring formal dress are fairly relaxed and useful occasions. Alcohol will always be served. Formal dinners and luncheons often start later than advised but tend to finish promptly when the guest of honor will rise and depart, followed by the rest of the guests. No special formalities are observed, although there will probably be a top table to which dignitaries will be invited. Be prepared for vast meals with an obligatory mezze as an appetizer, after which at least one main course will arrive, usually followed by fresh fruit?
There are few issues in Lebanon concerned with religion that any Western traveler will become involved with. The Holy month of Ramadan is observed by the Muslims, and Christians may also observe times of Lent and Advent. Courtesy and consideration, as ever, will prevent you from giving offense.
This is an issue that concerns everybody. Even though restaurants will add a service charge, tips are expected. How much should we tip? Up to 10 per cent depending on satisfaction of service.
Serious tipping can be considered as follows:
At the airport: Us $2 per case
Parking the car: $2-3
In the five-star hotel: $5
Fast food or general deliverers: $2
Toilet attendants: $1
Taxis from the street: none
A hired car with a driver: $10 per day
These consist of a variety of political and religious festivals. In addition to the Christian holidays, Muslims (and others) will expect to take their religious holidays. These Islamic holidays vary from year and reflect the different (hegira) calendar used throughout the Islamic word.
New Years Day – 1 January
Feast of Mar Maroun – 9 February
Easter – As in Europe and US, As to Greece or Russia
Qana Day – 18 April
Labor Day – 1 May
Martyrs Day – 6 May
Assumption Day – 15 August
All Saints Day – 1 November
Independence Day – 22 November
Christmas Day – 25 December
Muslim New Year – Prophets Birthday – Ramadan begins – Eid al Fitr – Eid al Adha
These religious holidays can change slightly since they depend on the sighting of the moon.
The weather in Lebanon is like that of Southern European or the Mediterranean. Although generally pleasantly hot in the summer, it rains occasionally. In the winter, the weather is variable, with rain, snow, sun and fog.