stuck in the lebanese cement

This Haaretz article is achingly hilarious and enough to feed the hungriest of jaded blacksmiths. Do people know about this?

When the second war in Lebanon ended, Fouad Siniora’s government made a moving appeal to Lebanon’s three largest cement companies: He asked them to reduce the price of their cement by $10 per ton, to make the job of rebuilding the country somewhat easier. Two companies agreed and lowered the price; the third, the Siblin Cement Company, refused.

From the standpoint of the companies that agreed, the decision has serious economic implications: The price of a ton of cement in Lebanon is $75, and since these companies produce five million tons of it annually, a $10 reduction is a sharp blow to their cash flow. The board of directors of the company that refused is headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and one of its partners is the Hariri Group. Siblin’s refusal is something every cement manufacturer in Lebanon understands: It is motivated by the desire to prevent the Syrians from profiting at the expense of their political rivals in Lebanon.

The arithmetic here is really quite simple. Huge quantities of cement – according to some estimates, 300,000 tons per year – are smuggled into Syria, where the price per ton is $130, almost twice what it is in Lebanon. This includes a customs payment of $30 per ton that is demanded by the Syrian government. Damascus also determines the quota of imported cement. Thus, each ton that is brought illegally into Lebanon represents a loss of revenue not only for the Syrian government, but also for cement manufacturers in Lebanon who resent the smuggling of cheap Lebanese cement into Syria’s markets.

Siblin decided not to be a party to such deals. However, this is only a symbolic gesture, which holds no economic significance for the company. The reason is that Syria has for a long while already banned the import of Siblin’s cement as well as its sale, via Syria, to Iraq, which has become a major buyer of Lebanese cement. Damascus launched this whole cement war because of the statements and the anti-Syrian policies of Jumblatt and his Hariri Group partners.

Prior to the second war in Lebanon, the Syrian boycott had no impact on Jumblatt, who sold his cement to neighboring European countries and thereby circumvented Damascus’ attempt to exert economic pressure on him. However, when the war began, combined with Israel’s maritime blockade on the export of products from Lebanon, Jumblatt – despite his public and strident anti-Syrian stance – found himself encircled by Israel, which logically should have been supporting him.

In the meantime, the problem has been solved and the blockade has become less stringent. Nonetheless, this episode clearly demonstrates the impact of the “personalized” pressure tactics Syria employs on Lebanon’s politics and economy even after Damascus’ withdrawal.

OK, so if the arithmetic is simple, then the rambler’s in dire need of a maths tutor. And yes, the well-intentioned Israeli blockade is less stringent just as the Israeli-made oil disaster is less oily.

In the next installment, the other cement peddlers understand Jumblatt’s self-sacrificial building of a massive new lavish cement wing in Mukhtara to thwart “personalised” Syrian pressure tactics, and Saniora movingly asks the tobacco-less tobacco growers of South Lebanon to harvest cluster bomblets for the same premium price tobacco would otherwise attract (in plain English, sweet peanuts).

How orgasmically clever are we Lebanese? If apokraphyte is right, then we should have peace within the next 5 minutes. That’s why our country is a piece of sky (thanks Wadih). Or pie in the sky.

Read on for more belly laughs. Or better still, don’t.


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