On my 2nd day here, I found it hilarious that I could chat in Lebanese to the supermarket owner in Monrovia (he, on the other hand was completely unfazed). It turns out there are thousands of them all over this place. They own hotels, restaurants, drycleaners, construction companies – you name it. They first came during the 19th century, as part of a wave of immigration fleeing the rough conditions of the Ottoman Empire. Their number reached 10,000 before the Liberian civil war and is estimated at 4,000 today.
Their disproportionate economic power is often cause for resentment among the Liberians. In turn, the long-established Lebanese community is resentful for being banned from becoming citizens: almost uniquely in the world today, Liberia confers citizenship on the basis of race, extending it only to ‘Negroes or persons of Negro descent’ (to understand why, see this post). This deprives the Lebanese (and other immigrant groups such as Indians and Chinese, whose number is on the rise) of the rights to vote and to own land. More importantly, it has serious economic implications for the country: If you don’t own it, you don’t invest in it. Good old Capital Flight.
It is estimated that something around $245 million leave Liberia yearly (total outflow). That’s almost 14% of GDP (2010)!
UPDATE: June 27, 2011
Since Moustapha’s comment on my post, I’ve done some more research on whether the naturalization policy imposes limitations on investments. I have to say I am agreeing more and more with him that the effect of naturalization on capital flight is probably exaggerated. Even though foreigners are not allowed to own land, they can lease it for as long as 50 years. They can also own land through private companies – even if those companies are foreign-owned. Work and resident visas are not hard to obtain and can be renewed yearly.
That being said, Liberia today continues to be perceived as a high-risk environment, attracting risk-tolerant investors who are typically more interested in short-term money-making ventures rather than long-term investments.
So, this remains an open question. If anyone has links to research done on this subject and on the role of Lebanese diaspora in African economies, please share away!
As a 4th generation Lebanese in Ghana, I can tell you that Capital flight is not as related to naturalization as one might assume. In ghana, most of us have Ghanaian nationalities, and yet we still have homes and families in Lebanon..
I think a better explanation for capital flight is under-development. Older generations of Lebanese in Ghana used to shop for all kinds of goods in Lebanon because nothing was available here. With development, things are beginning to change. We’re no longer sending as much money as we used to Lebanon, as we now have all sorts of consumer goods available here, from luxury restaurants to rare medicines..
Thanks for reading and commenting Mustapha! You’ve got a good point. Shelved goods are still overwhelmingly (if not totally) imported here. But it’s also hard to invest in building an industrial plant or expanding a business when (among other hurdles) you don’t own the land it stands on.
Hello I am Lebanese and Liberian, I am looking for my lost family whom could be located in Liberia, possibly monrovia where I was born. My fathers name is Nabil Saab or Samir Nabil Saab. If you have any such knowledge please let me know, it would mean alot to me, and I hope someone that reads this can direct me in the right direction, thank you.
Although i have been here just seven months, i can vouch for a fact that i have not seen so much resentment in liberia among liberians towards lebanese than anywhere else.On the other hand the attitude if lebanese towards liberians is also bordering on rough or probably some one from whom they can get all the ‘labor work’ from.They marry lot of black women, make ‘accidental kids’ and then run away back to lebanon.Also flouting rules is a second habit among them and getting huge contacts from corrupt govts is a privilege that comes easily for them.Although I’m from iran but these things , especially the exploitation of blacks has really brought a bad taste many a times.