Thursday, May 03, 2007

Beirut ranks near bottom of desirable cities for foreign executives

Beirut ranks near bottom of desirable cities for foreign executives
For some, Lebanese capital fails to live up to minimum required standards
By Michael Bluhm
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Beirut is one of the Arab world's least-desirable cities for an executive to be posted, according to the annual rankings of world metropolises assembled by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Beirut finished 15th among 18 Arab locales in quality of life, placing behind Algiers, Damascus, Djibouti, Riyadh and the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Only Sanaa, Khartoum and Baghdad earned lower scores than Beirut, which came in 179th of 215 cities graded worldwide. Beirut tallied 52.5 points, under the Arab average of 59.7 points and the global average of 76.3 points. On the global chart, Beirut wound up immediately behind Tehran, Karachi and Benin's capital Cotonou. Despite the bleak outside evaluation, foreign executives working here quickly ticked off lists of the city's positives. But they did recognize the difficulties for foreigners here, and one of the countless emigres from the Lebanese business elite made clear that today's unstable Beirut is not a draw for business talent.

Regionally, Beirut compares favorably to other urban centers because of its climate, the widespread fluency in foreign languages and the fact that locals are used to outsiders in their midst, said Sabbah Al Haj, CEO of the executive-search firm Management Plus. Aside from business interaction being simplified by the Lebanese peoples' proficiency in foreign languages, the ease of traveling around the country also adds to the quality of life here, said European Union official, Syvia Beamish. "It's much easier for a Western woman than some of the other countries I've been in," she said. "I like the food. The nightlife is great."

One of the biggest drawbacks about Beirut, according to Beamish and the Mercer study, is its lack of cleanliness. Mercer's rankings placed Beirut 14th among 18 Arab cities - topping Djibouti in this category, although not in the overall list - in terms of health and sanitation, which considered air pollution and waste removal. "The pollution upsets me," Beamish said. "My big complaint about the thing is there are no parks and the traffic - people honk at me all the time." In the workplace, foreign executives are often disappointed by their pay packages, which typically lag 40-65 percent behind compensation in the Gulf, Haj said. Outsiders also frequently face problems with what they perceive as a lackadaisical Lebanese approach to work. "They tend to be a little bit more serious than the Lebanese," Haj said. "They miss cultural activities that Lebanon lost quite a bit of during the war. They get angry with the traffic. It drives them mad - it drives me mad, too."

Administrative red tape also makes foreigner's lives here unpleasant, said Julia Brickell, country director for the International Finance Corporation. For expatriates, Beirut is "an acquired taste - living here on a daily basis is extremely difficult," said Brickell, who has lived here 11 years. "Having said that, I will be dragged kicking and screaming from here. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. "I think Beirut's the best-kept secret in the universe, and I hope it stays that way."

But from the perspective of advancing a career, Beirut has fallen far behind cities such as Dubai. Dubai offers superior compensation, career opportunities and a higher caliber of people in the business community, said Rabih Sultani, a Lebanon native now vice president of corporate investments at Shuaa Capital, one of the Middle East's leading investment banks. "Your Internet works, there's electricity, there's water, your kids are safe - basic things that we don't have [in Beirut]," Sultani said. "Beirut's no longer an option for me. I don't see it as an option for a while to come."

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