Are Lebanon’s oil and gas reserves a blessing or a curse? “It is definitely a blessing,” says Joseph Maalouf, an MP in the Lebanese Parliament. “The challenge is going to be in the management of the sector. It must be done in a transparent fashion, otherwise we will make a curse out of it by not re-establishing the trust that should exist with the Lebanese population.”
Moves to exploit Lebanon’s reserves, estimated at 96 trillion cubic feet of gas and 865 million barrels of oil, have been an issue of acute sensitivity for the country. Wrangling over the appropriate legislative framework has frustrated observers, contributing to a broader problem facing Lebanon’s politicians. “There is a big lack of confidence between the citizen and the elected official, it’s a huge trust issue,” MP Maalouf explains. “This lack of trust is causing a lot of assumptions, accusations and stereotyping that corruption is everyone’s practice.”
Lebanon’s Parliament can play a critical role in addressing this. Its oversight role is being championed by Mohamad Kabbani, who has been a pioneer in holding the executive to account ever since becoming Chair of the Public Works, Energy and Water Parliamentary Committee in 2000. This has not been easy in what he calls a “paralysed” political context. “Sectarianism protects corruption,” MP Kabbani explains. “That is not theory, this is practice. When I conduct oversight work it is interpreted as being sectarian. I am depending on the facts, but they say I am being political against the minister.”
One way of helping to reduce this impression is by strengthening institutions – both that of Parliament and the Committee in question. Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s programme in Lebanon is doing this by building the Public Works Committee’s capacity to review and contribute to the Government’s oil and gas policy, ensuring that profits stimulate growth and development for the country. Other committees are also benefiting from technical advice and expertise and support for their public hearings and consultations. This work has already seen the preparation of a draft law to introduce a sovereign wealth fund, a key mechanism to ensure that oil profits are used to invest in the economy and benefit the Lebanese population; the publication of a handbook for legislators to help MPs gain a deeper understanding of oil contracts; and an update to the 2007 petrolum policy in line with modern requirements.
As part of this approach, in mid-2016 MPs were given an opportunity to consider the benefits of signing up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a worldwide effort to promote exactly the kind of openness on natural resources supported by MPs on the Committee. Presentations by representative from the World Bank made the case for membership, winning MPs over. “This is an important initiative in achieving transparency in the field of oil and gas,” MP Kabbani says. He and his Committee encouraged the Parliament to adopt this recommendation. The Parliament’s Speaker, Nabih Berri, is now among the signatories to this proposal, demonstrating the significant influence of the Committee’s work.
It is a prospect which is being welcomed by campaigners and industry bodies alike. Wissam Zahabi, Chairman of the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA), told WFD after the session: “I believe that providing access to open data will empower the government to gain trust of their citizens and empower individuals, the media, academia, civil society, and business to make better informed choices, expectations and judgements regarding the oil and gas sector in Lebanon.”
Mr Zahabi hopes that the Committee’s role in influencing debate on this issue could be decisive. “The fact that the energy committee endorses such a step could be a push for the Council of Ministers to take the decision, since the EITI should be announced by the government,” he adds. “The LPA has already presented the file of joining the EITI to the Council of Ministers and this complements our lobbying efforts.”
It’s not just the oil and gas sector which will benefit from this work. Support for MP Kabbani’s Committee is also providing an example of the value of effective committee work, encouraging others to replicate its approach. Both the Committees of Finance and Information Technology are now engaging in oversight work, building the Parliament’s ability to represent citizens and improve policy. As this culture grows, MPs hope Parliament can provide the space needed to address some of Lebanon’s most pressing problems.
MP Maalouf sets out a vision of a Parliament without sectarian affiliation, instead based on “competencies, skills and patriotism”. But he is realistic: “I don’t think we will ever get rid of the realities, the presence of religions that live with fear.” The challenge is therefore to make the Parliament serve more effectively as a democratic, professional, responsive legislature.
This really matters. Following the YouStink Movement, Lebanese citizens are demanding greater accountability, transparency and delivery in democratic and social reforms by those in power. The growing poverty and unemployment and social pressures increase the pressure on legislatures to represent their citizens’ concerns. As a result of the social movement, there is an increasing need for the Lebanese parliament to become more open, accessible and representative. In 20 or 30 years, MP Maalouf hopes, this can be achieved. “I tell you what I dream,” he says – “to live the democracy we claim to have.”