ASTANA – Lebanon is one of the first Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan. The two countries forged ties back in April 20, 1993. According to Ambassador of Lebanon to Kazakhstan Vazken Kavlakian, “the reason the country decided to establish diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan is because our then Prime Minister Sheikh Rafic Hariri foresaw Kazakhstan becoming the most prominent Central Asian country.”
The late Prime Minister Hariri later paid a visit to Kazakhstan in August 2003, during which he was received by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and held talks with Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and other officials. The parties discussed ways of improving political, economic and trade relations and signed a declaration of mutual understanding between Kazakhstan and Lebanon. This document has secured the intention of the parties to develop bilateral political relations and cooperation in the social, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres.
“In 2004, a Kazakhstan parliamentary delegation traveled to Lebanon and met with President Emile Lahoud and other high officials, and in April 2010, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Karim Massimov paid an official visit to Lebanon, where he also met with President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and held extended bilateral talks, which resulted in a memorandum of mutual political consultations between the ministries of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan and Lebanon,” Kavlakian said.
Current bilateral trade and rendered services (contractual) exceed $1 billion and mostly pertain to sulfur, wheat and pharmaceuticals. Currently, a Lebanese contracting company, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), has taken over a large construction site in a joint operation with Arabtec. The result will be the tallest skyscraper in Central Asia; the 320-metre high, 75-floor Abu Dhabi Plaza.
“There are also a number of small Lebanese enterprises operating in Kazakhstan, dealing with trade and distribution of pharmaceutical, medical supplies, etc. in addition to these, franchises like confectioneries. By the end of this month, provided that the prospective investors obtain Kazakhstan visas, Lebanese investors will be traveling to Kazakhstan for market and economic zone research for their potential plan to build and operate a new paint factory.”
The ambassador also mentioned some challenges regarding distance and logistics that those involved in trade between Kazakhstan and Lebanon face.
“Another challenge for Lebanese citizens is obtaining Kazakhstan visas; Kazakhstan is strict in issuing visas [to people from our region]. Conversely, Kazakhstan citizens may obtain visas at the Lebanese border upon arrival,” he said.
The recent launch of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) could be of benefit to Lebanon; however, the ambassador foresees obstacles that would be hard to overcome at the moment.
“For a small country like Lebanon, it is always beneficial to be included in big markets, such as the EAEU. Lebanon is good in its light industry, as we don’t have heavy industries like automobile, aeronautical or defense manufacturing. Our strength lies in the apparel industry, clothes, shoes, etc. Joining the EAEU would of course be very beneficial, but as I mentioned, logistics are a challenge with the situation in Syria, which forces us to use sea routes resulting in higher logistics costs that have increased considerably. Once the situation in the region eases down, the country will of course consider cooperating with the EAEU.”
Lebanon has supported Kazakhstan in its EXPO 2017 bid, the UN Human Rights Council and now the country backs Kazakhstan for the non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for 2017-2018. Positive relations have been mutual and are well established.
Currently, there are about 400 Lebanese nationals and Palestinians with Lebanese travel documents living in Astana, some 200 living in Almaty and others in Atyrau, Aktau, Aktobe and Baikonur. They are all engaged in various business activities.
Lebanon in a nutshell
“Lebanon is a country with 6,000 years of history. The predecessors of the modern Lebanese, the Phoenicians put the country on the map. They were the ones who created the Arabic alphabet and Arabic numeral figures, proficient traders and merchants as well as master shipbuilders since the cedar tree was almost always used in shipbuilding due to the well known fact for being light and strong.. And as the cedar tree forests are peculiar in Lebanon and existing on our high peaked mountains, it is the country’s symbol and is depicted on the Lebanese flag,” the Lebanese ambassador explained.
“The country has endured [and withstood] invaders such as Alexander the Great, the Armenian conquest during the first century BC, Arab and Assyrian invasions, endured Roman rule and later [outlasted] empires such as the Ottoman Empire of which Lebanon was a part for more than 400 years, and the latest was the French mandate from 1920 to 1943,” Kavlakian said. “Being a very small country of 10,452 square kilometres, with a population of four million people, Lebanon has managed to develop its tourism industry.”
“A few decades back, the contribution of tourism to our GDP was about 40 percent. But currently tourism accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s GDP,” he explained. “No need to say that the conflict in neighbouring Syria has a great effect over the tourism industry in Lebanon. The country attracted some 1.3 million tourists in 2008 and in 2009 during the global financial crisis; Beirut was ranked the number one travel destination by the New York Times thanks to its nightlife, hospitality and pleasant climate.”
In January 2010, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism announced a 39 percent increase compared to 2008 figures, and the number of tourists reached two million in 2010, but fell by 37 percent in 2012 as a result of the war in Syria.
“The majority of tourists come from the neighbouring Arab states. What is great about vacationing in Lebanon is its mild weather and location, as it’s situated on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In April for instance, you can go swimming and then after driving about 40 minutes, you may go to the mountains and practice skiing. Life is very easy in Lebanon; we are a service-oriented country and are famed for our Lebanese cuisine,” he said.
Another niche the country has been well-recognised for is its banking system, the ambassador noted.
“Proof of that would be the growth of the internal economy during the financial crisis [in 2008-2009]. Not only did our banking system withstand [the challenges], but it actually grew during the [crisis] years, and our foreign [monetary] holdings increased,” he said.
Lebanon also boasts of its well-recognised universities like the American University of Beirut, for instance, and that the country has a good educational system. According to the ambassador, with its low tuition costs which are almost half of London, the country could have great potential in education, but the security situation prevents Lebanon from establishing strong international student exchange programmess with Kazakhstan.
Life in Astana through the Eyes of a Lebanese Ambassador
The ambassador, who is of Armenian descent and is fluent in Arabic, English, and communicative in French, speaks some Russian – and of course his native Armenian – assumed office in November 2007 and has been serving ever since.
“When I first arrived in the night of Nov. 16, 2007, I was met at the airport by people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Protocol Department who thankfully escorted me to the hotel. Although it was [dark] I managed to notice many construction cranes. In the morning as I was sitting in my hotel room, I remember counting 32 cranes [while looking out of my window],” he recounted.
“Back then there were only the TSUM and Mega shopping malls and no others, there were very few good restaurants and very few people who could communicate in English. I couldn’t speak Russian, so communication and language was my biggest challenge. I then took Russian lessons to at least be able to communicate in my everyday life. But today, people speak English in the streets and in the stores and supermarkets [in Astana]. I can say Astana became a very beautiful city after its construction boom,” Kavlakian said.
“Back when I arrived, a big number of the buildings that you may see now were not existing, like the Kazakhstan Media Centre had not been built, the Kazakhstan Temir Zholy building was not there, and many others, and only the Northern Lights apartment complex was under construction. But by now, Astana is packed with beautiful and modern constructions. For me, it was [unusual] to spend hours traveling from one part of the country to another. In Lebanon, it takes minutes,” he said smiling.
“Another challenge besides the language was the weather. When I was in Beirut for the New Year vacations, the temperatures were over 20 Celsius, but when I came back to Astana, it was negative 20 Celsius; the difference was 40 degrees. Over the last seven years and winters I have witnessed in Astana, it seems that the winter is becoming milder and milder. This year, it was negative 30 for a few days only,” he noted.
In concluding, the ambassador admitted that initially he had not been too much excited upon his appointment as ambassador, due to the fact that preceding his appointment, he was a management consultant, trainer and part-time university instructor, but after some time, he came to enjoy his posting.