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Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula

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Prehistoric desert footprints are earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula and are elaborated on by Richard Clark-Wilson, Royal Holloway.

Humanity originated on the African continent at least 300,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence in southern Greece and the Levant (modern-day Israel) that some early members of our species expanded beyond Africa around 200,000 years ago, and again between 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. They likely travelled through the Sinai peninsula, which formed the only land bridge connecting the continent of Africa to the rest of the world, before moving north into a landscape with a Mediterranean climate.

But it was not known at what point humans turned south after crossing the Sinai peninsula, reaching modern day Saudi Arabia. It is also often assumed that they may have taken a coastal route, avoiding the currently harsh desert interior. Previous fossil finds show this was not the case, with humans moving into the heart of Arabia at least 85,000 years ago. Now, new research pushes this date back even further.

Colleagues and I discovered human and other animal footprints embedded on an ancient lake surface in the Nefud Desert in Saudi Arabia that are around 120,000 years old. These findings represent the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on the Arabian Peninsula, and demonstrates the importance of Arabia for understanding human prehistory.

Key locations for early Homo sapiens outside-of-Africa (red stars). The Nefud Desert is highlighted inside the black rectangle. Google Maps

The Nefud Desert in modern-day Saudi Arabia lies around 500km to the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, the Arabian deserts are some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They would form an impassable barrier for prehistoric humans or large mammals. Imagine standing at the foot of a hyper-arid desert equipped with stone tools and not much else. Could you get across? Probably not.

Scientific analysis shows that for most of their recent history, they were climatically similar to today: hyper-arid and impassable. But there is also evidence to show that at certain times in the past, the deserts transformed into savannah-like grasslands littered with freshwater resources. These “green” phases were likely short, probably lasting no more than a few millennia. Nonetheless, they provided windows of opportunity for humans and other animals to move into a new green landscape.

We know from fossil lake sediments that the Nefud Desert was one of those that periodically transformed into a more attractive landscape in the past, and the new footprints prove that early humans took advantage of one such window.

First human footprint discovered at the Alathar ancient lake. © Klint Janulis, Author provided

Fossilised footprints

We were able to date the footprints by using a technique called luminescence dating to a period of time 102-132,000 years ago. Based on wider regional evidence for increased rainfall, we suggest they date to a period roughly 120,000 years ago, called the last interglacial.

We know that around this time that vast river systems spread across the Sahara Desert, with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology scattered along them. Other evidence for increased rainfall at this time comes from fossil stalagmites found in caves in desert regions in Arabia and ~500 km north of the Nefud in the Negev Desert. These features only grow in conditions where rainfall is greater than 300mm per year; substantially more than the amount (<90mm per year) they receive today.

While it is difficult to know for sure which species of human left these prints, we think they were most likely left by our own, Homo sapiens. This is based on the fact that Homo sapiens were present in the Levant, 700km to the north of the Nefud Desert, at a similar time. Neanderthals were absent from the Levant in this period and did not move back into the region until thousands of years later, when cooler conditions prevailed. Estimates of the humans mass and statue based on the footprints are also more consistent with our species than Neanderthals.

Researcher surveying the Alathar ancient lake deposit for footprints. © Palaeodeserts Project, Author provided

High-res history

In addition to human footprints, elephant, horse and camel prints were also found. These footprints, studied in detail by Mathew Stewart at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, provide a wealth of new information regarding prehistoric interactions between humans, animals and the environment.

Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence as they provide precise snapshots in time that typically represent a few hours or days. This is a resolution we do not get from other records. They also allow us to understand the behaviour of their makers, which is something we cannot get from fossils.

This allows us to understand the relationship between humans and other large mammals at a geologically precise moment in time.

Environmental analysis on the lake sediments show that the lake contained fresh “drinkable” water, while the variety of footprints shows that humans, elephants, camels and horses were using this resource at a similar time. Human and large-mammal movements would have been closely tied to fresh water and the pattern of footprints show both foraged on the lake bed when it was temporarily exposed. Humans may have been drawn to the area as they tracked large mammals, who would potentially serve as prey.

Animal fossils eroding out of the surface of the Alathar ancient lake deposit. © Badr Zahrani, Author provided

Surveys and analysis of fossils recovered from the site also shows that there are no stone tools or butchery of fossils. This indicates that the footprint-makers only very briefly visited the lake, foraging for resources before continuing on their journey.

It is not clear what happened to the people who left the footprints, but evidence suggests that they, along with the other early Homo sapiens explorers, either died out or retreated to more favourable environments as aridity returned to the desert.

Richard Clark-Wilson, PhD Candidate in Geography, Royal Holloway

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Navigating the Middle East as witnessed from Pakistan

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THE NATION in its Navigating the Middle East as witnessed from Pakistan by Usama Shirazi is an eye-opener on the MENA region’s neighbourhood reciprocal relationship feelings towards it.

September 12, 2020

The Middle Eastern region has enormous importance in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Due to its geographical proximity and historical linkages, it has always been an area with paramount importance for Pakistan’s national interests. Besides a political, economic, and strategic convergence, this region offers cultural, religious, and historical theatres to determine Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities.

Unfortunately, throughout history, this region has been a centre of big power proxies exploiting its heterogeneous population by dividing them into tribes, sects, and religions. In the contemporary geopolitical environment, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)/Iran rivalry, intended for regional dominance, has made this region tumultuous and left Pakistan with little space to navigate. Pakistan shares strong bonds with both rivals and has its compulsions in dealing with them.

Even before the inception of Pakistan, the Muslims of the subcontinent had historical relations with all MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) countries. During the First World War, the Muslims started the Caliph movement to save and restore the ailing Ottoman caliphate. The MENA Region people also vehemently supported the Pakistan movement. The relations based on brotherhood continued after the independence of Pakistan. KSA and Iran supported Pakistan in times of every crisis whether these were wars with India or natural calamities.

In the contemporary setting, this region has bogged down in conflicts and chaos due to global and regional power politics. Ever since the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, the fissures between Iran and KSA have been widening. Now, this hostility came to a stage where a little spark may be turned into a conflagration. Pakistan’s relations with both regional powers are of paramount value. Iran shares a 959-kilometer border with Pakistan. Both countries are connected through various economic, trade, energy, and security, cultural and religious engagements. The recent Sino/Iran strategic deal would further create new avenues of cooperation. Iran is very important for Pakistan’s internal security due to the tumultuous population along both sides of its porous border.

On the other side, KSA also holds a special place in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan shares deep-rooted cultural, religious, economic, and strategic ties with Riyadh. Following the Iranian revolution and during the Afghan war, Pakistan’s relations with Tehran became sour which brought Islamabad and Riyadh closer and their strategic partnership became deeper. Riyadh played a key role in the economic development of Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan’s diaspora in KSA and its allied GCC countries is a major source of foreign remittances. This shows that both sides hold equal importance for Pakistan and tilting towards either side will alienate the other. Hence, Pakistan cannot afford it due to its internal security problems and the dwindling economy. In Pak/Iran and Pak/KSA relations, there exists a limited parity which demands a neutral foreign policy towards both.

In the Yemen crisis, Pakistani parliament passed resolutions to stay neutral as both KSA and Iran were involved in the conflict. The realist prism proposes that while choosing between two allies, you must go for the one where approximate parity is tilted. However, in Pak/KSA and Pak/Iran, there exists a similar parity. Hence, balancing does not work here.

Secondly, another alliance that makes the region volatile and compels Pakistan to navigate smartly is the new alliance led by Turkey. Turkey besides its close economic and commercial engagements is also a vocal supporter of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. However, it has divergent and conflicting interests in Syria, Libya, and Egypt from Pakistan’s gulf partners. Qatar’s closeness to Turkey and Iran made its relations rancorous with GCC countries. In the Qatar blockade, Pakistan wisely maintained neutrality, however, this time; the mounting conflicting dynamics are narrowing diplomatic space for Pakistan.

In managing its relations with new regional blocs, Pakistan should firstly prioritise its national interest. Currently, in the backdrop of the August 5 move, the Kashmir issue has become the lynchpin of Pakistan’s foreign policy. It has become an easy way to win Pakistan’s confidence. So far Turkey and Malaysia have succeeded to win the hearts of the Pakistani people by their vocal support. However, is Turkish and Malaysian support enough to pressurise Narendra Modi to restore the Kashmir status? These countries do not have much political clout in New Delhi and Washington as do Riyadh and its GCC partners. So far, Pakistan is disappointed by the response of its gulf partners on Kashmir; however, in the long run, the simmering public pressure against Modi atrocities could compel them to change their policies. Moreover, in the time of crisis, Pakistan could use their clout in New Delhi and Washington to deescalate tensions as it did successfully following the Balakot episode.

Navigating through this complex and sensitive region, Pakistan needs a dynamic and multipronged foreign policy. Firstly, the civil/military leadership should prioritise its key interests and then use different tools from its foreign policy kit for each partner in the region. The current Sino/Iran strategic deal has further narrowed parity between Pak/Iran and Pak/KSA relations. Secondly, despite a year after the altercation of Kashmir status, the Pakistani ruling elite is still bewildered and unable to devise a vibrant policy on Kashmir. Choosing between the economy and Kashmir, Pakistan is oscillating aimlessly. Without a strong economy, no one will pay heed on what is happening in Kashmir. Hence, taking Kashmir and economy hand-in-hand, Islamabad should devise a neutrality-cum-balancing strategy towards the Turkish-led bloc and the KSA-led block. Thirdly, Pakistan needs to diversify its partnership to reduce reliance on either side. This would give Pakistan enough space to manoeuvre. Moreover, Pakistan should place its best diplomats in the MENA region who know the art of diplomacy. As Churchill said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they seek direction”.

Gulf job nationalization efforts hurting local economies

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Hadi Khatib wrote for AMEinfo on August 14, 2020 an article asking Are Gulf job nationalization efforts hurting local economies?

Kuwait, Saudi and the UAE are moving towards giving their nationals a more prominent role in their economies via job nationalization efforts. Good or bad?

  • 300,000 expats have already exited Saudi in 2020
  • there are nearly 3.4 million foreign workers among the total population of 4.8 million in Kuwait
  • The UAE plans to provide 20,000 job opportunities for Emiratis in strategic sectors the next 3 years

Kuwait, Saudi and the UAE are moving towards giving their nationals a more prominent role in their economies via job nationalization efforts.

Combined with the Coronavirus Exodus, can such efforts prove unhelpful?

We look at the GCC and those 3 countries and the level of aggressiveness they are putting behind job nationalization.

GCC

Nationalization is not the only reason expats are leaving the GCC.

The exodus of Gulf-based expats accelerated during the pandemic, is leaving many concerned about the economic consequences.

According to Oman’s National Center for Statistics and Information, 79,000 foreigners left between March and June of this year. 

Jadwa bank in Saudi Arabia projects 300,000 have already exited the country in 2020. Bloomberg reports that the population could decrease by 4% in Oman and 10% in the UAE.

Oxford Economics estimated that some 900,000 people in the UAE, mostly expatriates whose residence visas are tied to their employment, could lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. 

In addition, 40,000 Kuwait-based expats caught in the coronavirus panic have been trapped overseas and have now lost their passport validity as well as visas and residency permits.

Expats comprise approximately 70% of the total population in Kuwait and close to 90% in the UAE.

However, even before the pandemic, life became harder for Saudi expats due to measures like VAT (15%) and foreigner-targeted taxation.

Nationalization programs also started driving foreign workers to seek their livelihood elsewhere. In places like Kuwait and Saudi, the effect is more pronounced.

Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst who focuses on the Gulf states at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), argues that these countries’ nationalization plans will backfire financially.

For example, Nationals who are occupying vacated jobs by expats expect to get paid at higher rates, increasing labor costs for employers.  

Read: Saudization in full gear: Thousands of expat jobs are disappearing

Saudization     

Foreigners make up about 10.5 million of Saudi Arabia’s total population of 34.8 million.

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Industry and Mineral Resources Bandar Bin Ibrahim Al-Khorayef recently tweeted: “The industrial sector was able to employ 471 Saudis and lay off 1,904 expatriates during the month of July despite the coronavirus situations.” 

Saudi Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Ahmed Al-Rajhi has inaugurated the mrn.sa platform to document flexible work contracts between employees and employers and help the private sector boost Saudization. 

The first phase of a February 2020 Saudi Shoura (Consultative) Council plan aiming to Saudize 20% of pharmacists in the profession went into effect recently. An extra 30% is envisaged in the second phase of the plan due to start 2021.

Spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources Nasser Al-Hazani told state television Al Ekhabriya that the government seeks to employ 3,000 Saudi pharmacists by 2022.

“Since the decree was issued, 1,500 Saudi pharmacists have been employed,” Al-Hazani said.

An estimated 21,530 foreign pharmacists are registered in Saudi Arabia, according to 2018 figures.

Meanwhile, Saudi announced plans to host LEAP 2021 next February, a landmark technology event.

Saudi Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah al-Swaha said: “LEAP will be a key factor in growing the IT sector, boosting ICT’s GDP contribution by SAR50 billion over five years, securing foreign investment, and assisting our Saudization employment ambitions.”

Read: Reasons why Kuwait ranks as the worst place for expats to live in

Kuwaitization

draft bill approved by Kuwait’s National Assembly in July intends to reduce the presence of foreign workers in the country.

Indians’ presence to be limited at 15% of Kuwait’s population, forcing some 800,000 out of 1.45 million in the country to leave.

At present there are nearly 3.4 million foreign workers among the total population of 4.8 million.

Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khaled Al Sabah recently told reporters that foreign workers must be reduced from 70% of the population to 30%. That translates into expelling 2.5 million people.

State-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiaries announced in June that a ban on the future employment of foreign workers would begin in July.

Pink slips are already out for many expatriates working on contracts in Kuwaiti ministries, especially those employed in non-technical fields.

However, expatriates working as experts in the ministries will be terminated gradually, according to the report.

It is expected that more than 50% of expatriates working for subcontractors will be laid off in the next three months as Kuwaitization gathers momentum, the report stressed.

The government envisioned the deportation of 360,000 expats in the short term period which included 120,000 residence violators, 150,000 unskilled workers, and 90,000 over the age of 60.

Emiratization

Emiratisation is a key performance indicator of UAE Vision 2021. The newest targets are to provide 20,000 job opportunities for Emiratis in strategic sectors including civil aviation, telecommunications, banking, insurance and real estate development over the next 3 years, with an average of 6,700 jobs annually. Plans also include allocating a Dh300 million fund to create specialized training programs that empower Emirati job seekers.

The Human Resources Development Committee in the banking and financial sector adopted the Emiratization points system in the banking and insurance sectors, raising Emiratization targets through creating more than 8,000 jobs for citizens during the next 3 years.

The banking sector is already hiring 9,000 UAE nationals.

Something sounds off-kilter with all these strategies if only taking into consideration the loss of GDP growth that will take place when these expats’ expenditures are removed from budget calculations. The UAE does have a more moderate approach to job nationalization which could prove crucial in the long run.     

Hadi Khatib is a business editor with more than 15 years’ experience delivering news and copy of relevance to a wide range of audiences. If newsworthy and actionable, you will find this editor interested in hearing about your sector developments and writing about it. hadi.khatib@thewickfirm.com

MENA billionaires’ wealth increased

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On 27 August 2020, OXFAM found that all MENA billionaires’ wealth increased by $10 billion, enough to pay Beirut blast repair bill.


The 21 billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), all of them men, saw their wealth increase by nearly $10 billion since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, almost double the estimated amount required to rebuild Lebanon’s shattered capital, while 45 million more people in the region could be pushed to poverty as a result of the pandemic, a new Oxfam report revealed today.

For a Decade of Hope Not Austerity in The Middle East and North Africa’ shows that since March, the region’s richest have amassed more than double the regional emergency funds provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to respond to the pandemic, and almost five times the United Nation’s COVID-19 humanitarian appeal for MENA. 

“The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities and massive failures in our economic systems, leaving millions in the region without jobs, healthcare, or any kind of social security, while allowing billionaires to add more than $63 million to their fortunes each and every day since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Nabil Abdo, Oxfam in MENA’s senior policy advisor.

“Unless governments immediately prioritize people over profits and the rich pay their fair share, millions more will be pushed to the brink of poverty and denied their basic rights. For too long profit has been prioritized at the expense of the public good and safety. The result of this could not be starker in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion in Beirut, which has further exposed the fragility of the economy and will only exacerbate existing inequalities.”

Governments in the region need to act quickly and raise revenues to protect the most vulnerable in society. In Lebanon, if a 5 percent solidarity net wealth tax had been introduced last year, $3.7 billion in tax revenues would have been generated to help rebuild the electricity and water infrastructure and provide services to keep people safe in the aftermath of the blast

Before the virus hit, the MENA region was already one of the most unequal in the world; and COVID-19 has further deepened the gap between the rich and the poor. 76 percent of the region’s income goes to just 10 percent of the population, with 37 billionaires owning as much wealth as the poorest half of the adult population.

If Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco had implemented a two percent wealth tax from 2010, these countries could have raised $38 billion in tax revenues, which could have been invested in improving public healthcare and rebuilding social protection systems.

At the same time, measures to protect the poor have fallen short. It is estimated that only 11 percent of stimulus packages in the region focused on social protection and health measures. Against this backdrop, an estimated 89 percent of the region’s 16 million informal workers have been severely affected by pandemic measures. Foreign investment is also projected to drop by 45 percent and 1.7 million people are expected to lose their jobs, 700,000 of them women, costing $42 billion in lost wages.

“The crushing austerity in recent years could have been avoided if the wealthiest in the region had paid more tax, a cost they can easily afford. This alternative could have given countries more flexibility on their spending policies and crucially, seen the region enter the coronavirus crisis with less inequality and debt”, added Abdo.

To avoid millions more being pushed to the brink of poverty, the region’s governments must urgently adopt deliberate inequality-busting policies like healthcare and education for all, and must raise the minimum wage and taxing wealth fairly to build better, more equal economies and societies.
 

Notes to editors

Download ‘For a Decade of Hope Not Austerity in The Middle East and North Africa’.

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available. Figures on the very richest in society come from Forbes’ Billionaires List and Forbes‘ Real-Time Billionaires ranking. We compared the net wealth of MENA billionaires on March 18, 2020, to their net wealth on August 16, 2020.

PWC has estimated the cost of damage to 30-40 destroyed buildings, 3,400 uninhabitable buildings and a total of 40,000 buildings affected by the blast to be $5 billion. 
 

Contact information:

Roslyn Boatman in Tunis, Tunisia | roslyn.boatman@oxfam.org | +216 21359002 

For updates, please follow:

@Oxfam 

Learn more:

Lebanon in turmoil as it hits 100

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From golden age to war and ruin: Lebanon in turmoil as it hits 100 as told by Tom Perry and Imad Creidi is a story of a whole country as recalled by one of its inhabitants. It seems that it is to be of yet another artificial state-nation conjured up in the recent past by a third party power mediocre political move.


BEIRUT (Reuters) – Looking back on his childhood in the newly declared state of Lebanon nearly a century ago, Salah Tizani says the country was set on course for calamity from the start by colonial powers and sectarian overlords.

Holiday Inn Hotel is pictured on fire during clashes in Beirut, Lebanon 1975. Reuters TV via REUTERS

Tizani, better known in Lebanon as Abou Salim, was one of Lebanon’s first TV celebrities. He shot to fame in the 1960s with a weekly comedy show that offered a political and social critique of the nascent state.

Now aged 92, he lucidly traces the crises that have beset Lebanon – wars, invasions, assassinations and, most recently, a devastating chemicals explosion – back to the days when France carved its borders out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and sectarian politicians known as “the zuama” emerged as its masters.

“The mistake that nobody was aware of is that people went to bed one day thinking they were Syrians or Ottomans, let’s say, and the next day they woke up to find themselves in the Lebanese state,” Tizani said. “Lebanon was just thrown together.”

Lebanon’s latest ordeal, the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion that killed some 180 people, injured 6,000 and devastated a swathe of the city, has triggered new reflection on its troubled history and deepened worry for the future.

For many, the catastrophe is a continuation of the past, caused in one way or another by the same sectarian elite that has led the country from crisis to crisis since its inception, putting factions and self-interest ahead of state and nation.

And it comes amid economic upheaval. An unprecedented financial meltdown has devastated the economy, fuelling poverty and a new wave of emigration from a country whose heyday in the 1960s is a distant memory.

The blast also presages a historic milestone: Sept. 1 is the centenary of the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon, proclaimed by France in an imperial carve-up with Britain after World War One.

For Lebanon’s biggest Christian community, the Maronites, the proclamation of Greater Lebanon by French General Henri Gouraud was a welcome step towards independence.

But many Muslims who found themselves cut off from Syria and Palestine were dismayed by the new borders. Growing up in the northern city of Tripoli, Tizani saw the divisions first hand.

As a young boy, he remembers being ordered home by the police to be registered in a census in 1932, the last Lebanon conducted. His neighbours refused to take part.

“They told them ‘we don’t want to be Lebanese’,” he said.

Tizani can still recite the Turkish oath of allegiance to the Sultan, as taught to his father under Ottoman rule. He can sing La Marseillaise, taught to him by the French, from start to finish. But he freely admits to not knowing all of Lebanon’s national anthem. Nobody spoke about patriotism.

“The country moved ahead on the basis we were a unified nation but without internal foundations. Lebanon was made superficially, and it continued superficially.”

From the earliest days, people were forced into the arms of politicians of one sectarian stripe or another if they needed a job, to get their children into school, or if they ran into trouble with the law.

“Our curse is our zuama,” Tizani said.

POINTING TO CATASTROPHE

When Lebanon declared independence in 1943, the French tried to thwart the move by incarcerating its new government, provoking an uprising that proved to be a rare moment of national unity.

Under Lebanon’s National Pact, it was agreed the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.

The post-independence years brought signs of promise.

Women gained suffrage in 1952. Salim Haidar, a minister at the time, took pride in the fact that Lebanon was only a few years behind France in granting women the right to vote, his son, Hayyan, recalls.

Salim Haidar, with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, drafted Lebanon’s first anti-corruption law in 1953.

“This was the mentality … that Lebanon is really leading the way, even in the legal and constitutional matters. But then he didn’t know that all of these laws that he worked on would not be properly applied, or would not be applied at all, like the anti-corruption law,” Hayyan Haidar said.

The 1960s are widely seen as a golden age. Tourism boomed, much of it from the Arab world. A cultural scene of theatre, poetry, cinema and music flourished. Famous visitors included Brigitte Bardot. The Baalbeck International Festival, set amid ancient ruins in the Bekaa Valley, was in its heyday.

Casino du Liban hosted the Miss Europe beauty pageant in 1964. Water skiers showed off their skills in the bay by Beirut’s Saint George Hotel.

Visitors left with “a misleadingly idyllic picture of the city, deaf to the antagonisms that now rumbled beneath the surface and blind to the dangers that were beginning to gather on the horizon,” Samir Kassir, the late historian and journalist, wrote in his book “Beirut”.

Kassir was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.

For all the glitz and glamour, sectarian politics left many parts of Lebanon marginalised and impoverished, providing fertile ground for the 1975-90 civil war, said Nadya Sbaiti, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

“The other side of the 1960s is not just Hollywood actors and Baalbeck festivals, but includes guerrilla training in rural parts of the country,” she said.

Lebanon was also buffeted by the aftershocks of Israel’s creation in 1948, which sent some 100,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing over the border.

In 1968, Israeli commandos destroyed a dozen passenger planes at Beirut airport, a response to an attack on an Israeli airliner by a Lebanon-based Palestinian group.

The attack “showed us we are not a state. We are an international playground,” Salim Haidar, serving as an MP, said in an address to parliament at the time. Lebanon had not moved on in a quarter of a century, he said.

“We gathered, Christians and Muslims, around the table of independent Lebanon, distributed by sect. We are still Christians and Muslims … distributed by sect.”

To build a state, necessary steps included the “abolition of political sectarianism, the mother of all problems,” said Haidar, who died in 1980.

TICKING TIME BOMB

Lebanon’s brewing troubles were reflected in its art.

A 1970 play, “Carte Blanche”, portrayed the country as a brothel run by government ministers and ended with the lights off and the sound of a ticking bomb.

Nidal Al Achkar, the co-director, recalls the Beirut of her youth as a vibrant melting pot that never slept.

A pioneer of Lebanese theatre, Achkar graduated in the 1950s from one of a handful of Lebanese schools founded on a secular rather than religious basis, Ahliah, in the city’s former Jewish quarter. Beirut was in the 1960s a city of “little secrets … full of cinemas, full of theatres,” she said.

“Beside people coming from the West, you had people coming from all over the Arab world, from Iraq, from Jordan, from Syria, from Palestine meeting in these cafes, living here, feeling free,” she recalled. “But in our activity as artists … all our plays were pointing to a catastrophe.”

It came in 1975 with the eruption of the civil war that began as a conflict between Christian militias and Palestinian groups allied with Lebanese Muslim factions.

Known as the “two year war”, it was followed by many other conflicts. Some of those were fought among Christian groups and among Muslim groups.Slideshow (4 Images)

The United States, Russia and Syria were drawn in. Israel invaded twice and occupied Beirut in 1982. Lebanon was splintered. Hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted.

The guns fell silent in 1990 with some 150,000 dead and more than 17,000 people missing.

The Taif peace agreement diluted Maronite power in government. Militia leaders turned in their weapons and took seats in government. Hayyan Haidar, a civil engineer and close aide to Selim Hoss, prime minister at the end of the war, expressed his concern.

“My comment was they are going to become the state and we are on our way out,” he said.

In the post-war period, Rafik al-Hariri took the lead in rebuilding Beirut’s devastated city centre, though many feel its old character was lost in the process, including its traditional souks.

A Saudi-backed billionaire, Hariri was one of the only Lebanese post-war leaders who had not fought in the conflict.

A general amnesty covered all political crimes perpetrated before 1991.

“What happened is they imposed amnesia on us,” said Nayla Hamadeh, president of the Lebanese Association for History. “They meant it. Prime Minister Hariri was one of those who advanced this idea … ‘Let’s forget and move (on)’.”

‘I LOST HOPE’

The Taif agreement called for “national belonging” to be strengthened through new education curricula, including a unified history textbook. Issued in the 1940s, the existing syllabus ends in 1943 with independence.

Attempts to agree a new one failed. The last effort, a decade ago, provoked rows in parliament and street protests.

“They think that they should use history to brainwash students,” Hamadeh said. For the most part, history continues to be learnt at home, on the street and through hearsay.

“This is (promoting) conflict in our society,” she added.

Old faultlines persisted and new ones emerged.

Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims fell out following the 2005 assassination of Hariri. A U.N.-backed tribunal recently convicted a member of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah of conspiring to kill Hariri.

Hezbollah denies any role, but the trial was another reminder of Lebanon’s violent past – the last 15 years have been punctuated by political slayings, a war between Hezbollah and Israel and a brush with civil conflict in 2008.

To some, the civil war never really ended.

Political conflict persists in government even at a time when people are desperate for solutions to the financial crisis and support in the aftermath of the port explosion.

Many feel the victims have not been mourned properly on a national level, reflecting divisions. Some refuse to lose faith in a better Lebanon. For others, the blast was the final straw. Some are leaving or planning to.

“You live between a war and another, and you rebuild and then everything is destroyed and then you rebuild again,” said theatre director Achkar. “That’s why I lost hope.”

Editing by Mike Collett-White

The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.