The Itinerary of a Globe-Trotting President
By: Ahmed Mohsen
Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013
A guided tour through Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s international trips. At a cost of just under $9 million in outstanding travel fees – $2.5 million of that for the president’s private aircraft – Suleiman has been busy fulfilling some seemingly inane diplomatic duties from Buenos Aires to Riyadh.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has been filling up his passport, with other state officials following suit.
At yesterday’s cabinet session, the top agenda item was a request by the foreign ministry for “payment of expenses for delegations tasked with traveling abroad during the years 2006-2012.”
According to the ministry, these costs amount to just under LL14 billion, or more than $9 million. The figure may seem only a small proportion of a state’s expenditures, but not in comparison to other sums in Lebanon’s draft 2012 budget. Total spending on research, for example, amounted to zero. The sports budget stands at around $6 million – about the same amount is earmarked for culture – while industry is allocated $7.9 million annually.
Foreign travel by officials costs the Lebanese state more than industry, culture, or sports. The lion’s share of this is spent on the president. Much of the money requested by the foreign ministry was for hiring private planes for his use.
Since August, the foreign ministry has been petitioning the finance ministry to pay this bill. The latter objected, stating that the amount requested in the 2012 budget covered items dating back to 2006. This prompted the foreign ministry to ask the cabinet to resolve the dispute.
In its letter requesting payment, the foreign ministry provided a detailed breakdown of the costs incurred by official Lebanese delegations on trips abroad in recent years.
In 2006, the state spent LL50 million, or $33,000, sending delegations to Berne, Switzerland and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2007, travels extended to Rome (twice), Riyadh (twice) and Tokyo, at a cost of LL101 million, or $67,000. These costs rose sharply in 2011, reaching LL800 million, or $500,000, thus amounting to a total sum of almost LL5 billion for delegations – over $3 million.
“Unsettled transactions” totaled LL2.3 billion, or $1.5 million, with well-known Lebanese politicians and diplomats among the beneficiaries.
The national airline, MEA, also has a stake in the amount owed by the finance ministry, totaling LL1.9 billion, or $1.2 million.
As for President Suleiman, he alone cost the state LL3.8 billion, or $2.5 million, between 2008 and 2012 in hired private aircraft for his foreign trips.
Suleiman’s Subdued Romps in Foreign Lands
A sample of Suleiman’s activities, as detailed by the ministry, is provided below.
In Armenia, Suleiman visited the old brandy distillery in Yerevan, where he was taken on a tour by the director and wrote a tribute in the guestbook to Armenia’s brandy-making heritage. He also visited the fourth century Mother Cathedral, and viewed the spear thought to have been used to stab Jesus Christ on the cross.
In Rome, the president lunched at the famous Palazzo Brancaccio restaurant with then Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and various Italian cardinals. He met the Spanish sculptor who made the statue of St. Maroun that was placed in the Vatican. The main event was a ceremony attended by Pope Benedict XVI, who arrived “to the applause of those present.”
In Mexico, Suleiman was greatly impressed by the Museum of Anthropology, penning another eloquent tribute to the host state’s ancient history in the guestbook.
In Brazil, he inspected Corcovado Mountain, site of the statue of Christ the Savior, where he and his wife had commemorative photos taken to document the historic visit.
In Russia, the president visited the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), where he delivered a “strategic” speech in which he explained how Lebanon had suffered from the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 due to “the influx of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees into a country with limited space and resources.”
Suleiman also traveled to Spain at the expense of the state, ending his visit in Barcelona. He and José Montilla, president of the Catalan Regional Government, attended a traditional Barcelonian lunch and made a toast to the Lebanese and Catalonian peoples.
The president’s trips to the US were equally productive. On one of them, he met Miss USA, Rima Fakih, and awarded her the Shield of the Presidency of the Republic.
In Great Britain, he accepted an invitation to lunch with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, with whom he “discussed the global financial crisis,” and later that evening called on the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, at his Clarence House palace. The accompanying delegation reported that Charles voiced his “admiration for the vitality of the Lebanese people, who have succeeded throughout their history in overcoming numerous tragedies and emerging from them united and strengthened.”
Later, in Westminster Abbey, where British monarchs are crowned and senior statesmen are buried, Suleiman expressed his sympathy for all the British troops who had “sacrificed for the sake of humanity.”
Other landmark tours took Suleiman to France. On one trip to Paris, he and his wife received Nazek al-Hariri, the widow of assassinated prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. This followed a “calm” meeting with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
But the truly “historic” visit, according to the president’s website, was the one to Sydney, Australia. There, Suleiman visited the monastery of St. Charbel, which is affiliated with the Lebanese Maronite church. Being “historic,” the trip included a visit to the ballet at the Sydney Opera House.
While in the Czech Republic, the president visited Charles Bridge which crosses the Voltava River in Prague. Hopes were raised in Lebanon that this experience might inspire the completion of the Bshara al-Khoury bridge or the repair of the Salim Salam flyover, or even the Antalias bridge, thus providing the country with additional benefits from the visit.
After Prague, Suleiman went to Romania, where he laid flower wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In Athens, Suleiman placed a similar wreath on a similar tomb. There are no unknown soldiers in Lebanon, where all soldiers are famous. But the delegation accompanying the president to Uruguay was surprised to learn that Lebanon is not the only “unique” country in the universe.
It was informed by Uruguayan President José Mujica that his country “is a replica of Lebanon, a geographically small country that is inclusive of all families and sects” – though he did not explain where his country’s Shia, Maronites, Sunnis, or Druze reside.
Things were less conventional in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where at a meeting with representatives of the press in the Sheraton Hotel, he reassured them that “Lebanon is acting to disarm unofficial forces in the country – be they Hezbollah, Salafi groups or others.”
These activities cost the state coffers billions of pounds, while a couple of days ago, the Lebanese were drowning in puddles of rainwater.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.