Lebanon’s Middle Class: Adapting to Survive

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The middle class does in fact seem to be in a constant state of flux and renewal. One group loses out, while another emerges to take its place. (Photo: al-Akhbar)

By: Rouba Abou Ammo

Published Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Lebanon, many have doubts about the existence of a middle class. But key sectors of the middle class vanish only to be replaced by new ones that are more adept at keeping up with changing times.

A recent Lebanese television ad depicts a young, middle-class professional in the 1960s leading an easy life while earning an average salary. This model has now vanished; people today think twice before spending a dime and still run out of money. Regional expert at the UN development agency for Western Asia (ESCWA) Adib Nehme says this is due to a general feeling of falling living standards. He adds that people lead more difficult lives now, given the widening gap between rich and poor, pointing to indicators such as disparity between different regions, sectors, and professions confirming this trend.

According to Nehme, defining the middle class cannot be based on the amount of income earned but rather on the level of education and culture. He explains that at the beginning of the Arab revolutions, “we heard of the ‘middle class’ bringing down the regimes, meaning doctors, lawyers, engineers, and professors. This group used to represent the backbone of the middle class and is characterized by modernity and democracy.” But to make his point about educational and cultural factors, Nehme quickly adds that one cannot overlook a very important group within the middle class: public sector employees.

“In Lebanon, during the era of President Fouad Chehab, education was key to social mobility, particularly through public sector jobs,” he says. However, in the post-civil war period, this group was driven out of the middle class and its privileged status ended.

Nehme believes that doctors, lawyers, and engineers also met the same fate, as their professions were subjected to impoverishment. Some lucrative lines of work like owning a photography studio or a grocery store also disappeared, but they were replaced by many business opportunities in a wide range of fields, including banking, finance, insurance, technology, and information.

Nehme explains that the economic instability experienced by the middle class is not particular to Lebanon, but that it is a global trend. Social inequalities were minimal before neoliberalism took its toll on the world economy starting in the 1980s. It promoted privatization and made profit the overwhelming priority. Consequently, social inequalities between rich and poor increased significantly.

Former Lebanese Finance Minister Georges Corm points to a significant Lebanese middle class that was formed in exile during the civil war in places like the US, Australia, Canada, and the Gulf. These expats also benefited greatly from the meteoric rise in oil prices, remitting large sums of money to their relatives back home.

Defining the middle class remains a difficult matter. Economists and sociologists may differ on the defining traits of the middle class, but they all agree that it is constantly renewing itself. Many experts consider well-being an important indicator in determining who belongs to this class. Economist Kamal Hamdan explains the notion of well-being as “the capacity to cover expenses such as health care, education, and one trip per year, for instance.” According to Hamdan, the increasing cost of living and the consumer-driven lifestyle are the main problem. He adds that although statistic suggest that between 60 to 70 percent of people in Lebanon earn less than US$800 a month, they still spend a lot of money. This may be an issue of transparency. People do not often disclose the real amount of their income since part of it is either earned “under the table” or supplemented by relatives living abroad.

The middle class does in fact seem to be in a constant state of flux and renewal. One group loses out, while another emerges to take its place. Corm insists on the emergence of a new mobile and globalized middle class — professionals who work abroad for a while and return, only to repeat the cycle again and again. He mourns the disappearance of the old middle class that suffered from a brain drain and has now been lost to consumerism.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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