The Lebanese diaspora shows up on many observers’ short lists of the most successful diaspora in the world. Why?
I was driving HOME from work, listening to public radio, when Stephen Dubner, host of “Freakonomics,” a weekly podcast, asked, “Who are the most successful immigrant groups in the world?” Certainly, the Lebanese diaspora will be one of them, I thought.
Sure enough, Dubner recalled sitting on a plane with intellectual Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American living in New York and the author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile,” discussing how successful the Lebanese diaspora is. If you look at the 30 richest countries in the world, you’ll find that among the richest people in those countries are Lebanese, Taleb told Dubner.
It is easy to recall many success stories from the Lebanese diaspora — the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek, consumer protection champion Ralph Nader, iconic DJ Casey Kasem, U.S. Senate leader George Mitchell, renowned heart surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, designer Elie Saab, leading actress Salma Hayek, celebrated U.S. TV star Danny Thomas … the list goes on.
But such a list could be made with almost any immigrant group, American economist Louis Fortis, Ph.D., noted in an interview with HOME. Fortis, an educator and newspaper publisher-editor, who served three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly, was a visiting professor at Rafik Hariri University in Mechref, Lebanon. He is a former professor at Smith College, a worldclass U.S. liberal arts college, an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and a self-made millionaire himself.
“Like many diaspora, those who leave for a better life are highly motivated, whether it is for an education or a career,” said Fortis. “This leads to self-selection.” However, there are reasons to consider that the Lebanese are exceptional, he added. “Lebanon is a small country but one that has for decades punched above its weight class.”
Is the Lebanese diaspora, as a group, successful? More than others? And, if so, what makes it so special? Plenty of theories have been bounced around in academia.
What’s the evidence?
Scholars researching the Lebanese diaspora say it has done exceptionally well. “It’s very difficult to say across the board that they were the most successful diaspora,” Akram Khater, Ph.D., told Dubner. Khater, a Lebanese American,is a professor of Middle East history at North Carolina State University. “The data show that, at least in the U. S., they are doing pretty well.”
In the U.S., where the median annual household income is $50,000, a 2013 article in The Economist noted that “at $67,000, Lebanese-Americans are comfortably above the norm.”
If you look at statistics today, Khater noted, in all economic measures, the Lebanese in America are highly successful. They have bigger houses, more professional employment and better incomes. In terms of doctorate degrees, they are usually three-toone, and master’s degrees, 2.4-to-one, compared to the rest of the American population, he said.
However, those markers of success are not present in every country with Lebanese immigrants. And that is not necessarily their fault. The success of diasporas does not depend solely on the characteristics of the group; it is also affected by the “reception and culture of the host countries,” wrote Vincent Crapanzano in the introduction to the book “Politics, Culture and the Lebanese Diaspora,” a 2010 collection of scholarly essays and research.
Still, many scholars contend the Lebanese diaspora has achieved a remarkable amount of success, especially as entrepreneurs. It is widely believed that Lebanese are among the top entrepreneurs in the world, researcher Hazem Kawazmi wrote in a 2011 study.
“Plenty of theories have been bounced around in academia.”
What makes the Lebanese so special?
Fortis said he divides the world into actors, directors and producers. The actors are the truck driver, the teacher, the doctor and the plumber. “There is a position with a job description and they fill the job,” he said. Then there are the directors, who manage the businesses and institutions. Company presidents, hospital managers, or the heads of nonprofits would fit that category. “They can direct and can reshape an existing institution.”
Finally, he said, there are the producers, and that is where he would put many Lebanese. “They saw the need and created a business or a nonprofit to fill that need. It wouldn’t have existed without them.” A producer would be the one who saw the need for a hospital in a community without one, so he would organize a committee and start\ the process to build it. Or he would recognize a neighborhood without a grocery store and open one. “I saw a lot of producers among my students in Lebanon,” Fortis said.
Take serial entrepreneur Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinkos, for example. In 2012, the Lebanese American told Forbes magazine the idea for the successful international chain of copying, printing and binding services, which was eventually bought by FedEx, came from seeing the line for the copy machine in the library. “Anywhere there is a line, there is an opportunity,” he said.
“Lebanon is widely renowned for its entrepreneurial acumen,” wrote Nora Stel, Ph.D., a research fellow at Maastricht School of Management, in a 2013 study. “The reputation is built largely on the success story of the worldwide Lebanese diaspora. Lebanon has been renowned as an entrepreneurial nation throughout history, from the legendary Phoenician traders to the development of the famous banking culture, earning the country the nickname ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East.’”
So where did this acumen come from? Some will say it is innate, in the DNA.
The idea of success resulting from a Lebanese character trait was floated by best-selling author of “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rosenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School, who co-authored the 2014 book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” They include Lebanese-Americans among the eight groups they identified as disproportionately represented at the top by conventional measures of success. They say that success is driven by “a superiority complex bordering on arrogance riddled with neurotic insecurities and undergirded by extraordinary willpower.”
Critics savaged the book. “Time” magazine called its theory “the new racisim,” not about color but about traits of an ethnic or religious group. Scholars agreed the fact some groups do much better than others in income, occupational status, test scores and other measures cannot be attributed to group “traits.” Rather, they emphasized,these characteristics are learned through life experiences.
So the Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit might be attributed to the entrepreneurship that took place in post-independence nation-building, wrote Maastricht School of Management research fellow Stel. Also, the fact that Lebanese have been encouraging an entrepreneurial self-identification may just lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, she added. If Lebanese believe they have those traits, they may just develop entrepreneurial aspirations, after which entrepreneurship can be learned.
“Success is driven by a superiority complex bordering on arrogance riddled with neurotic insecurities and undergirded by extraordinary willpower.”
Zeinab Fawaz, author of “Success Factors of Lebanese Small Businesses in the United States,” argues that “good education, adaptability and networks” are the keys to the Lebanese diaspora’s success.
The emphasis on education in Lebanese society gives migrants a leg up when they find themselves in a position of being more highly educated than many of the locals, noted Stel. Lebanese families push their children into two major areas — engineering and medicine, Khater said. They are seen as the two venues for success — your entry points into middle and-upper-middle class.
Lebanese also study languages, which has helped the diaspora historically. Many Lebanese today know conversational English, French and Arabic. And some are highly proficient in two or three of those.
That background keeps them from shying away from learning other languages. For example, when the Lebanese in West Africa had to look for opportunities the Europeans had not penetrated, they learned multiple languages, wrote Vipin Gupta of California State University, with Chris Graves and Jill Thomas of the University of Adelaide, in a 2010 study. Facility with languages strengthened and expanded their networks and business opportunities. “They were able to bargain for rubber, groundnut, palm oil and other commodities from the Africans on better terms than the French, and became monopolizing middlemen for exports to large European companies. The French stayed on the coast while the Lebanese met with African farmers of the hinterlands. They began importing, wholesaling and retailing European consumer products, especially textiles, to African consumers.”
They adapted well to changing circumstances, said Gupta. By the 1920s, the Lebanese in West Africa had diversified into services like transport. For example, the Khoury family monopolized the distribution of fuel to Shell gas stations. After World War II, other Lebanese families invested in real estate and manufacturing sectors, starting with textile mills. They built a large percentage of the commercial real estate and housing units. They also developed joint ventures and strategic alliances with foreign companies, and invested surplus in growth locally, especially during the civil war, when it was difficult to remit money to families in Lebanon.
Through the years, the Lebanese in West Africa faced many challenges, including strong resistance. They proved to be very strategic in their response, wrote Gupta. To gain local support, they made charitable donations, often raised at evening social events attended by wealthy Lebanese business families.
They donated to popular, high profile community causes such as sponsoring festivals and celebrations.
Likewise, when the European international trading companies in West Africa fell, Lebanese seized the opportunity and moved in to gain ground in the import and export trade, transportation business, and agroprocessing. Lebanese have a history of “investing in the future rather than submitting to the present,” said Stel.
And wherever they went, the Lebanese diaspora could count on strong networks to supply them with information and contacts, said Gupta. There are roughly 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon today, and estimates of those of Lebanese descent in the diaspora range widely, from 8.5 million up to 18 or 20 million. Today, 40-60 percent of Lebanese households have at least one emigrant of close kin, said Stel.
In addition, the Lebanese government supported the diaspora by expanding diplomatic and councilor representation to most countries in the world where there are Lebanese.
“Today’s Lebanese diaspora is made of highly educated and prominent entrepreneurs who have created huge marks in their adopted HOMElands around the world,” wrote Zafar Ahmed, Philip Zgheib, Abdulrahim Kowatly and Peter Rhetts in a 2012 research article in the Journal of Management History.
The motivating factor for leaving Lebanon has been to make money, researchers agreed. The collapse of the silk industry in Lebanon during and after the first world war “drove people into poverty and, subsequently, out of the country,” Khater said on “Freakonomics.” The next big exodus came during the civil war, from 1975 until 1991, when 40 percent of the population left the country. They were not fleeing the violence as much as they were looking for opportunities, he said.
Due to the economic instability of the war, there were many graduates who could not find work.
“If Lebanese believe they have those traits, they may just develop entrepreneurial aspirations, after which entrepreneurship can be learned.”
In fact, the push and pull factors of Lebanese migration are not easily separated, wrote research fellow Stel in a 2013 study.
War was a push, but the economic pull of development in the United States, Latin America and later Africa was the more determinative factor, she said. The Lebanese were attracted by opportunities.
The complexity of “Lebaneseness,” as one journalist put it, “is having the best country in the world, but not being able to live in it.”
“It may be too much to say that the Lebanese diaspora is a success story but it would not be wrong to deny that story,” wrote Crapanzano. It is still being written.
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