By Sami Atallah
A paradox confronts countries endowed with oil and gas resources. Despite their riches, these countries tend to grow slower in the long term, have higher income inequality, be more corrupt and even become authoritarian. This, of course is not the fate of all such countries — many have managed to turn the oil curse into a blessing. Those that did had two things going for them: a high level of human capital and good institutions that upheld checks and balances on power.
Although Lebanon is well endowed with human capital, its institutions are generally weak. The Taef agreement redistributed power more equally across the three key institutions — the presidency, the parliament and the prime ministership — that are associated with the three dominant sects, and in many ways, undermined the political system.
For one, the executive authority became diffused to an extent that it is no longer obvious who is in charge. The members of the parliament seem less interested in legislating and holding executive authority accountable and more interested in providing services to constituents. The political parties have mastered the game of electoral survival by crafting election laws through redistricting and vote counting in ways that get them reelected with little to show for. They have resorted to clientelistic strategies of buying votes and providing services in return for political loyalty. Furthermore, the judiciary and the oversight agencies whose job it is to hold the government accountable were at best sidelined but most often intentionally weakened through political interventions or bureaucratic understaffing.
In sum, the political elite govern the country largely by the logic of dividing the spoils among themselves through illegal subcontracting of projects, violating tendering requirements, as well as contracting companies despite conflicts of interest. This has resulted in high levels of corruption, embezzlement, mismanagement and waste benefiting the political elite at the expense of the rest of the population.
It is against this backdrop that the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA), the body entrusted to govern the oil sector, came into being. Between November 2012 and August 2013, the LPA proceeded rather efficiently and with more transparency than most Lebanese institutions in approaching the sector. It held consultative meetings and workshops, and managed to lay the groundwork for the launch of the offshore licensing round. Now it is waiting on the government to pass the last decrees for the process to continue, and has found itself caught up in the Lebanese political mill with no clear way out of the deadlock.