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Migration et politique au Moyen-Orient

Françoise de Bel-Air

Syrian Workers in Lebanon and the Role of the State: Political Economy and Popular Aspirations

Les travailleurs syriens au Liban et le rôle de l’État : économie politique, ambitions populaires

John Chalcraft


Quel est le rôle joué par les États dans la migration vers le Liban, au cours des années 1990, de centaines de milliers de travailleurs syriens non qualifiés ? Les théories les plus courantes créditent l’État syrien d’un pouvoir colossal, celui d’imposer au Liban un « flot » de migrants syriens. Une position plus « pro-syrienne », plus rarement défendue, oppose à cette explication politique le rôle de la division du travail comme moteur des migrations syriennes. La poursuite des mouvements de travailleurs syriens vers le pays voisin après le retrait d’avril 2005 semble confirmer la véracité de cette perception, en termes économiques, des flux migratoires entre les deux pays. Pourtant, outre qu’elle repose sur un débat dont les termes restent à questionner, cette explication passe sous silence le pouvoir des États et surestime la capacité explicative de l’économie comme discipline scientifique.

Cette contribution dépasse les termes de la controverse existante et cherche à mettre en relief le rôle de l’État dans l’économie, par un retour sur l’histoire des relations entre les deux pays, par une attention portée aux politiques économiques sans rapport direct avec les migrations et par la prise en compte des ambitions des acteurs sous-tendant les mouvements d’émigration et de retour. J’avance la théorie suivante : les politiques d’État ont plus d’effets que ne leur en prêtent les lectures « économicistes » du phénomène migratoire, mais pas celui d’imposer au Liban des travailleurs immigrés. Mieux que des facteurs purement économiques, les politiques économiques et sociales divergentes menées par les deux pays depuis les années 1960 permettent d’expliquer les aléas des mouvements migratoires et de retour entre la Syrie et le Liban.

Texte intégral

  • * The author would like to thank the British Academy, the Council for British Research on the Levant (...)

1Note portant sur l’auteur*

2What role has the state played in the migration to Lebanon and return of hundreds of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled Syrians during the 1990s? A dominant theme in Lebanese public discourse accredits the Syrian state with enormous power in imposing a “flood” of Syrian migrants on Lebanon under the pax Syriana of the 1990s. This idea, most strident in the camp opposed to the Syrian “occupation” of 1976-2005, was always countered, however, by a less popular “pro-Syrian” position arguing that economics and the division of labour accounted for the presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon, and that the Syrian state had very little to do with the matter. Ostensibly, the fact that the migration continued even after the collapse of direct Syrian political control in Lebanon in April 2005 vindicates the latter position explaining the migration in economic terms. However, this article argues that to accept some version of the latter position would be to accept uncritically the terms in which the debate is cast, efface the very real importance of state power, and assume far too much about the coherence and meaning of “the economy” as an explanatory category. It is more useful, arguably, to go beyond the terms of the existing controversy, assume that political and economic logics, while remaining analytically distinct, are closely intertwined in ways which confound economistic or political reductivism. In fact, standing behind the economy, here as elsewhere, we find the state, especially if we extend the chronological perspective, look at policies not usually considered directly relevant to migration, and pay attention, perhaps counter-intuitively, to the popular aspirations which drive migration and return. I will argue that the role of both host and sending state policy is far more important than any simple economistic reading claims, but its importance is not at all in “imposing” workers on Lebanon, as the pro-Lebanese argued. In fact, as we will see, divergent social and economic policies pursued by Syria and Lebanon since the 1960s account for the cycle of Syrian migration and return as much as any purely economic factors.


  • 1 Neither country has had an embassy in the other since independence, a concrete expression of the i (...)
  • 2 This explains the lock on such jobs by Syrians, according to a young bus driver’s assistant during (...)
  • 3 Scarlet Haddad, “Who’s afraid of Syrian labour in Lebanon?”, L’Orient Le Jour, 13 June 1994.
  • 4 Conversation, 21 February 2004.
  • 5 Interview, Rita Yazigi, 11 March 2004.
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Carol Samaha, “Foreign labour competes with Lebanese labour in the absence of official protection” (...)
  • 8 Al-Diyâr, 3 November 1994.
  • 9 Al-Nahar, 19 August, 1995.
  • 10 More than one source named Nabih Berri, the Shi’a speaker of the parliament and member of the ruli (...)
  • 11 Scarlet Haddad, “Who’s afraid of Syrian labour in Lebanon?”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 13 June 1994.
  • 12 Muhammad Zabib, “Invasion of Foreign Labour in Lebanon”, Al-Usbu‘a Al-‘Arabi, 14 August 1995.

3During the 1990s, it came to be widely believed in Lebanon that Syrian military and political control, following the Ta’ef Accords and the defeat of General ‘Aoun, meant the imposition of a flood of unwanted Syrian workers on a country struggling to rebuild and regain national unity after the civil war. Lebanese and particularly Christian fears over the sectarian balance and the dilution of Lebanese culture and identity played an important role in bolstering this view, which strongly opposed the pro-Syrian notion of “two states, one people”, which emphasised profound Arab, brotherly and historic ties between peoples in both states, and maintained that the border was merely an artificial product of French colonial “divide and rule”1. Syrian officers, who by virtue of their political influence muscled in on Lebanese commerce, in hotels, ports, construction, the casino, the airport inter alia, often imposed, it was said, an unofficial quota of Syrian workers on the companies from which they took a cut2. Such workers were untouchable, it was said, as were those whom if not in some way working for Syrian intelligence themselves, had the unofficial protection of one officer or another. “They [Syrian workers] seem entirely at ease” reported L’Orient Le Jour, “and don’t seem to fear at all that one day they will be sent back”. “Who would dare do it?” exclaimed Omar [a Syrian squatter], “We are covered [by Syria] and nothing can be taken from us”.3 Such reporting appeared to chime with incidents showing that the army was ready to defend Syrian workers by force. For example, “when Lebanese police tried to evict scores of Syrian vegetable vendors from sidewalks along the airport highway in March 1992 [there followed] a gun battle with Syrian soldiers that left six dead and many more wounded” (Gambill, 2003). Vivid stories circulated behind closed doors. As an Anglophone Christian and former lawyer for the Iraq Petroleum Company told me, when, in the early 1990s, the wife of an important Lebanese officer had a dispute with her Syrian maid, their house was surrounded the next day by Syrian tanks.4 It was argued that even though Syrians’ work was of lower quality than that of the Lebanese, people were afraid to cut Syrians’ pay or give them the sack because of their links to the feared Syrian security agencies.5 Such links were particularly intimidating, one informant told me, when they could apply to one’s very own concierge, who knew all the details of one’s daily life.6 Syrian control was not just military, but political. Lebanon, it was held, was forced to open its borders, issuing work permits to foreigners by the thousands, while failing to protect Lebanese unemployed or regulate the highly competitive and disorganized labour market.7 According to some, the Bi-Lateral Labour Agreement of October 1994, which defined the regulative framework for migrants and made it very easy for workers defined as “seasonal” to cross the border, was for the benefit of “Syria alone”, inasmuch as “there are a large number of Syrian workers working in Lebanon, while there are very few Lebanese working in Syria”.8 Indeed, in the face of Syrian power, the government was paralyzed: “The entire government apparatus is incapable of describing the disease or finding a cure.”9 Even Lebanese employers, or Lebanese returning from abroad, were forced by leading Lebanese officials doing Syria’s bidding to employ a certain proportion of Syrians.10 As L’Orient Le Jour put it, “If the Lebanese workers appear devastated [...] the Labour Ministry is serene”.11 While most countries are tightening up on in-migration, it was said, Lebanon continues to open her doors to foreign labour “without organization or studies”.12

  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 “Lebanon is drowning”, Al-Usbu‘a Al-‘Arabi, 14 August 1995. Much of this important article was rep (...)

4If the military presence directly imposed and protected Syrians, while political control meant shamelessly asymmetrical regulations, the oppressive Syrian presence meant that it was impossible to engage in proper debate. The whole issue was outside the proper “frame of discussion and research in view of its multiple connections with the unbalanced relationship between the ruling political class and Syria”, a relationship which was not considered in regard to this issue “suited to the national interest”, in that Lebanon received things—i.e. workers—that it did not demand. The “decision-makers” who try to justify the situation are wrong to insist that the Lebanese are lazy, culturally or socially incapable of doing strenuous work. Their idea that the presence of foreign labour is a sign that Lebanon is more prosperous than its neighbours should also be questioned. Instead the emergence of an economy strong in finance but with no industrial base and a heavy reliance on foreign labour meant a regression “towards the level of backward countries”.13 In fact, it was argued, reform should involve clearer regulations; fines for illegal entry; compulsory work permits; serious fines properly enforced for employers of illegal workers; enforcement of laws preventing foreign employment in various professions and specialities; social insurance for foreign workers covered by employers (a measure not just “humanitarian”, but aimed at increasing foreign workers’ price to make them less competitive); and, finally, taxation on foreign workers’ income.14

5The notion that Syria imposed its workers and the Lebanese would send them home if they possibly could was widespread and even a part of common sense in Lebanon by the early 2000s. Hence the joke – circulating in the early 2000s – about the Syrian who immediately made hundreds of dollars by begging with a sign saying “Need money for ticket back to Syria”.


  • 15 Al-Sharq, 1 July 1997.
  • 16 Cited by Michel Murqus, “Foreign Workers Remit $4.2 Billion Yearly Abroad”, Al-Nahar, 3 January 19 (...)

6The view that the Syrian state through military, political and ideological control played a key role in imposing a flood of unwanted Syrian migrants on Lebanon was always opposed, however, by a less popular “pro-Syrian” case which saw economics and the division of labour as playing the decisive role in Lebanese employment of Syrians. Nasri Khoury, for example, the General Secretary of the Syrian-Lebanese High Council responsible for cooperation and coordination with Syria, maintained that those who saw nothing but the hand of Syria in Lebanon’s absorption of Syrian migrants had “political goals and intentions”, for the economic reality was that “the Lebanese labour market requires this labour power”.15 ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, representing Syrian President Hafez al-Asad, in an interview in November 1995, maintained that “Labour going to Lebanon is damaging to the Syrian economy, and creates shortages and problems. Naturally it is not we who push this labour to go to Lebanon. Our Lebanese friends are the ones who open the way, because Lebanon was built on the basis of Syrian labour. Before the war, agriculture, and industry, and construction in Lebanon were all established on the basis of Syrian labour”.16

  • 17 Al-Diyâr, 2 February 1998.
  • 18 Al-Diyâr, 26 January 1998.

7Detailed support for these positions appeared in the Lebanese press as the controversy deepened in the late 1990s. Mikhail ‘Awwad’s articles, published in the pro-Syrian Al-Diyâr, form perhaps the strongest example. Syrian labour, he argued, appeared in Lebanon not for political reasons but because of the division of labour, and performed a much-needed function in the Lebanese economy, which had been structurally dependent on cheap foreign labour for decades – whether Syrian, Indian, Kurdish or Asian.17 ‘Awwad argued that Lebanese war-time emigration left a gap in the labour force which Syrians filled. He maintained that the war and militia culture had caused Lebanese workers to lose their work ethic and become lazy, expensive, and ineffective. The war had exacerbated individualism, “boss mentality”, intolerance and neglect, and in any case the Lebanese refused to take exhausting or shameful work, preferring consumption over production. The major growth sectors after the war, contracting and construction, had always been done with foreign labour in Lebanon. The political establishment, moreover, does not consider itself responsible for allocating investment or protecting labour power, but is committed to market-based organization based on profit. This encouraged employers, already suffering from wartime crisis, to abandon any social obligation to protect or train its labour force. In fact, Syrian labour has presented a golden opportunity to Lebanese employers and post-war reconstruction. Legal and other costs are minimal, and it is distinguished by high productivity, as well as professional and academic skills. A great number of specialists have graduated from Syrian schools and institutes, and exist in a public sector experienced in high-quality infrastructural projects. These skilled masters and workers have been just what the Lebanese market seeks.18

  • 19 Al-Diyâr, 26 January 1998.
  • 20 Ibid.

8In fact, Syrian seasonal labour in Lebanon, according to ‘Awwad, represented a positive process of globalization. “While it is said”, he wrote, “that there are tens of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon […] there are more than 600 thousand Egyptian workers in Syria […] and 1.5 million Sudanese in Egypt”. Lebanon, too, has long exported and received labour power and benefited from forms of regional integration: “from ancient times, Lebanon is considered the greatest country in the world for emigration and the export of labour power in proportion to the number of its population.” In the 1950s, the Lebanese economy was built on the shoulders of the Arabs: Syrian capitalists fleeing nationalisation, oil money searching for financial services, and summer tourists. Further, as many as 400,000 Syrians worked in Lebanon under proper regulations until 1975.19 His position, finally, allowed him to charge the “pro-Lebanese” Al-Nahar with double standards. “The Lebanese economy is based on the free-market, and Al-Nahar is the first and greatest defender of this. The free-market means freedom to exchange goods and work, and freedom to remit and to leave the market to decide prices and values of commodities, and labour power is a commodity which submits entirely to the laws of the market, just as any other commodity.” Why, therefore, were those opposed to Syrian workers in Lebanon making an exception to their philosophy on this point only?20


9The controversy over Syrian workers in Lebanon, therefore, ascribed sharply opposed roles to the state. The “pro-Lebanese” position depicted a Lebanese state subordinated to an all-powerful Syrian state which had the power to impose its labour force on its struggling neighbour. In the “pro-Syrian” position, the power of the state was effaced, and the economic laws of supply and demand tended to be seen as determining. Both sides, it is worth noting here, called for more effective regulation of the labour market, and both sides assumed that migration based on the market was or would be a social good.

  • 21 See, for example, Salwa Ba‘albaki, “The Departure of Syrian Labour from Lebanon: Blessing or Curse (...)

10The fact that Syrian workers laboured in very large numbers in Lebanon both before the Syrian intervention of 1976, and have now returned in significant numbers after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005, would seem to validate the “pro-Syrian” position by showing that Syrian control could never in reality impose a workforce on Lebanon, and the basic determinants of the migration were associated with the workings of the free market and the division of labour. Moreover, now that Syrian workers are no longer a political football in the politics of Syrian control, which has melted away, the “pro-Lebanese” press in the Spring and Summer of 2005 broadly admitted that the Lebanese agriculture, construction, industry, and services could not do without those cheap, hard-working and productive Syrian workers.21 In short, it is tempting to accept a basically economic understanding of Syrian migration to Lebanon, dismiss those “pro-Lebanese” as playing politics, consider the “pro-Syrian” case to be hard-headed, perhaps, but ultimately more plausible. As I aim to show in the rest of this paper, however, this analysis, like that of the pro-Lebanese position, is highly problematic.


  • 22 For example, even those who champion these statistics, such as Michel Murqus – writing in Al-Nahar(...)
  • 23 Adib Mahrus, Interview, 9 March 2004. My interviewee was probably trying to impress on me the comm (...)

11In general terms, since Syria and Lebanon gained independence, the borders between the two countries have been kept open for Syrian migrant workers by successive governments in both countries. Exit taxes, work permits, entry visas and residence permits have been either cheap, easy to come by, or easy to avoid for three generations of workers. Even the numbers of Syrian arrivals and departures are not recorded – at least in the 1990s and 2000s, but probably before – with much accuracy by General Security.22 I have interviewed numerous workers who have crossed the border since the 1940s, and they all tell a very similar story. Adib Mahrus, for example, who took unskilled and semi-skilled work in construction in Lebanon from the late 1960s to the 1990s, and worked as a concierge until 2005, told me: “In regards to this country [Lebanon] from Homs to Golan, there have been no borders between us […] the borders are always open […] in the time of Camille Chamoun, in the time of Chehab, and in the time of Frangieh […] the borders have always been open. You go straight through. There are no checkpoints. There is no entry security. There are open borders!”23

  • 24 During bi-lateral negotiations with Syria in the summer of 1950, “Beirut still demands the free mo (...)
  • 25 Kamal Matar, Al-Sayyad, 27 March 1972.
  • 26 Political hostility trumped the supposed virtues of laissez-faire economics when it came to the Pa (...)

12In keeping with the laissez-faire orientation of the “merchant republic”, Beirut tended to seek the free movement of goods and persons in its relations with Damascus, a goal which included the unrestricted movement of cheap Syrian labour into Lebanon.24 In June 1947, for example, Gabriel Murr, the Lebanese Minister of Public Works, explained that Syrian work in Lebanon is not put under any restriction, and that “25 % of the workers on the building sites of the Ministry of Public Works are Syrian” (cited in Chami, 2002: 207). It was thought natural that the “Switzerland of the East” should attract labour from less well-off neighboring countries, and the Lebanese economic miracle required cheap, unskilled labour in any case, which could not, it was held, be supplied from within Lebanon for demographic, economic and cultural reasons. Wrangling over currency, smuggling, transit dues, wheat, and troop incursions did not significantly affect the open border for migrants. One commentator developed the economic argument as follows: a Lebanese economy dominated by services could not supply sufficient unskilled labour, and thus manual labour was required on a permanent basis from the outside. Cheap external labour was required because in an unplanned economy like Lebanon’s the prices of basic commodities would always exceed wages. In construction, a skilled Lebanese electrician or tiler always required a number of unskilled Syrians to assist. The indispensability of Syrian labour was only underlined by the fact that their absence during the summer of 1969 because of an economic blockade imposed by Damascus during the Lebanese-Syrian conflict over the Palestinians, caused a delay in the construction of the Fu’ad Shihab bridge, according to the engineer Ayli Sha’iyya. Likewise, during that summer, wages for manual labour doubled because of the Syrian scarcity, which meant that contractors had to stop work.25 For Edouard Saab, writing in Le Jour in 1952, culture was more important: the Lebanese refused through pride to take just any work (cited in: Chami, 2002: 433) and therefore labour from abroad was necessary. This overall political and social vision was strongly underpinned by the search for cheap labour by business interests in Lebanon, including the substantial Syrian bourgeoisie who had taken Lebanese citizenship to escape Syrian socialism from the 1960s onwards.26

  • 27 There is a brief reference to this in M. E. Sales (Sales, 1978: 63).
  • 28 The pipeline, carrying oil from Saudi Arabia, terminated between Tyre and Saida in Lebanon. Syria’ (...)

13As for Syria, successive governments favoured out-migration and return, primarily because of the economic benefits of remittances. Fears about loss of skilled labour referred to Syrian migration to the Gulf and the West27 but not to unskilled labour in Lebanon. Both countries understood well each others’ mutual interests in allowing cheap Syrian workers into Lebanon, and hence occasionally admissions were offered and restrictions threatened as a bargaining chip in bi-lateral relations. Hence, when Gabriel Murr sought to persuade the Syrians to authorize the passage through Syrian territory and into Lebanon of an important oil pipeline, he promised both an equal division of the profits and said that “we are going to accept Syrian labour power on the building sites and installations of the company on the same conditions as the Lebanese employees and workers” (cited in Chami, 2002: 207).28 Labour admission on good terms was therefore offered as an incentive to the Syrians to sign the accord, which they duly did. To pick another example, in September 1959, Syria retaliated against a Lebanese refusal to allow Syrians to travel by Beirut airport without a Syrian exit visa by raising the exit tax and imposing security validation for Syrians coming to Lebanon, which forced 700 Syrians – mostly workers – to turn back at the border (cited in Chami, 2002: 61). Damascus correctly understood this restriction to be harmful to Lebanese interests seeking the free flow of cheap labour into Lebanon.


14Although the official borders of Lebanon remained open after 1975, two new factors emerged during the civil war. Syrian workers had worked all over Lebanon before 1975, including in Christian areas, which were, in any case, less homogeneously Christian than they were to become during and after the war (Nasr, 2003: 148ff). But with the coming of civil war in 1975, the breakdown of the authority of the state, the emergence of militias, and the advent of “identity card” killings – murder by communitarian affiliation – Syrian workers, above all in Christian areas, found themselves summarily killed or in danger thereof because of their Syrian nationality. The first massacres occurred at the hands of the kata’ib seeking to control the northern entrance to Beirut in January 1976 in the Karantina slum, where perhaps around 4,000 Syrians lived (Bourgey and Phares, 1973: 115). Christian, even Maronite Syrians were killed or threatened, even after Syria had intervened in 1976 to prevent the defeat of the Christians. Hence Phalangist militias were fiercely and exclusively nationalistic – in the name of the “land of the cedars” – which for them was under extreme threat by Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, and Syrians, regardless of certain tactical moves made by the “sphinx of Damascus”, or the sectarian affiliation of certain Syrians. Ethnic cleansing, associated with a violent ethno-nationalism, therefore, made many Christian areas largely off-limits to Syrian workers during much of the civil war.

  • 29 In 1982, $1 still equalled only 3.7 Lebanese Pounds (Bourgey, 1985: 33).
  • 30 The purchasing power of the minimum wage fell drastically between 1984 and 1987. In 1984 the purch (...)
  • 31 To pick one example, see Ibrahim ‘Awwadi, “50 thousand workers remit about a billion pounds per ye (...)
  • 32 Al-Safir, 28 August 1986.

15A second important and usually unnoticed innovation of the years after 1982 was a growing hostility to foreign labour in Lebanon in the press and the public at large. As a general phenomenon, this was new, and quite different to the pre-1975 expansive outlook, which had applied to all but the Palestinians. Developing xenophobia was intimately bound up with the economic crisis and the search for scapegoats. In 1983, the once proud Lebanese Pound began a long and precipitous descent,29 budget and trade deficits, debt, unemployment, and inflation intensified.30 Foreign workers were dubbed a “dreadful army”, invading the country in vast numbers (although the numbers were tiny relative to pre-war years). Foreigners were said to steal Lebanese jobs, while the war-ravaged Lebanese were left unemployed and immiserated, with the Lebanese Pound now taking a drubbing from remittances.31 These attitudes brought renewed pressure for regulation. Salim Hoss, the Minister of Labour finally issued law no. 261 in August 1986 preventing the employment of foreign labour in a variety of professions except those involving skills scarce in Lebanon. His adviser told a national daily that the measure was intended to protect Lebanese labour and to support the national economy at a time of economic and social crisis and in the wake of protests, demonstrations and sit-ins by those who believe that the state should ensure their subsistence and solve the crisis.32 The authorities had been moved to act, although as far as anyone knows, these difficult-to-enforce measures made little difference in hiring practices regarding Syrian workers on the ground.

16The open door was maintained anew with the end of the civil war, the 1989 Ta’ef Accords, and the era of reconstruction and Syrian control. Ethnic cleansing petered out. The dream (or nightmare) of an all-Christian Lebanon was over, and after the crushing of General Michel ‘Aoun by Syria given the green light by the United States because of Gulf War coalition-building, and with the disarming of the Christian militias, murdering Syrians became difficult, futile or irrelevant. Syrian workers, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, trickled back into the Christian areas to work hard for low-wages. But with economic crisis never far away, and with the urgent desire to create a new, unified and prosperous Lebanon, demands for labour regulation continued. These demands were intensified with respect to Syrian workers, especially as the 1990s wore on, as Syrian control started to lose its aura of indispensability and invincibility and as such workers became a political football for those opposed to Syrian control in Lebanon.

  • 33 The agreement was signed 18 October 1994 (Tinaoui, 1994: 108). For a copy of the agreement, see Al (...)

17But no real regulatory restriction was forthcoming. In fact, the open door was rationalized by the 1994 Bilateral Labour Agreement effectively allowing Syrians, unlike other foreigners, to acquire work visa and residency in a single card, cheaply and quickly, at the border.33 The Agreement stipulated that workers should have a work contract, but this was not a condition for the issue of the temporary work and residence visa on the border. Since the border was the only place where the state routinely encountered workers (as employers were hardly interested in reporting their own workers where state intervention was minimal), then it is easy to see how the work permit requirement was a dead letter, and this must have been reasonably clear to those who drafted the legislation. In practice at the border workers merely had to assert (where it was not automatically assumed) that they were temporary seasonal labour, and they were issued with a card and stamped in. As a consequence, very few Syrian workers have had work permits.

  • 34 One author maintains that Lebanon – the source does not say who exactly – requested that “Syrian l (...)

18Business in Lebanon – including that controlled by Syrians – relied on a cheap, manipulable and disposable labour force, and so stood opposed to the potential “hassles” of written work permits – through which workers might lay claim to protection and even social insurance, if Article 8 of the Bilateral Labour Agreement was to be honoured34. Workers were required on the cheap, to be easily hired and fired, and to work long and variable hours at variable times and intensities in greatly variable numbers. The regulation was aimed at regulating and regularising this situation, in which larger numbers of workers were already making their way in and out of Lebanon and where post-war reconstruction was building momentum. Reconstruction and “globalization” played their part. In a newly competitive regional environment occasioned by the rise of financial and commercial centres in the Gulf, Prime Minister and billionaire Rafiq al-Hariri’s wrangles in Arab and European capitals to raise investments for reconstruction, were assisted – in an age of considerable capital-mobility – by the promise of cheap labour in Lebanon, which in regard to construction especially, inevitably meant Syrians. One reliable academic estimated the value of Syrian labour to Lebanese business at more than $1 billion per annum (Picard, 2002: 193). Such powerful interests had little time for restrictive labour regulation.

19Finally, the Syrian regime held the ring in Lebanon, and aside from powerful Syrian interests in the Lebanese economy itself, a Syria beset with economic difficulties and dwindling revenues (problems compounded by the loss of its Soviet patron in 1991), was increasingly interested in allowing migration because of the remittances which workers brought – to the tune of $700 million-$1 billion per annum (Dagher, 2000: 189) – which both boosted the economy (accounting for 8 % of Syrian GDP) [Picard, 2002: 193] and tax revenues, and acted as a political safety-valve, whereby the mass of the Syrian population, finding avenues of socio-economic advance (rather than unemployment and immiseration), might keep out of politics for the time being. This situation endured, amid rising protest about the putative political, economic and social effects of a “flood” of Syrian workers in Lebanon, until the weeks following the assassination, many believed by Syria, of Rafiq al-Hariri on 14 February 2005. Fearing for the security of life and property at the hands of wrathful Lebanese young men, many Syrians left Lebanon during the Spring. But Lebanese anger lacked organization and leadership and so although there were many violent incidents, there were few fatalities. Large numbers of Syrian workers had returned by late 2005, and there is no reason to believe that the new bi-lateral regulations will close the door to Syrian workers, although they may subject their work to closer regulation and even some protection, if the Lebanese Labour Minister, Trad Hamadeh, gets his way.

20Since World War II, then, the two states of the historic Bilad al-sham have maintained an open door for Syrian migration. The open border did not result throughout, or even in the 1990s, solely from the overweening power of Syria. Nor, on the other side, should one assume that the open border was somehow a product of the free market. The relatively autonomous policies of the respective states, changing social and political visions, the demands of international and local capital accumulation, geopolitics, and the long-standing integration and mutual dependency of the Syrian and Lebanese economies have all played important roles at different times. Tax revenues and political stability have depended on accumulation (whether through private or public agency), and accumulation has been best fostered, in the eyes of both states, by the open border. The state’s role has therefore been to provide a necessary condition for the ongoing cycle of migration and return through border policy. Syrian power in the 1990s was important, but Hafez al-Asad did not simply impose the open border in the 1990s. He merely continued a pre-existing situation, admittedly in the face of rising protest, while relying on the extended collusion, as Samir Kassir has it, of the Lebanese elite at the domestic level (Kassir, 2003: 102), and the geopolitical and economic dimensions of the unipolar world of the 1990s and the Gulf War of 1991, at the international level.

  • 35 For a good example of this kind of reasoning regarding kata’ib self-criticism over isolationism se (...)

21Interestingly, the only time when parts of Lebanon were effectively barred from Syrians had little to do with the state or the economy, and everything to do with the power of violently ethno-nationalist Christian militias. Yet, even this ethno-nationalism was coaxed from its isolationism by economic necessity: no small, isolated Christian enclave state could be economically viable. It would have to breathe through its Arab and Islamic hinterland, not just through Israel and the sea.35


22Border policies allowed migration to take place, but could not be said to have driven or caused the migration itself in any strong sense. For this one has to delve into goals and intentions of the migrants themselves, and the differential economic and social terrain with which they interacted in migration and return. This enquiry leads us, counter-intuitively enough, back to the state.

  • 36 The evidence for this section has been gathered through dozens of usually recorded interviews with (...)
  • 37 Tony Elias, interview, 12 August 2004.

23Repeated interviews with Syrian workers give strong support to the unexceptional notion that they migrate to Lebanon seeking jobs and wage-rates unavailable in Syria.36 But migration to Lebanon represents not a search for cash per se, but for the wherewithal to acquire valued social goods, such as a home, a good marriage, children, education, consumer goods, land, and/or a small business, along with the independence, respect and recognition associated with such social goods. Most depart with goals and ideas bound up with their existing, dense interrelationships of kin and locality, with all their demands and expectations. As Tony Elias recounted about his feelings as a teenager during his first days in the big city as he delivered groceries by bicycle on Hamra in Beirut in 1969: “I was very happy [...] I would think to myself ‘If only the kids from the village could see me!’ ”37 The power of village ties and forms of recognition is expressed in the flow of remittances home and the thrift and discipline of the workers abroad. The patrimonial and dependant fear that migrant husbands or sons in a strange country away from home will turn to alcohol, womanizing, and gambling is a constitutive part of these ties of recognition and obligation, and a disciplinary mode for the exiled migrant. These are some of the hazards that the honourable and decent migrant is supposed to avoid. The idea is not to escape, leaving all ties behind, to a new life of individual consumption and personal freedom in a new society. Most claim to feel at home in Syria, are strongly embedded in ties of kin and locality, and are not primarily or in the first instance compelled by the cultural model of Lebanon. The notion of increased personal freedom is attractive to some, but it is a subordinate good compared to the values of family, home and independence back home in Syria which are more important, and certainly seen as more legitimate, in the longer run. Individual pleasure through consumption is really not a practical option for the overwhelming majority of unskilled Syrian workers in Lebanon, whose earnings remain insufficient for such consumerist aspirations. Although figures are lacking, and exceptions do exist of course, most migrants have put their money where their mouth is, worked hard, saved up, and sent cash home. As far as anyone has access to adequate statistics, most return.

24Syrian migrants return, in part, because the only place where they can secure the social goods they value is in Syria. This is not just because these social goods are bound up with the notion that Syria is home. Initial notions are occasionally, in practice, transformed where opportunities open up and circumstances change. However, for most, settlement in Lebanon is extremely difficult, and this is a tremendous structural force for return. Why? Not because of Lebanese hostility and chauvinism towards Syrians. If it was so, how could waves of Syrian bourgeoisie have settled in Lebanon since the 1960s? What emerges from interviews is that the reason lies in the difference between social costs – primarily in housing, health, education, and leisure – in Lebanon and similar social costs in Syria. Male workers who can bear the humiliation of dirty clothes and slum living, who can conveniently return to Syria for medicine and treatment, and who do not have any dependants in Lebanon to educate or otherwise take care of, and whose ties of reciprocity and hospitality are limited, can accept, at least temporarily, living in a kind of social exile in Lebanon. Hence the Karantina slum in the early 1970s contained groups of 5-6 Syrian men living together in huts for several months at a time, leaving their wives and children at home in the villages of Jabal Alawi, the Aleppo region, and the Hawran, and working on a temporary basis mostly in construction (Bourgey and Phares, 1973: 132). To settle in Lebanon, on the other hand, which tends to mean bringing a family, marrying, renting a flat in a better neighbourhood, purchasing consumer goods, better clothes and furniture, engaging in social reciprocity and hospitality, paying for education, and for the kinds of treatment – such as care during childbirth – which cannot be easily acquired from Syria, and using local transport, these things are too expensive for most unskilled and semi-skilled migrants. Only special circumstances or more unusual advances in employment can secure such mobility. These social costs force Syrians to return, and help to reproduce Syria as home, and Lebanon as a kind of exile (ightirab). This is particularly so because in Syria, the same social goods are cheaper through state subsidies.

25The engine-room of Syrian migration and return is therefore in crucial ways supplied by the aspirations and demands of the migrants themselves. Migrants are not created ex nihilo by the whims of elites or by state policies. They are not the pawns of policy-makers, who do not force or cause people to migrate, nor are they driven by the whip-hand of hunger to Lebanon. Instead, hundreds of thousands of persons take decisions to migrate and return, decisions heavily embedded within structures of social relations, acculturation, expectations, obligation, power, and scarcity. But precisely where we seem to be in the domain of society, economy, and popular agency, the state makes a re-appearance, as-it-were, through the back door.


26Needs and aspirations batten onto and are influenced by an existing social and economic structure. On the one side, the Syrian economy offers neither wages nor jobs to satisfy aspirations and family needs, whereas the Lebanese economy at least holds out a promise to Syrians in this regard. And on the other, social costs are far higher in Lebanon than in Syria. This social and economic structure is not an inert or natural phenomenon, but in many respects the result of state policy from the 1960s onwards.

27Although Lebanon, and more specifically the regional port city and financial centre of Beirut had eclipsed inland Damascus in wealth in the nineteenth century, and forged its own forms of political autonomy, it is easy to forget how similar the political economy of Syria and Lebanon were in the early years of independence. Both had been under Ottoman rule for hundreds of years, had seen versions of notable politics from the eighteenth century onwards, and had been French mandates for about a quarter century. As Elizabeth Picard puts it, moreover, in both polities, republican parliamentarism co-existed with, and was undermined by, pervasive clientelism. Until 1948, both countries used the same currency and until 1950 formed a single customs union. Their economies were mainly agricultural, and outward oriented, backed by landowners, new industrialists, and merchants (Picard, 2006). Employment provision and wage rates were not radically dissimilar in both countries and significant forms of social protection and redistribution were not part of Syrian or Lebanese state policy.

28Even during the 1950s, there was little significant overall divergence regarding factors relevant to labour migration. Both countries were capital-friendly and non-redistributive in different ways until the early 1960s. Lebanon’s “merchant republic” was a minimalist and not a developmentalist state. It did not attempt to deepen “competitive market institutions”, or develop manufacturing or agriculture, or engage in social redistribution. The state was oriented to, and gave support to banking and financial services, and warehousing and import trade. The government thus supported a strong Lebanese Pound, which did nothing to make exports competitive. These policies stemmed from the “economic and political interests of the dominant elite”. (Gates, 1998: 2-7; see also Shehadi, 1987)

29Syria initially took a different kind of capital-friendly approach. Whereas the powerful import/export merchants of Beirut favoured a strong currency and were not interested in supporting manufacturing, the more powerful, war-rich industrialists of Damascus and Aleppo favoured state control of the currency to defend manufacturing, factors which lay behind Syria’s exit from the Franc zone, and the break up of the customs union in 1950 (Picard, 2006). From that time, entrepreneurship and state intervention in Syria went hand in hand, as Yahya Sadowski argued, “delivering public works and infrastructure which were crucial to the early phases of industrialization and meeting the challenge of foreign competition” (Sadowski, 1984: abstract). In other words, Syria’s political economy, although distinguishing itself from that of Lebanon in some respects, was merely setting out a different kind of capital-friendly programme, which, like that of Lebanon, had few significant redistributive elements.

30Decisive divergence only came in the 1960s. In Syria, the balance of political forces started to change with electoral victories for the Ba’th Party in 1954, and the popular demonstrations in reaction to Tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956. But Nasserist land reform under the United Arab Republic (1958-61) was limited, and the nationalisation of 1961 only involved a few industrial companies (Picard, 2006). Real change came when an anti-oligarchic alliance of a radicalised lower middle class, officer corps, and peasants came to power with the Ba’thist coup of March 1963 (Hinnebusch, 2001: 2) spelling the downfall of the traditional notables, and a shift from state support of capitalist production to a state takeover of production. An open confrontation developed between the Syrian business community and the new radical populist regime (Picard, 2006). May 1963 saw bank nationalisation and exchange control. By January 1965, 90 % of industrial companies had been taken over by the state. An extensive land reform was enacted between 1963 and 1966. By 1967, 80 % of external trade was in state hands. Private capitalists were excluded and repressed.

31These politics inaugurated a dramatic divergence between the Syrian and Lebanese political economies. Syria lost a significant section of its capitalist bourgeoisie, as tens of thousands of wealthy families left the country, taking their capital with them. A severe economic crisis followed. Syria had become unfriendly to private capital. Lebanese capitalism, on the other hand, was the principal beneficiary, as many Syrians settled in Lebanon, bringing with them perhaps 500 million L.P. in capital, and soon playing a significant role in the command posts of the Lebanese economy. For example, in 1971, 22 out of 70 bank directors in Lebanon were of Syrian origin (Picard, 2006; Ghosn, 2003). Perhaps it was no coincidence that Lebanon entered one of its most prosperous periods, and that during the second half of the 1960s the numbers of Syrians – mostly workers – crossing the border into Lebanon increased without precedent (L.S.C. 1973, n.d.: 68-71).

  • 38 See the monumental Elias Al-Buwari (Buwari, 1987). For a brief history of the communists see Ayyub (...)
  • 39 Consider, for instance, the Intrabank crash of 1966, which did significant damage to the Lebanese (...)
  • 40 For a sketch of the social crisis involved see Nasr, 1978: 3-13. Oligarchic control of sugar beet (...)

32Lebanese capitalism was forced to make some concessions to new political forces during the same period, but nothing which would significantly transform the political economy of the country. Some of the social protections first demanded by communists in the 1920s were finally conceded under the Presidency of Fu’ad Chehab (1958-1964), following the upheavals of 1958 and ongoing strikes and protests. A social security fund was eventually decreed by the cabinet in 1963, with contributions from the state, employers and workers. The fund was to provide support in case of sickness or accident and end of service compensation, and was planned to include most workers by 1969.38 But the social fund did not change the central political economy of Lebanon as new social policies had done in Syria. The former remained a capital friendly country – especially for capital in an oligarchic form39 – with some patchy measures of social protection, which employers now sought to avoid by employing cheap Syrians, who were excluded from the social fund. But there was no land reform, there were few subsidies on transport and none on basic commodities, whose price was forced up by mercantile-oligarchical practice, health and education remained mostly private and expensive, and urban slums expanded throughout the economic “miracle”.40

  • 41 Batatu (1999: 5). In the same vein, Volker Perthes writes that “rural living conditions have impro (...)
  • 42 Although my research has not focused on this issue, my (much less extensive) findings are similar (...)
  • 43 On the expansion of rural health care which achieved reductions in the crude death rate and infant (...)
  • 44 But note that eggs, meat, poultry, and most fruits and vegetables were still marketed through midd (...)

33In Syria, on the other hand, peasants, the poor, and the disenfranchised saw real redistribution and genuine forms of social protection during these years. Not for nothing did Batatu’s study speak of “the marked interest of its regime in the welfare of the country people, explicable by the regime’s rural roots and rural constituency”.41 Syrian land reform, of course, has been subjected to various criticisms. It is true that the measures did not affect all peasants equally, and the land redistributed was often not the best and insufficient. Moreover, the reform often involved a land-grab by the state, it presaged the arrival of agricultural cooperatives which could be inefficient and heavy-handed, and did not necessarily stem from the purest of motives. Nonetheless, numerous poor families gained land and a measure of income, independence and dignity which were unknown to them during the age of the iqta’iyyin (the “feudalists”).42 Reform may not have been a panacea for the satisfaction of peasant aspirations, but it in some sense recognized their right to have aspirations. Ba’thist government also meant in varying degrees “employment, a system of health care, and an education, all provided by the authorities” (Tinaoui, 1994: 108)43 as well as “real gains in a number of other important areas” (Batatu, 1999: 63): subsidized electricity (especially for commercial farms), clean water and sanitation, and a communications infrastructure in rural areas (Batatu, 1999: 63-70). Finally, the government began to set every year official procurement prices for the major crops, which involved a net subsidy to most small farmers, as well as providing seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at concessionary prices. These measures protected small-holders against international price fluctuations and helped prevent merchant hoarding, speculation and profiteering – a scourge of the rural past (Batatu, 1999: 42; 47).44

  • 45 For the war economy see Picard, 2000; Trabulsi, 1994.

34The policies of the 1960s and 1970s, therefore, established the key differentials in wages, jobs and social protection which structured Syrian workers’ large-scale migration and return. Neither the civil war, Syria’s first and second infitah, nor the period of post-war reconstruction in Lebanon, have drastically altered these basic structures. In spite of the breakdown of the authority of the state, violent struggles between militias, foreign interference, intervention and invasion, large-scale destruction, insecurity and loss of life, the Lebanese economy continued to provide jobs – although no one knows how many – to Syrian workers after 1975, especially in construction during periodic re-building. The surprisingly resilient “war economy” was based on militia protection and pillage backed by foreign sources of income combined with lucrative trade in arms, smuggling, and drugs along with remittances from abroad, alone accounting for more than half the Lebanese GDP in 1981 (Bourgey, 1985: 7).45 Militias also undertook to provide social services to those under their “protection”, in some respects in a more systematic way than the state whose authority they had usurped (Harik, 1994; Kalemkerian, 2004). Nonetheless, the collapse of the purchasing power of the minimum wage through the 1980s ensured that social costs in Lebanon remained deleteriously high for the mass of the population (Hamdan, 1989: 27).

  • 46 Some of the data, incidentally, contradict the image of a runaway demographic increase. As Courbag (...)
  • 47 Heydemann writes that “Austerity programs have led to cut-backs in social spending, yet large-scal (...)
  • 48 Courbage (1994: 739-40; 746). Indirect payments for books, supplies, clothes and transport are not (...)

35The limited economic liberalization represented in the first and second Syrian infitah, during the 1970s and the 1990s, respectively, were aimed at attracting investment and incorporating politically the Sunni urban elite marginalised after the 1963 coup. These policies have enriched a number of nouveaux riches close to the regime, especially during the 1990s following Law No. 10 of May 1991, but they have not caused structural economic change or brought in substantial amounts of capital held abroad – whether Syrian or foreign. A capital-poor economy has not been able to provide employment for the growing population, and a weak currency has kept wages low compared to Lebanon (Perthes, 1995: 63ff.).46 Liberalization has been cautious, partly because of consciousness about the negative results of “shock therapy”: hyperinflation, economic crime, social and economic crisis, and political instability (Zisser, 2001: 195). In this context, social provision has only been partially eroded.47 In education, for example, it is true that government spending per pupil, and on teachers’ salaries, diminished in real terms during the 1980s and early 1990s, but schooling remains free at the point of provision: 98 % of primary schools and 90 % of secondary schools were state-run in the early 1990s.48 The same is broadly true of health provision, although in this and other areas of social welfare, disparities between town and country remain (Perthes, 1995: 93). The government has paid some attention to maintaining and improving the social and physical infrastructure. During the mid-1990s, for example, there were major new investments in electricity, water, communications, transport, investment and health (Zisser, 2001: 189). Overall, while jobs remain relatively scarce, social costs in Syria compared to Lebanon remain low.

  • 49 These were the main goals of the $11.7 billion (at constant 1992 dollars) ten year plan for recons (...)
  • 50 These intimate connections are well described in Reinoud Leenders (Leenders, 2003).

36As for Lebanon, the goal of post-war reconstruction was to rebuild the country by providing efficient public administration, a state-of-the-art physical infrastructure, acceptable social infrastructure and aid to agriculture and industry, which together were aimed at drawing in private sector investment which would in future provide prosperity and growing revenue, ensuring budget surpluses, a strong currency, and macroeconomic stability.49 In reality, there was an intimate intertwining of state agency and capital accumulation – a process personified by the billionaire and several times Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and witnessed by widespread complaints about corruption.50 In some respects, the state became a bureau for the support of capital accumulation. Capital for the physical infrastructure was mainly raised through deals with foreign governments, non-free market investment funds, and through issuing government T-bills to Lebanese banks at high rates of interest. Foreign companies who won tenders took a cut and then contracted the work back to Lebanese business, often via political connections. The Lebanese Pound, which had been in free-fall, was stabilised for the time being – which kept wages for Syrians relatively high – although some argued that the exchange rate remained too high (Dagher, 2000: 93). Rafiq al-Hariri’s financial and political clout more or less guaranteed the development of Beirut central business district, which did attract private capital, and helped finance a short-lived real-estate boom in the mid-1990s, providing jobs for cheap and manipulable Syrian labour.

  • 51 By 1997, “funding problems had forced the Hariri government to effectively suspend the implementat (...)

37The expected budget surpluses did not emerge by the mid-1990s, external debt grew in leaps and bounds, recession set in, and plans to provide “acceptable” social infrastructure and aid to productive sectors never materialised in any significant form.51 Industry and agriculture absorbed a smaller proportion of imports in 1995 than they had in 1964, and consumption a larger proportion (République Libanaise, 1996: 5), and the same trend continued according to statistics from 1998 (République Libanaise, 1999b: 5). Social costs continued to be very high or increased, especially when the government, strapped for cash, started to shift the burden onto the mass of the population further by extending indirect taxes, such as that on fuel (Najem, 2000: 59). Medical costs were therefore so high that 58 % of residents were credibly estimated to be without medical cover in 1997 (République Libanaise, 1998: 58). Average costs for government schools including books and transport were $280 per annum, and for private schools, $1,509 per annum (République Libanaise, 1998: 56-7). Education and health took up more than a fifth of the budget of the “average household” (République Libanaise, 1998: 73). Even the poorest households spent 19 % of their budget on health and education (République Libanaise, 1999a: 29). The Lebanon of reconstruction was a Lebanon of “a wealthy, extrovert, spending and ostentatious minority” on the one side, and a “pauperized, expanding minority” on the other (Nasr, 2003: 143).

38In short, from the 1960s to the present, state policy has played a crucial role in creating the conditions for the cycle of migration and return. Ba’thist Syria’s restrictions on capital and subsidies for workers’ social costs, and Lebanon’s defence of capital and lack of social re-distribution formed in large measure the social and economic terrain dominating Syrian migrants’ cycle of migration and return. Capital-friendly policies in Lebanon were a major factor in creating job opportunities and a stronger currency in Lebanon, while capital restrictions in Syria limited such opportunities and weakened the currency. Higher wages in Lebanon attracted workers, while high social costs in Lebanon (in health, education, housing etc), resulting from non-redistributive policy, drove Syrians home, where social redistribution has kept such social goods cheap. This social and economic landscape was not a natural or purely “economic” development, but a product of the political and economic transformations and state policies of the 1960s and later.


39In order to identify the role of the state in Syrian workers’ migration to Lebanon, this paper has argued, against a common view in the Lebanese public sphere, that Syrian migrants were not imposed in any more than a limited sense on a recalcitrant Lebanon by an all-powerful Syrian state during the 1990s. On the other hand, there is only a superficial validity to the more pro-Syrian claim that Syrian workers’ migration patterns resulted from the operations of the free market and had nothing to do with state policies. The open border between Syria and Lebanon was a result of both states’ policies, which were in turn a result not just of Syrian control, but also of the economy, social interests, international shifts, and state logics linked to revenue and stability. In short, behind the state, one finds the economy. But the open border was only a necessary condition for the migration and return of Syrian workers. More significantly, migration and return was actually driven by a combination of popular aspirations and the changing political economy. Hence, since the 1960s, capital-friendly but non-redistributive policies in Lebanon, and capital-unfriendly but redistributive policies in Syria have played a crucial role in creating a social and economic terrain where wages and jobs are relatively abundant in Lebanon, whereas social goods, such as education and health, are relatively abundant in Syria. Syrian workers go to Lebanon to acquire wages and jobs but cannot settle there with their families because of social costs. They therefore suspend – in certain salient senses – their social lives, work hard, save up, and return to Syria where they can acquire valued social goods much more cheaply. Thus, behind the economy, stood the state.

40Although the argument has come far from the terms of the original controversy in the Lebanese press, we are, I submit, in a far better position to understand the role of the state in the flow of migration and return. Rather than reifying the categories “state” and “economy”, and therefore expecting migration to be a matter, above all, of one or the other, it has been productive here to retain analytical distinctions between state and economic logics, while showing how these forms have combined in various ways to produce, together with popular aspirations, migration patterns. Syro-Lebanese economic interdependence in respect of labour therefore was neither a figment of the pro-Syrian political imaginary of “two states, one people”, nor an inert or natural result of economic and demographic “facts on the ground”. The political imaginary on the one side, and the “economic facts” on the other were both a product of shifting relationships between accumulation, state logics, and popular aspirations. In short this chapter makes a pitch for the utility of political economy in the study of migration. Indeed, it should now be possible to accept that absent major events exogenous to the Syro-Lebanese connection, unless domestic socio-economic policies change fundamentally, the cycle of migration and return will continue, a cycle accounted for not by Syrian control on the one hand, nor simply by “the economy”, on the other but crucially by state policies in both countries with economic consequences. Any thoroughgoing infitah in Syria, or any thoroughgoing socialisation of Lebanese capitalism would be the decisive move(s) in fundamentally transforming or disrupting existing patterns of migration between the two “brotherly” countries of the historic Bilad al-sham. Interestingly, therefore, the policies that dominate the principal lines of the migration are not directly concerned with immigration, borders, citizenship, work permits and the like, but are concerned with domestic policy vis-à-vis capital and social protection.



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1 Neither country has had an embassy in the other since independence, a concrete expression of the idea that the peoples of the historic bilad al-sham (Syria) are so intimately linked that they should not treat each other as sovereign nation-states.

2 This explains the lock on such jobs by Syrians, according to a young bus driver’s assistant during a conversation with me on the Corniche in Beirut. Conversation, 19 February 2004.

3 Scarlet Haddad, “Who’s afraid of Syrian labour in Lebanon?”, L’Orient Le Jour, 13 June 1994.

4 Conversation, 21 February 2004.

5 Interview, Rita Yazigi, 11 March 2004.

6 Ibid.

7 Carol Samaha, “Foreign labour competes with Lebanese labour in the absence of official protection”, Al-Anwar, 14 January 1993; or “Lebanon is drowning in foreign workers and regulatory measures await implementation”, Al-Usbu‘a Al-‘Arabi, 14 August 1995.

8 Al-Diyâr, 3 November 1994.

9 Al-Nahar, 19 August, 1995.

10 More than one source named Nabih Berri, the Shi’a speaker of the parliament and member of the ruling troika in the 1990s and early 2000s, as an enforcer of this on behalf of the Syrians. Bernhard Hillenkamp, Conversation, 21 February 2004; Maher al-Yamani, Interview, 24 February 2004.

11 Scarlet Haddad, “Who’s afraid of Syrian labour in Lebanon?”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 13 June 1994.

12 Muhammad Zabib, “Invasion of Foreign Labour in Lebanon”, Al-Usbu‘a Al-‘Arabi, 14 August 1995.

13 Ibid.

14 “Lebanon is drowning”, Al-Usbu‘a Al-‘Arabi, 14 August 1995. Much of this important article was reprinted in Al-Watan Al-‘Arabi, 3 January 1997, under the headline “Foreign labour in Lebanon one and a half million in the absence of regulation”. The subtitle: “More than a million Lebanese have emigrated since the start of the war”.

15 Al-Sharq, 1 July 1997.

16 Cited by Michel Murqus, “Foreign Workers Remit $4.2 Billion Yearly Abroad”, Al-Nahar, 3 January 1998.

17 Al-Diyâr, 2 February 1998.

18 Al-Diyâr, 26 January 1998.

19 Al-Diyâr, 26 January 1998.

20 Ibid.

21 See, for example, Salwa Ba‘albaki, “The Departure of Syrian Labour from Lebanon: Blessing or Curse?”, Al-Nahar, 23 March 2005.

22 For example, even those who champion these statistics, such as Michel Murqus – writing in Al-Nahar (3 January 1998) – are willing to admit that exit statistics are wayward by about 40 %.

23 Adib Mahrus, Interview, 9 March 2004. My interviewee was probably trying to impress on me the common justificatory logic of “two states, one people”, by emphasizing how easy it was for “Arab brothers” to move from state to state. His project does not invalidate the empirical truth of his claim however. I heard the same story from dozens of other workers.

24 During bi-lateral negotiations with Syria in the summer of 1950, “Beirut still demands the free movement of persons, goods and capital. Damascus refuses and obliges Lebanon to pay in rare hard currency imports from Syria (above all wheat) and is forbidden from re-exporting these imports”, 10 July 1950 (Chami, 2002: 350). See also Simone Ghazi Tinaoui (Tinaoui: 100).

25 Kamal Matar, Al-Sayyad, 27 March 1972.

26 Political hostility trumped the supposed virtues of laissez-faire economics when it came to the Palestinians, however, who, unlike the Syrians, were regularly seen negatively as competing unfairly with Lebanese workers.

27 There is a brief reference to this in M. E. Sales (Sales, 1978: 63).

28 The pipeline, carrying oil from Saudi Arabia, terminated between Tyre and Saida in Lebanon. Syria’s agreement was announced by Prime Minister Riad al-Solh (the Tapline agreement) on 1 September 1947 (Chami, 2002: 213).

29 In 1982, $1 still equalled only 3.7 Lebanese Pounds (Bourgey, 1985: 33).

30 The purchasing power of the minimum wage fell drastically between 1984 and 1987. In 1984 the purchasing power of the minimum wage had lost 13.6 % of its 1974 value, but by 1987 had lost 65.2 % of this value (Hamdan, 1989: 27).

31 To pick one example, see Ibrahim ‘Awwadi, “50 thousand workers remit about a billion pounds per year, Lebanon faces an invasion – foreign workers”, Al-Anwar, 26 February 1985.

32 Al-Safir, 28 August 1986.

33 The agreement was signed 18 October 1994 (Tinaoui, 1994: 108). For a copy of the agreement, see Al-‘Alaqat al-Lubnaniyya al-Suriyya, 2001: 371-373. Article 5 of the “Bilateral Labour Agreement” (Ittifaqiyya Thuna’iyya fi Majal al-‘Amal) mandates the establishment of joint border offices granting temporary work permits for seasonal workers, and stipulates that other categories of labour should obtain their work permits from the appropriate office in either country. Article 6 envisages the establishment of an office attached to the Labour Ministry to protect workers’ rights and supervise the regulations (and presumably to issue the work permits of non-seasonal workers). Articles 7-8 stipulate that every migrant worker – and this would appear to include seasonal workers – should have a written work contract, which should include: the worker’s name, his place and date of birth, the employer’s name, and the type and place of work; wages and how they are disbursed along with a note of daily hours, weekly and other appropriate holidays; the duration of the contract, its conditions of renewal and termination, and social insurance, and any other conditions relating to the two parties. Article 9 notes that any complaints arising from conflicts between employers and workers should be directed at the newly created agencies attached to the two countries’ labour ministries which will seek an amicable solution, in default of which cases will be transferred to the courts. Article 11 stipulates the formation of a Joint Council headed by the two labour ministers and their representatives, along with trade union representatives from both countries. The Joint Council is entrusted with carrying out the articles of the Bilateral Labour Agreement. The agreement is signed by Abdullah Al-Amin, the Lebanese Labour Minister, and ‘Ali Khalil, his Syrian counterpart.

34 One author maintains that Lebanon – the source does not say who exactly – requested that “Syrian laborers were prevented from benefiting from Lebanese social security” (Tinaoui, 1994: 108), presumably in the run up to the Agreement. This wish was granted indirectly, inasmuch as drafters must have known that the work contract (and hence social insurance) aspect of the Agreement was bound to be a dead letter.

35 For a good example of this kind of reasoning regarding kata’ib self-criticism over isolationism see Abu Khalil, 1991: 11.

36 The evidence for this section has been gathered through dozens of usually recorded interviews with Syrian workers. Some of the more important interviews are listed here. (Most interviewees chose pseudonyms). ‘Abd al-Qadir, 23 July 2004; ‘Abed, 22 February 2004; ‘Abdullah 30 August 2005; Adib Mahrus, 9 March 2004; Armange, 5 August 2004; Ayman, 31 July 2004; Hanna ‘Awwad, 11 August 2004; Hanna Butros, 11 August 2004; Ibrahim, 27 July 2004; Jo Farah, 12 August 2004; Joseph, 10 August 2004; Muhammad 31 July 2004; Nazir 27 August 2004; Radwan, 23 July 2004; Roger Awwad, 11 August 2004; Salim al-Dahash 11 March 2004; ‘Umar, 23 August 2005.

37 Tony Elias, interview, 12 August 2004.

38 See the monumental Elias Al-Buwari (Buwari, 1987). For a brief history of the communists see Ayyub, n.d.. For an immensely detailed analysis of business, the state, and social legislation in the 1960s, inter alia, see Waddah Shirara (Shirara, 1980). See also Irene C. Soltau (Soltau, 1949: 307-317).

39 Consider, for instance, the Intrabank crash of 1966, which did significant damage to the Lebanese economy, but was partly caused by the rejection by powerful Lebanese families of the President and co-founder of the bank, Youssef Beidas, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, who was seen as an interloper (see Dib, 2004: 103-126). The oligarchic control of pharmaceutical imports forced up prices: when the Minister of Health, Emile Bitar, sought cheaper pharmaceutical imports in 1972 he was removed by President Suleiman Frangieh because of the latter’s links to the wealthy families who controlled this lucrative trade. See talk by Fawwaz Trabulsi at workshop on Lebanon’s Political Economy held at AUB, 22 March 2004.c

40 For a sketch of the social crisis involved see Nasr, 1978: 3-13. Oligarchic control of sugar beet and tobacco meant the ruination of many peasants who had previously grown these commodities. The notion of a pre-war economic miracle in Lebanon, has been most comprehensively contested from an economist’s perspective by Tawfiq Gaspard (2004). For slums see Fawaz and Peillen, 2003.

41 Batatu (1999: 5). In the same vein, Volker Perthes writes that “rural living conditions have improved remarkably under the Ba’th” along with the “social and material infrastructure” (Perthes, 1995: 93); see also Heydemann, 1999: 162-205.

42 Although my research has not focused on this issue, my (much less extensive) findings are similar to those of Reem Saad for Egypt, namely, that those who gained land during this period have a very positive view of reform indeed, and count it as a turning point in their families’ position. Saad, 1999.

43 On the expansion of rural health care which achieved reductions in the crude death rate and infant mortality, see Batatu, 1999: 66-7, and on the expansion of education in Syria, Batatu, 1999: 77 ff.

44 But note that eggs, meat, poultry, and most fruits and vegetables were still marketed through middlemen.

45 For the war economy see Picard, 2000; Trabulsi, 1994.

46 Some of the data, incidentally, contradict the image of a runaway demographic increase. As Courbage has shown, the crude birth rate in Syria dropped between 1985 and 1990 as marriage age increased and contraception, and family planning were extended (Courbage, 1994: 743).

47 Heydemann writes that “Austerity programs have led to cut-backs in social spending, yet large-scale public health, welfare and education programs persist in spite of growing signs of wear” (Heydemann, 1999: 206).

48 Courbage (1994: 739-40; 746). Indirect payments for books, supplies, clothes and transport are not yet significant and the rise of the para-scholarly private sector – language teaching, computing, accounting and so on – does not strongly affect the social class with which I am concerned here.

49 These were the main goals of the $11.7 billion (at constant 1992 dollars) ten year plan for reconstruction and development “Horizon 2000” as announced on 17 March 1993 by the Council for Development and Reconstruction (Najem, 2000: 59-60). For the political economy of reconstruction see also al-’Ayyash, 1997; Gaspard, 2004; Hamdan, 1998; Corm, 1996; Makdisi, 2004.

50 These intimate connections are well described in Reinoud Leenders (Leenders, 2003).

51 By 1997, “funding problems had forced the Hariri government to effectively suspend the implementation of the remainder of the Horizon 2000 programme [i.e. investment in the social infrastructure]” (Najem, 2000: 227).

Notes de fin

* The author would like to thank the British Academy, the Council for British Research on the Levant, and the Leverhulme Trust for their generous support in funding this research.

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