Lebanon country brief
Australia enjoys friendly bilateral relations with Lebanon, underpinned by strong people-to-people links. The Australian Embassy in Beirut, opened in 1967, was the third Australian Embassy to be established in the Middle East.
Lebanon has a population of approximately 4.6 million, with 18 recognised distinct religious denominations. Although no official census has been taken since 1932, it is widely accepted that the majority of Lebanon's population is now Muslim (Sunni and Shi';a). There is also a significant Maronite Christian and Druze population, and a small Alawite community. Syrian refugees make up one quarter of the population—the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.
Lebanon is a democratic parliamentary republic with a confessional structure. The political system seeks to maintain equilibrium and stability through the allocation of parliamentary seats, ministerial posts and key offices of state among the various religious communities. By custom, the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Legislature a Shi'a Muslim. The National Assembly is made up of 128 deputies, with equal representation for Muslims and Christians. National Assembly deputies are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. The President is elected by the National Assembly for a six-year term. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are appointed by the President in consultation with the National Assembly.
Lebanon has a free market, service-oriented economy (mainly commerce, tourism and financial services). Domestic political instability, the escalating conflict in neighbouring Syria (including the significant influx of displaced Syrians into Lebanon) and the global downturn has led to a sharp slowdown in Lebanon';s GDP growth since 2010. The economic decline has been exacerbated by COVID-19, as well as the 4 August 2020 port explosion in Beirut. The World Bank estimates that Lebanon';s economy contracted by 20.3 per cent in 2020, following a 6.9 per cent contraction in 2019.
Since early 2020, a shortage of USD in the market has made imports more expensive and significantly driven up consumer prices. In 2020, the United Nations (UN) estimated 55 per cent of Lebanese were living below the poverty line, up from 28 per cent in 2019. The livelihoods of ordinary Lebanese, as well as Syrian refugees, are expected to deteriorate following further economic contraction and rising unemployment due to COVID-19.
Australia shares a warm bilateral relationship with Lebanon, underpinned by our strong people-to-people links. In the 2016 census, over 230,000 Australians reported Lebanese ancestry. The Lebanese community in Australia contributes strongly in sport, business and political pursuits, including: Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, first female Governor of New South Wales; Michael Cheika, former coach of the Australian Wallabies rugby team; and Ahmed Fahour, former Australia Post CEO and former Chair of the Council of Australian-Arab Relations. Approximately 20,000-25,000 Australians normally reside in Lebanon; pre-COVID-19, this number increased by several thousand during Lebanon's summer.
According to Australian Government figures (which exclude exports trans-shipped to Lebanon through other regional ports), total two-way merchandise and services trade amounted to $333 million in 2019-20 ($83 million in Australian exports and $249 million in imports from Lebanon). Key Australian exports include medicaments, beef and vegetables. Major merchandise imports from Lebanon include fruit, vegetables and other edible products.
Austrade's office in Saudi Arabia is responsible for Lebanon. Austrade's website has information on doing business in Lebanon and market profiles of priority sectors, such as education, food and health and medical.
Lebanon is struggling to cope with the outward effects of the prolonged conflict in Syria, including an enormous influx of refugees. There are an estimated one and a half million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equivalent to a quarter of the population, of which nearly 900,000 are registered with UNHCR. Since 2017, Australia has committed over $100 million to Lebanon in support of refugees and their host communities, as part of our response to the Syrian crisis.
In response to the explosions in Beirut on 4 August 2020, the Australian Government announced $5 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to trusted humanitarian partners, including the World Food Programme, the Red Cross Movement and the United Nations Children';s Fund. Australian Defence Force (ADF) aircraft based in the region also delivered three planeloads of relief supplies (on 14, 21 and 31 August) sourced from the UN Humanitarian Response Depot in Dubai to NGO partners in Beirut.
Support for United Nations activities in Lebanon
A number of UN agencies are active in Lebanon and receive support from Australia. Since 1956, and continuing to the present day, the ADF has provided military observers as part of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), which operates in Lebanon (as well as a number of other countries in the Middle East).
Australia's stance on Hizballah
Hizballah is a multi-faceted Lebanese Shi';ite organisation comprising political and social elements, as well as a military wing. It has participated in Lebanon's political system since 1992. The Australian Government listed Hizballah in its entirety under Part 4 of the Charter of the United Nations Act in December 2001, for the purpose of financial sanctions. Its External Security Organisation (ESO) was listed by the Australian Government in June 2003 as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code.
High level visits
There have been a number of high-level visits to Lebanon in recent years, including: Defence Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP in 2019; the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove in October 2017; the Minister for Justice and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counter-Terrorism, the Hon Michael Keenan MP in April 2017; the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Hon Peter Dutton MP in November 2015; and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP in April 2014.
In April 2012, then-President of Lebanon, His Excellency Michel Sleiman, undertook a state visit to Australia. Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil visited Australia in April 2017 and again in March 2018 where he hosted the Lebanese Diaspora Conference in Sydney.