Breaking the Norm: A wake-up call for Lebanese Civil Society

By Diana Kaissy on August 25, 2016

Mistrust, anger, accusations, secrecy, and frustration are but some of the vocabulary that civil society in Lebanon should feel pretty comfortable using when asked to describe the prenatal condition of its oil and gas sector.

Amidst the bickering of those entrusted with overseeing the smooth running of the nascent sector, the Lebanese public stands on the margins of sanity witnessing what might be their last chance of having a normal existence being torn to shreds by the jaws of the all-powerful few.

With 3 minutes to spare, civil society today was given a chance to ask 3 questions, questions whose answers led to the outbreak of accusations, anger and the expression of mistrust between two regulatory bodies: an advisory body represented by the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA) and a legislative body represented by the head of the committee for energy at the Lebanese parliament.

So what happened today during the workshop – organized by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for members of the Lebanese parliament and a select few from civil society (national and international) – and the media around the management and governance of the oil and gas sector in Lebanon?

After Dr. Carol Nakhle briefed us about the comparative study she has prepared around the management and governance of the oil and gas sector in Lebanon (comparing Lebanon to three other countries, namely Norway, Israel and Cyprus), the floor was open for discussion, subsequently led and facilitated by the head of the energy committee at the Lebanese parliament. The remarks, namely formulated by members of parliament attending were geopolitical in nature, and were addressed to members of the LPA with some to Dr. Nakhle.

The obvious undercurrents and tension between members of the LPA and the head of the energy committee were almost tangible. It was quite obvious that there were/are some unresolved issues. To members of civil society, such ambiguous undercurrents and tensions do not foreshadow smooth sailing for the sector.

In fact, they only serve to confirm our skepticism towards what is happening behind closed doors and away from the watchful eye of the public. And it was during these exact settings that a member of civil society, the executive director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, Dr. Sami Attallah, posed substantial questions.

The questions pertained to the process that led to the qualification of two ‘newly-born’ companies for the pre-qualification round (Apex registered in Hong Kong and Petroleb registered in Lebanon), the reasons behind the continued stall in issuing the needed decrees, and last but not least the real reasons behind the disagreement/agreement that has occurred between two political parties lately regarding the oil and gas sector.

These questions, rightfully posed by civil society within its capacity as watchdogs of the sector, sparked accusations between head of the energy committee and members of the LPA; accusations born out of the absence of clear methods of communication, transparent decision making processes and last but not least a terminal lack of access to information.

The incident in itself may not be fatal, but with track records of mismanagement attributed to electricity, water, waste, and environment, just to name a few, we need to take heed and make sure that the work being done so far is not only maintained but strengthened. We must lead sustainability through the establishment of robust and transparent mechanisms of communication and access to information that will allow us to avoid such future clashes between the different oversight bodies entrusted with the running of the sector.

Civil society can play a vital role in breaking the existing norm of mistrust, miscommunication and secrecy. How do we break the norm? We push to have agents of change. We put in place laws, regulations and processes that are transparent, can maximize participation, and are inclusive. What happened today in front of the eyes of civil society should prompt it to be more effective and involved in its nascent and vital oil and gas sector.

Decisions, information, regulations and laws are not a blessing in the hands of the few. They are our right and they are the tools which we as civil society need to strive to acquire in order to hold the reigns over our natural resources.

What happened today was a wake-up call. Change needs to happen and civil society needs to spearhead it.

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