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Beirut - Lebanon has showcased to the world its dynamic relationship with its vast diaspora living abroad, which can be a useful model for other countries, including South Africa. Not only would it spur investment and trade opportunities, but it has the potential to contribute to the country's developmental agenda. Last month the Lebanese Foreign Ministry hosted a major Diaspora Conference in Beirut, attended by 2 000 Lebanese expatriates from around the globe, all of whom came together to celebrate their Lebanity.

No other country, other than India, has such a dedicated programme to reach out to its expatriate community, bringing them together annually and honoring their contributions to their home countries. The three day Lebanese Diaspora Energy (LDE) conference has become an annual tradition since the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants started hosting it in global capitals since 2014. A delegation of eminent personalities and business people come together to promote a sense of being Lebanese and to promote trade and tourism with their home countries. The economic benefits for Lebanon have been significant, and led to a plethora of Lebanese business councils around the globe that have actively promoted investment opportunities. 

Last year, the LDE was hosted in South Africa, and SABC TV presenter Leanne Manas played a major role, as she did this year at the conference in Beirut, sharing her professional journey as a South African of Lebanese origin, and MC’ing a number of events. A delegation of around 55 South Africans of Lebanese origin flew to Beirut to participate in the conference, and a number of them were honored by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Basil for contributions made in their various fields. 

The diaspora were treated to what the Lebanese call ‘Gastro-diplomacy’ where a diverse array of Lebanese caterers laid out an endless schmorgesborg of Lebanese culinary delights. A gala dinner featuring a hugely popular Lebanese singer was also broadcast live on Lebanese TV.

In order to further strengthen relations with the diaspora, Lebanon has created a ‘diaspora village’ in the seaside town of Batroun, which was inaugurated at this year’s LDE conference. By restoring an ancient castle, the government has created ‘houses’ for a number of countries such as Lebanon-Mexico house, or Lebanon-Canada house, which will host those from the diaspora when they visit Lebanon. The Diaspora Village also includes ‘Africa house,’ which hopes to further promote tourism and trade between Lebanon and the African continent. 

Considering South Africa’s vast educated and skilled diaspora abroad, our efforts at economic diplomacy could tap into these resources. According to Pew Research, in 2017 there were 900 000 South Africans living abroad, over 210 000 of which are in the UK. The Australian Bureau of Statistics put the figure of South Africans living in Australia in 2016 at 178 700. Various estimates put the number of South Africans living in the US at more than 100,000, and the number in the Netherlands and the UAE at also around 100 000. 

South Africans living abroad can be encouraged to promote tourism in South Africa and to harness investment opportunities. As a prominent Lebanese TV personality said at the LDE conference in Beirut, Lebanese living abroad are sometimes told not to go to Lebanon as there are ‘endless problems there,’ which is a common misconception. But the message being sent out by the Lebanese government to the diaspora is that ‘we can face these problems together, and celebrate our common Lebanity.’

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor