Where are the Lebanese Superstars?

Where are the replacements from the new generation for superstars like Youssef Nasr, Philippe Jabr, Samir Assaf, and Fares Noujaim? What happened?
by Dan Azzi

14 October 2018 | 20:46

Source: by Annahar

  • by Dan Azzi
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 14 October 2018 | 20:46

IIT, IIM, and IBA, India and Pakistan's equivalent of US Ivy League Schools, produce top-notch graduates who are clobbering us, both in quality and quantity.

BEIRUT: As I write this, I'm attending a Columbia University conference in Paris and the keynote speaker was Carlos Ghosn. This got me thinking that when I lived in Dubai ten years ago, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) operations of pretty much every major bank was run by Lebanese. The most senior positions at Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Standard Chartered, etc., were all securely occupied by Lebanese, even though we are less than 2% of Arabs. There was even an NY Times article from July of 2008 that described this phenomenon. Not a bad performance for our generation, but when we look at the generation before us, they did even better. We had names that resonated worldwide - that still resonate today - and will continue to for decades to come. Global giants like Rafik Hariri, Maroun Semaan, the Mikati Brothers, Issam Fares, Carlos Ghosn, and many more. Today, a decade later, maybe a couple of major banks in Dubai are run by Lebanese, one of whom, a survivor from 2008.

Where are the replacements from the new generation for superstars like Youssef Nasr, Philippe Jabr, Samir Assaf, and Fares Noujaim? What happened?

The quick answer is that I don't know, but I'll take a stab at it. Frankly, I'm not even sure that people have noticed. Most of us still erroneously believe the old cliché that Lebanese are top performers wherever they go, but I'm not sure that's true today.

In my father's day, you graduated from AUB, and almost nobody went on to obtain a Master's degree, but pretty much every single graduate obtained a high-paying, high-quality job in Lebanon or in the GCC, or in the rest of the world. It was outstanding value for the money, and clearly the top university in the region. When I attended AUB, I remember reading a Newsweek article that stated that AUB had the highest representation in the UN Assembly of any university anywhere. I was so proud of that then, but I'm not sure I would want to do that survey today. The Lebanese educational system in those days was head and shoulders above any other option in the region. Clearly, today, other alternatives exist. NYU, Cornell, INSEAD, HEC, and other world-class names have opened franchises in the Gulf.

IIT, IIM, and IBA, India and Pakistan's equivalent of US Ivy League Schools, produce top-notch graduates who are clobbering us, both in quality and quantity.

Part of the problem is the culture of exaggeration. A typical Lebanese says "My son runs NASA," when the guy might be a junior intern in the accounting department - not that there's anything wrong with that - we all have to start somewhere. A related issue is inflated expectations.

I remember a decade ago when I was a senior manager, searching for staff to man our office in Saudi Arabia. I received a lot of flack for filling posts with South Asians instead of Arabs. What people didn't realize is that whenever I tried to fill it with Arabs, especially Lebanese, people with half a dozen years of experience asked me for outrageous salaries and titles that were total fantasy. South Asians, graduates of IIT, IIM, or IBA, when offered the same position would reply, even before negotiating the package, "Thank you, boss, for giving me this honor."

Another problem is the Lebanese banking and real estate bubble over the last decade or two. There was such easy money to be made, that the quality of experience here was not conducive to competing on the world stage. This meant that many sub-par types made atrocious sums of money, way above their skill levels. But this also burned many of the smart ones. Several friends of mine, whom I consider some of the sharpest bankers anywhere in the world, got wrapped up in the bubble and stayed here because their artificially inflated salary levels made it unattractive to move to the major financial hubs in the world. And now they are stuck here, missing out, after their peak earning years were wasted.

Meanwhile, the number of universities has increased exponentially, churning humongous numbers of graduates in their assembly lines, in unemployable majors, like civil engineering, medicine, and law. One of the top universities has increased its crop of medical doctors by 50% from my time and is graduating 450 engineers. Why? Why aren't they graduating more computer scientists, cryptography experts, app developers, and other majors who can sell services all over the world, from right here?

The answer lies in lack of accountability to their customers - the students and parents. When I attended an Ivy League university two decades ago, the mathematical proposition and statistics were published and clear. You paid $50,000 over two years and this is what you got in return: 97% of the graduates found jobs before graduation, three job offers per student, and a six-figure starting salary. Why aren't you, the customer, i.e. the student or parent, demanding that those statistics be published when you're paying $200,000 of tuition? That's why you continue to pay first world tuition prices, only to obtain third world employment prospects.

Which brings me to today. Mr. Ghosn was introduced as Brazilian of Lebanese descent, and I beamed proudly, albeit the French guy next to me said, "We like to think of him as French." Ghosn was an eloquent and inspirational speaker, brutally honest, with no politically correct hedging, and you couldn't help walking out of there with more insight and knowledge than you had when you walked in. But then midway through his speech, he identified himself as a native Brazilian - no mention of Lebanon.

Was it a business decision because of the relative population ratios (and market depths for his companies' target markets) ... or was there another reason?

Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon.

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