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 opened in the Middle East. Australia is committed to Lebanon's sovereignty, independence and national unity and supports United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559 (supporting Lebanese sovereignty and calling for the extension of Lebanese Government control over Lebanese territory) and 1701 (which reiterated support for Lebanese sovereignty in the context of the 2006 conflict in Southern Lebanon).
Although no official census has been taken since 1932, it is widely accepted that the majority of Lebanon's population is now Muslim. Most of the Muslim population is Sunni or Shi'a, but there are also significant numbers of Druze and a small Alawite community. The Maronites are the largest of the Christian sects. In all, eighteen distinct religious denominations are recognised.
System of government
Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy in which politics is organised around religious identity. 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. 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. By custom, the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Legislature a Shi'a Muslim.
In recent years, the two main political blocks in Lebanon have been the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance. These coalitions are named after mass demonstrations on those days in 2005 in support of Syria’s role in Lebanon (March 8) and opposed to it (March 14). The demonstrations followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, in which the Syrian regime and Hizballah were widely implicated. Acting with the authorisation of the United Nations Security Council, the UN investigated the assassination and established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try the accused. Five persons have been indicted and their trials began in absentia in early 2014. Proceedings against one of the accused, Mr Mustafa Badreddine, were terminated in July 2016 following his death. The accused are members of Hizballah. Australia strongly supports the work of the Special Tribunal, and Australians have served as both investigators and judges as part of this process.
In October 2016, Lebanon elected a new President, Michel Aoun, from the March 8 Alliance. This followed a two-and-a-half year period without a President following the expiry of former President Michel Sleiman’s term in June 2014. Saad Hariri, a member of the March 14 Alliance, was appointed as Prime Minister and a new Cabinet was formed in December 2016.
The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) caused serious damage to Lebanon's economic infrastructure. High levels of public debt were accumulated over the post-war period (and continue to represent a challenge for the Lebanese Government). Significant reforms introduced by the government of the late Rafik Hariri in the 1990s included reduced tariffs, privatisation of state enterprises and the introduction of a consumption tax (VAT).
The conflict between Israel and Hizballah in 2006 caused further damage to infrastructure in the south and in Beirut. At the Paris Conference in January 2007, bilateral and multilateral donors, including Australia, pledged US$7.6 billion in grants and loans for the reconstruction of Lebanon following the 2006 conflict.
Services (mainly commerce, tourism and financial services) currently account for more than three-quarters of GDP. It is widely recognised that further structural and micro-economic reforms are needed to reduce constraints to growth (for instance, Lebanon suffers from chronic electricity shortages, and corruption is acknowledged by the government to be a problem).
Lebanon’s economy enjoyed strong GDP growth between 2007 and 2010, averaging 8.5 per cent per annum. After 2010, domestic political instability, the escalating conflict in neighbouring Syria (and significant influx of displaced Syrians into Lebanon) and the global downturn led to a sharp slow-down in GDP growth.
The Australian-Lebanese population plays an important role in the bilateral relationship. According to the 2016 census, 230,869 people reported Lebanese ancestry. Prominent Australians of Lebanese descent include Zita Antonios, former Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner; Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, first female Governor of New South Wales; Steve Bracks, former Premier of Victoria; Michael Cheika, coach of the Australian Wallabies rugby team; and Bachar Houli, Australian rules footballer.. Approximately 20,000-25,000 Australian passport holders normally reside in Lebanon; this number increases by several thousand during Lebanon’s summer.
According to Australian Government figures (which do not count exports trans-shipped to Lebanon through other regional ports), total two-way merchandise trade amounted to $67 million in 2016-17 ($47.5 million in Australian exports and $19.7 million in imports from Lebanon). Key Australian exports include beef, wheat and vegetables. Major 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 coping with an enormous influx of refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Syria. There are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equivalent to a quarter of the population. Australia has provided and committed more than $433 million in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria since 2011. This includes a $220 million package of assistance over three years announced in 2016, and formally pledged at the Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference in Brussels in April 2017. This package includes $76 million in assistance to Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities in Lebanon. This assistance will focus on immediate humanitarian needs, protection from sexual violence, access to education and livelihoods opportunities.
Australia contributed more than $24 million for post-conflict assistance in 2006-07, and provided assistance specifically for demining activities from 2011-13. Assistance is also provided for small-scale activities through the Direct Aid Program. Beyond humanitarian funding, Australia also provides support to a range of United Nations activities in Lebanon (see below).
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 Australian Defence Force 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). Twelve ADF members are currently deployed on Operational Paladin in Israel and Lebanon as part of UNTSO.
Australia contributes funds to UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, which has significant programs in Lebanon where some 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees reside. Australia has contributed to UNRWA every year since 1951 and currently has an $80 million strategic partnership framework (2016-20) in place. In 2016-17, Australia will provide $20 million in core funding to UNRWA.
Australia's stance on Hizballah
Lebanese Shi'ite organisation Hizballah, a multi-faceted organisation comprising political and social elements, as well as a military wing, was listed as a prohibited organisation in its entirety by the Australian Government in December 2001, for the purpose of asset freezing. Its External Security Organisation (ESO) was listed by the Australian Government in June 2003 as a terrorist organisation. Hizballah's presence in Lebanese society is not confined to its militia, but also includes representatives in parliament and many charitable associations. Hizballah has participated in Lebanon's political system since 1992, and currently has 13 MPs in Parliament, including two Cabinet Ministers.
High level visits
In April 2012, then-President of Lebanon, His Excellency Michel Sleiman, undertook a state visit to Australia.
There have been a number of high-level visits to Lebanon in recent years, including 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; the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP in April 2014; and then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Bob Carr in May 2013.
A cross-party delegation of Australian parliamentarians visited Jordan and Lebanon between 23 and 28 July 2017. The visit was part of the ‘Australian Aid and Parliament Project’, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, facilitated by Save The Children Australia, and supported by DFAT.