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 confessions are recognised.
System of Government
Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy in which politics is organised around confession. 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, for 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. 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 February 2014, Prime Minister Tammam Salam formed a unity government with March 8, March 14 and independents represented in cabinet. Former President Michel Sleiman’s term expired in June 2014 and the powers of the Presidency are being exercised by cabinet. Parliament has so far been unable to elect a successor.
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).
The Australian-Lebanese population plays an important role in the bilateral relationship. According to the 2011 census, there were over 76,000 Lebanese-born residents in Australia and an estimated 200,000 people who claim Lebanese ancestry. Prominent Australians of Lebanese descent include HE Dr Marie Bashir, Former Governor of New South Wales, the Hon Steve Bracks, former Premier of Victoria, and Hazem El Masri, former star player with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs rugby league team. Approximately 20,000-25,000 Australian passport holders normally reside in Lebanon; this number increases by several thousand during 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 $54 million in 2013 ($41 million in Australian exports and $13 million in imports from Lebanon). Key Australian exports include beef, wheat and vegetables. Major imports from Lebanon include fruit, vegetables and other edible products.
In the Lebanese market, European suppliers enjoy a substantial competitive advantage, with lower transport costs and shorter delivery times. Current opportunities for Australian exporters are primarily focused in the education, food and beverage sectors. Australian companies have been deterred from investing in the Lebanese market by the non-transparency of the business environment, high local service costs, infrastructural problems, and the uncertainties surrounding the political and security environment.
Austrade's office in Saudi Arabia is responsible for Lebanon. Austrade's web site 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 now over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equivalent to a quarter of the population. Australia has provided $135.8 million in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Of this, $71.3 million has gone to support refugees and their host communities in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon. Most recently, Australia provided $20 million to the No Lost Generation strategy to improve access to education for refugee and host community children in Lebanon and Jordan.
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. Australia also provides funding to support 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). Six ADF observers are currently posted in Lebanon.
Australia contributes funds to UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestine refugees in the Middle East, which has significant programs in Lebanon where an estimated 447,000 Palestinian refugees reside. Australia has contributed to UNRWA every year since 1951 and currently has a $90 million partnership framework (2011-16) in place. In 2014-15 Australia has provided $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.
Australian ministers have visited Lebanon frequently in recent years. The most recent visit was by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, to Lebanon in April 2014.