Diaspora versus Refugee: The Political Economy of Lebanese Entrepreneurship Regimes
Lebanon is widely renowned for its entrepreneurial acumen. This reputation is largely built on the success story of the worldwide Lebanese diaspora. There is, however, another group of transnational entrepreneurs associated with Lebanon. This is the Palestinian refugee community living in Lebanon. Whereas Lebanese entrepreneurs abroad are commonly credited for making a crucial contribution to Lebanon’s economy, post-Civil War reconstruction and national identity through seeking innovation and utilizing opportunity, Palestinian entrepreneurs in Lebanon overwhelmingly fall within the category of selfemployed necessity entrepreneurs. This, while “it is widely believed that [both] the Lebanese and the Palestinians are among the top entrepreneurs in the world” (Kawasmi 2011). This paper engages with the duality of Lebanese migrant entrepreneurship and juxtaposes the veneration of the Lebanese entrepreneurship diaspora with the marginalization of Palestinian entrepreneurial capacity. I argue that the main rationale for the paradox of Lebanon’s simultaneous championing and undermining of entrepreneurial potential should be sought in its highly sectarian and elitist political order. Whereas the ascendancy of the Lebanese diaspora(s) was boosted in sectarian struggles for political and economic power, the economic relegation of the Palestinian refugees is part of a comprehensive regime of sectarian neutralization. Accordingly, the rationale for contrasting these two specific groups of migrant entrepreneurs – and not, for instance, Palestinian and other foreign entrepreneurs in Lebanon or Lebanese and Palestinian entrepreneurs in Lebanon – lies in their shared deep connection to the Lebanese sectarian-political system (a characteristic non-Palestinian foreign entrepreneurs in Lebanon lack) and their shared context of migrant entrepreneurship (an experience naturally not applicable to Lebanese entrepreneurs in Lebanon). It is this common engagement with the Lebanese political system from a migrant entrepreneurship perspective that connects these two groups residing at the extreme ends of the same political economy. Palestinian entrepreneurs in Lebanon and Lebanese entrepreneurs abroad are tied to the Lebanese system in a way that shows most pungently the effects a specific political economy might have on migrant entrepreneurship, the core objective of this paper. Through this main argument the paper makes two broader contributions to the literature on migration and entrepreneurship. First, it emphasizes the significance of the political in determining not so much the extent but the nature of entrepreneurship – ranging from necessity to opportunity and innovation. This observation is particularly pertinent in light of the ‘Arab Spring’ and complements economic perspectives on entrepreneurship. Second, and related to this, the paper shows the merits of analyzing differences in entrepreneurship regimes within countries in addition to the usual comparisons between countries. This paper should be conceived of predominantly as a sensitizing exercise, its main purpose being to offer an alternative perspective on the dichotomous discussion on the main determinants of entrepreneurship in diasporic or refugee communities as being either structural or personal. It does so through an in-depth discussion of the Lebanese case. As such, I do not seek to discuss primary empirical data, even if the observations made in this paper are grounded in extensive fieldwork in among both Palestinian and Lebanese communities in Lebanon on related topics, but rather to present an additional analytical framework for existing data sets. My main methodology is therefore that of a qualitative case-study based on literature review and document analysis and complemented by contextual fieldwork.
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