Lebanon’s glamorous music festivals struggle in tough times

Shakira and Elton John played one-off concerts in Lebanon in recent months but the summer music festivals that helped make the country a cultural lodestar for the Arab world are struggling.

In the 1960s and 1970s, jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Miles Davis, and the greatest Arab singers, Um Kulthoum and Fairouz, performed at ruined Roman temples during the Baalbek festival or at pretty seaside towns.

Elite tourists from the Gulf came to watch and spend big in the country and the festivals helped bring ordinary Lebanese people together.

“We worry that we will get to the point where we cannot go on,” said Nora Jumblatt, head of the Beiteddine Art Festival.

While this year’s festivals are putting some well known singers on stage, regional instability, Lebanon’s economic malaise and a funding crunch have hit organizers.

Years of political sclerosis have played havoc with fiscal policy, aggravating one of the world’s highest rates of public debt. As the government began tightening its belt, it cut subsidies for festivals and increased the taxes they pay.

“We call on the Lebanese government not to reduce its help, not to increase taxes,” said Nayla De Freij, chairwoman of the Baalbek International Festival.

Gradual economic decline has hit private sponsorship. And fear of the Syria war spilling over, as well as Lebanon’s growing entanglement in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, have kept away Gulf tourists.

But after a deal in 2016 that led to the first parliament elections for nine years in May, and as warfare in Syria has moved away from Lebanon’s borders, politicians have started to speak of recovery.

“Today we are at a crossroads in Lebanon. We are starting to move towards rebuilding infrastructure in Lebanon and at the same time its economic vision is being formed,” said caretaker economy minister Raed Khoury.

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