Carlos Ghosn could be bad news for Lebanon

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 12, 2020

Former Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn speaks at a press conference in Beirut, January 8. (AFP)

The world is consumed by events in and about Iran and Iraq, as well as US President Donald Trump’s fitful pronouncements on foreign policy, but any leftover attention will surely centre on Carlos Ghosn and, by extension, Lebanon.

Much of the attention for Ghosn and Lebanon won’t be flattering, especially after the extraordinary news conference January 8 in Beirut by the man regarded the world’s most famous fugitive.

Over several hours, the former boss of the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi automotive alliance ranted against Japan’s allegedly inhumane system of justice and the Japanese people’s alleged cunning and secrecy. He insisted that Japanese charges of financial misconduct against him were a “conspiracy” and accused the Japanese government — but not Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — of colluding in the alleged plot to remove him as chairman of the world’s second-biggest carmaker. Ghosn provocatively compared the alleged plot to the Pearl Harbour attacks.

Ghosn called out Brazil and France — whose citizenship he holds, along with that of Lebanon — for being insufficiently helpful to him during his legal troubles. However, when he mentioned Lebanon, it was in warm and appreciative tones. “I am ready to stay a long time in Lebanon,” Ghosn said about the country his parents left for Brazil. He denied that he had political ambitions but offered to “put my experience at the service of Lebanon” if asked.

Might he be asked?

A few years ago, Ghosn was touted in some quarters as a possible president of Lebanon. Nothing less seemed worthy of the legendary businessman whose image Lebanon had put on a postage stamp.

Even after his arrest in Japan in 2018, the Lebanese government stood solidly by Ghosn. That has continued, until now. He is a wanted man with an Interpol Red Notice attached to his name.

However, Beirut has not expressed an opinion about the four serious charges filed against Ghosn by Tokyo prosecutors. Two are for allegedly understating his pay by more than $80 million over an 8-year period. He is also alleged to have transferred nearly $15 million from a Nissan subsidiary account to one held by a Saudi friend’s company and to have diverted $5 million from Nissan to companies with ties to him and his family.

Ghosn could be a liability for any country that provided him shelter if any of the charges against him were proved to be true. Even if they aren’t, Ghosn might be a unique liability for Lebanon.

The country is arguably in its most precarious position since the end of its civil war 30 years ago. Roiled by instability, Lebanon has been without a government for months. It faces popular, if somewhat inchoate, public protests against misgovernance, political cronyism and corruption. The very state itself could collapse in a massive debt-fuelled crash that would see Beirut default on $88 billion of public borrowing.

Japan gives Lebanon millions of dollars in aid each year — in 2017 it was at least $18 million — and it has a vote on the board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Lebanon needs the IMF and Japan.

Ghosn probably adds little to Lebanon’s storied international narrative. He suggests sleazy privilege and impunity at a time the world seeks overdue political, fiscal and economic overhaul in Lebanon.

Ghosn also appears as a troubling black mark on the generally shiny story of the Lebanese diaspora, which includes Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile,” Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, actress Salma Hayek, singer Shakira, the late heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, fashion designer Elie Saab, former Cal Tech Vice-President Charles Elachi and Paul Orfalea, who founded the copy-and-print services company Kinko’s.

Some might say Ghosn is giving Lebanon a bad reputation at a time that it cannot afford it.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly