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Why are Syrian-Lebanese successful?
In delivering the eulogy at last Monday’s funeral of ANSA McAL founder and chairman emeritus Anthony Sabga, his son Norman Sabga noted that his father’s “greatest source of pride was his family”.
And in last week’s Sunday Guardian, former journalist and culture researcher Kim Johnson in an interview noted that Sabga “lived for his family...he told me he thought a lot of Trinidad’s problems, social and otherwise, crime and so on, would not have occurred if people had been more committed to their families.”
The centrality of family is just one of a suite of values which explain the success of Lebanese emigrants and their descendants in different parts of the world.
The marriage rate in the Syrian-Lebanese community in Trinidad and Tobago is 66 per cent, compared to a national average of 51 percent and, unusually among wealthy people, over 1 in ten Syrian-Lebanese couples have four or more children. (See Table.)
In their book The Triple Package, authors Amy Chua & Jed Rubenfield write: “The famously entrepreneurial Lebanese have one of the most successful diasporas in the world...Although tiny in numbers, Lebanese minorities are disproportionately successful throughout Latin America, West Africa, and the Caribbean.” In 2010, Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim was ranked the richest man in the world, with a net worth of over US$70 billion. Slim is of Lebanese descent.
In T&T, the man in the street seems to think that some “Syrians” may have profited from illegal activities—however, even if this were true of individuals, it does not explain the success of the group nor why Lebanese have been similarly successful in all parts of the world in virtually the same types of business.
In America, the first wave of Lebanese immigrants arrived between 1881 and 1925. They were mainly Christian and, as in Trinidad, were mostly peddlers, selling clothes and other items door to door, walking or riding their bicycles for miles.
A century later, the median household income of Lebanese-Americans is almost one-third higher than the national American average (US$67,000 compared to US$51,000). Similar data for T&T are not available, but the 2005 Survey of Living Conditions notes that, for Syrian-Lebanese “virtually everybody was among the non-poor” with 83 per cent occupying the top fifth economic stratum and the rest in the fourth highest.
In her book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, American journalist Mei-Ling Hopgood devotes a chapter to Lebanese family life, recalling: “Most of the kids at the summer camp I attended during my teenage years were Lebanese Americans, who were there with their many cousins.
Their families seemed almost pack-like: grandparents, parents, kids, uncles, and aunts living as neighbours or sometimes in the same home, going on errands and trips, doing business together.” Hopgood also notes that “research suggests that having lots of relatives consistently and positively involved with a child’s life can be very good for the health and development of a child, and for the sanity of his parents.”
Ethnic values underlie family commitment, which in turn shape the attitudes for success. Chua and Rubenfield write: “The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior...This unlikely combination is qualities is part of a potent cultural package that generates drive: a need to prove oneself that make people systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.”
The triple package, therefore, is (1) a superiority complex; (2) insecurity; and (3) impulse control.
The first is an ingrained belief on your group’s abilities; the second is the need to prove oneself to other groups; and the third is the ability to delay gratification.
The Syrian-Lebanese who emigrated to Trinidad fit this profile to a T.
Many Lebanese Christians consider themselves Maronites, direct descendants of the disciples, or Phoenicians, who supposedly invented the alphabet, arithmetic and glass. Carlos Slim’s parents were Maronite Catholics.
Political scientist Selwyn Ryan, in a 1991 paper titled Race and Occupational Stratification in T&T, wrote: “Looked down upon by the French Creoles and blacks equally, the Syrians stuck to themselves in rooms which they rented in the downtown areas of the city...The fact that the Syrians, like the Indians and the Chinese, were marginal members of the society also helped them to succeed in business.”
The Syrian-Lebanese began coming to Trinidad in the early 20th century, and in his eulogy Norman Sabga noted that his father came to Trinidad in 1930 to escape religious persecution in Syria.
In 1921, there were already about 100 Syrians here, most running dry goods and haberdashery stores on the back streets of Port-of-Spain.
The American economist and historian Thomas Sowell, in his book Race and Culture, notes: “The success of Lebanese small businessmen in competing with European businessmen in colonial West Africa has been attributed to various ‘advantages’”.
These included lower personal consumption levels, family members working in their shops, more contacts with African clients, and little fixed capital. But, Sowell points out, “Not one of these ‘advantages’ was, in fact, an advantage. Each was a difference in performance, whether based on skill or sacrifice.
At no point in this process did the Lebanese have any options available that were not equally available to Europeans. The Europeans simply did not choose to subject themselves to many of the conditions which the Lebanese endured.”
This was also the case in Trinidad. “Like the Chinese, the Syrians and Lebanese also moved into areas of economic activity that whites had deemed beneath their dignity and status,” Ryan wrote.
Businessman Jeremy Matouk in an interview on CNC3 on the night of Sabga’s death on May 3 noted that Sabga was the hardest-working man he ever knew.
In the 21st century, however, hard work isn’t enough to ensure success. Knowledge also matters.
Economist Terrence Farrell in his recent book We Like It So? writes of the Syrian-Lebanese community: “Frugal, driven and supported by family and community, they evolved into leading business people...They also grasped education opportunities, with second and third generation members joining medicine, accountancy and other professions.”
Sowell, in his book Wealth, Poverty and Politics notes that “With the Lebanese, as with the overseas Chinese and Jews, what mattered was not that they first arrived in various countries as immigrants with very little education, but that they came from a culture which valued education highly—so that, once they became financially able to do so, they saw to it that their children acquired higher education, and thus could expand their horizons from commerce to the professions such as medicine, law and science, as many did.” (See Table.)
Norman Sabga said that the Honorary Doctorate of Laws conferred in 1998 by the University of the West Indies on Anthony Sabga was “the only academic certificate Dad ever received in his life and he cherished it.”
Family commitment, hard work, valuing education—these are the traits which underlay Anthony Sabga’s success and the community which produced him.