The Jakarta Post
Indonesia and Lebanon have had bilateral relations for decades. As the third country to follow Egypt and Syria in recognizing Indonesian independence, Lebanon began diplomatic ties with Indonesia as early as the mid-1950s.
The latest highlight between the two countries is Indonesia’s participation in a UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon.
Indonesia is sending a large contingent to help monitor the cessation of hostilities following the July-August 2006 Israeli-Hizbullah war.
Indonesian involvement in peacekeeping efforts has won the hearts and minds of the Lebanese people.
This was revealed in a statement by Wafaa Sleiman, the first lady of Lebanon, in the seminar Enhancing Women’s Participation in International Peace Missions, which was organized by the Indonesian Embassy in Beirut recently.
Appreciating the participation of Indonesian women in peace missions, she said that the increasing number of female participants in UN missions was important to the improvement of the quality of peace missions.
Lebanese Ambassador to Indonesia Victor Zmeter said that there were more than 1,400 Indonesian peacekeepers working under the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon ( UNIFIL ).
“We are so grateful for this contribution,” he told The Jakarta Post.
Besides peacekeeping, another highlight that received wide attention was interfaith dialogue. As both countries share similar demographic characteristics, a series of bilateral interfaith forums began in October 2008.
Former Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora regarded the dialogues as an important tool for openness, the sharing of best practice and experience as well as the promotion of harmony among different religious adherents.
Despite the obvious distance, cooperations have been satisfactory so far.
However, Zmeter said it was not enough and that further effort was needed to take bilateral relations to new heights, especially in trade and investment.
“We have a strong friendship but on the ground there is nothing,” he complained.
He suggested that the absence of Lebanese diaspora in Indonesia contributed to poor trade.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, but only a few here. I do not know the answer for this yet,” he said.
He cited the absence of direct flights and a lack of contact had resulted in a poor understanding of each other.
“Our businesspeople are still in the dark about Indonesia’s potential.”
So far, Lebanon has imported paper, wood, accessories, furniture, car accessories but Indonesia has only imported ingredients and spices.
“This is not much. We are trying to arrange meetings between Indonesian businesspeople and their counterparts to explore ways to strengthen ties,” he said.
Head of the Middle East committee and Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, Fachry Thaib, acknowledged that the unstable situation in the Middle East hindered Indonesian private sector expansion in Lebanon.
The Arab Spring transformed countries in the Middle East and North Africa into new democracies.
However, instability persists — especially in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria — causing cautious moves by Indonesian businesspeople in terms of travel and exploration of potential opportunities in the region.
“It is a dilemma. We want businesses to expand but the situation is not stable enough,” Fachry told the Post.
Efforts had been made to address the situation but they have failed to result in much as a result Indonesian business people have been exploring other possibilities, especially in African countries, he said.
However, realizing that the market should not be abandoned, Fachry said his unit had arranged to visit the region in 2013.
“We plan to return in 2013 and recover our network in the Middle East.”