BEIRUT: Recently appointed British Ambassador to Lebanon Ian Collard has only been in the country two months, but is keen to step up and lend support to the country at a time where Lebanon needs all the help it can get.
Speaking to The Daily Star at his residence, Collard reaffirmed the UK’s desire to stand by Lebanon as it attempts to navigate the multiple crises afflicted it.
Having not visited Lebanon before starting his role as ambassador, Collard’s first impressions of the country were that it is “beautiful and complex,” yet marred by the fallout of one of the world's three worst financial crises since the mid-1800s.
“Like any ambassador I’d done my research and thought ‘what was this place going to be like’, and I would still say that coming here, [there] was so much new to learn and it wasn’t everything I was expecting,” Collard told The Daily Star. “There is no doubt it’s a stunning country – the physical geography, the history and heritage sites, the people are incredibly warm and generous.
“At the same time, you cannot hide from the fact that it’s a country in substantial decline, is suffering an economic freefall and has a population that is suffering on a daily basis, and unfortunately that becomes part of the narrative now,” he added. “It’s not the Lebanon that people used to know.”
The UK’s main concerns lie with the consequences of the economic collapse and the urgency of finding solutions to the struggles people are facing. The fuel and electricity shortages, coupled with further devaluation of the Lebanese pound, has worn down the populace.
“Nobody wants to see Lebanon fail and that has to be something all of us guard against, in the international community as partners and supporters of Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” Collard said. “I would also argue that the Lebanese government and institutions need to guard against that same scenario.
“If you weigh up everything that happened last year with the port explosion, and the fact that there are a number of victims and their families who are still not seeing accountability for what happened, these are all the sorts of challenges that the British government cares deeply about,” he added. “All of it speaks to ultimately wanting to see a stable and secure Lebanon. It’s in every Lebanese citizen’s interest, the region’s interest and certainly in the UK’s interest.”
Collard has almost two decades of experience in diplomatic services. Before coming to Lebanon, he spent time as Deputy Ambassador in Kabul and was the British Ambassador to Panama between 2013 and 2017. In the 2000s he worked with the Middle East and United Nations departments of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
While Collard is new to Lebanon, he believes the experience gained in his previous roles will help here, as he’s learned to see common interests between cultures.
“Fundamentally, wherever I’ve been, I think people are after the same things. We want jobs and opportunities, we want safety and security, a better and brighter future for our children – these are fairly common themes that you find all around the world and it almost doesn’t matter how different or complex one country is compared to another, you’ll still find those overarching themes come through,” he said. “People want a say in the way their country is run. That is a fundamental part of the democratic principle.
“If I think about my own career, I’ve also learned a lot about diplomacy over the years. One thing I’m determined to take into every day I go into is that every day is a learning day,” he added. “A big part of diplomacy is not just about doing but also about listening, hearing what other people have to say, whether that’s experts or the average person on the street. Everyone has a point of view, an opinion, and are all coming at this with similar values, objectives and ideas.”
In the coming years, Collard hopes to help in education and opportunities for youths, as well continuing to support programs for refugees and marginalized groups like women or people with disabilities.
Last week, Collard hosted a celebratory dinner for 11 Lebanese scholars who will begin studies in the UK as part of their Chevening Scholarship Program.
“Personally, I’m a father of four daughters and I’m hugely committed to trying to create that better future for young people. As part of our objective as an embassy, we do a lot of work trying to promote a stable quality of education for vast numbers of Lebanese young people,” Collard said. “They will be the future leaders of this country, the future judges, politicians and business people, lawyers and scientists and I’m absolutely passionate about ensuring we create that better future.
“Stability and security is also a critical objective for the UK in Lebanon and we’re a very close partner of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces,” he added. “I’m a firm believer that the national military can be the only sovereign force to defend and protect the country and we will continue to work very closely with them, as we have done for a number of years.”
Work life aside, Collard also has a few personal ambitions for his time here and hopes to explore more of the country, while meeting more of its people.
“I’m lucky I live in Beirut, it’s a vibrant city, but there is a lot more to Lebanon than Beirut, so I want to get out there,” he said. “I’m passionate about sports and I love the idea of getting out and hiking. I want to keep eating the food, but the more food I keep eating, the more exercise I’m going to have to do. I’ve come here not as an [Arabic speaker] but I hope that by the time I leave I will have mastered a few choice phrases.”
With the newly formed government, the UK is eager for work to begin on reforms that will make a difference to the country, after 13 months of a “rudderless government with the caretaker administration.”
While the Cabinet formation is a significant step, Collards said it’s simply a stepping stone on the way to many necessary reforms, spanning the banking sector and judiciary to government policy.
“[In regards to the port explosion,] I don’t think there will be a sense of healing and moving forward until we see justice and accountability, and that will take some difficult decisions by statesmen around how we’ll see progress on that,” he said. “A third anchor in all of this, is if you’re going to follow a democratic process, there needs to be timely, free and fair open elections ... which has been critical to the narrative that I’ve explained to many of the political leaders.
“Having people who have technical skill, capability and knowledge is important. Regardless, they will be judged on their performance and seeing action from them in the areas I’ve talked about,” he said. “The key thing for me is that this new government gets on with having a mandate, delivers that mandate and can actually help deliver this country out of the crises it finds itself in. Lebanon is beautiful, Lebanon’s people are warm and it’s a national tragedy what we’re seeing right now and the people deserve more.”