(MENAFN - Arab News) LEBANON is a tiny country, sandwiched in between the two regional powerhouses of Israel and Syria. And as the conflict in Syria continues, Lebanese officials worry that their small country will be squeezed by the conflict.
It's already starting. Shiite gunmen in Lebanon have kidnapped more than 20 people in retaliation for the capture of one of their relatives in Syria by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Members of the Meqdad clan, one of Lebanon's most powerful Shiite families, said their hostages included a Turkish businessman, a Saudi and several Syrians they claim were rebel fighters.
Clan spokesman Maher Al-Miqdad threatened that more Syrian nationals will be kidnapped unless the rebels free his relative. The governments of some Gulf countries have all told their nationals to leave Syria. In another incident, an Air France flight to Beirut was forced to land briefly in Syria after concern was raised because protesters had blocked the road leading to the Beirut airport.
"I am very angry about what is happening here," Lebanon's Minister of Tourism Fady Abboud said. "There are some in Syria and throughout the region who are trying to divide the whole region into different religious states, which goes along quite will with the Jewish state we have here. They are trying to take this part of the world back to the Middle Ages and they are succeeding because of our stupidity."
Abboud says tourism revenues are down by at least 25 percent, a harsh economic blow to a country where 22 percent of GDP comes from tourism.
In 2009, the New York Times rated Beirut as the number one travel destination in the world. Beirut was frequently called "the Paris of the Middle East." But now, says Abboud, the only visitors are Syrians fleeing the violence.
He estimates there are now 500,000 Syrians in Lebanon - some of them are workers who came even before the fighting in Syria, but tens of thousands of others are new arrivals fleeing the fighting. That is putting a strain on a country of just 4.1 million people, and with few natural resources.
"There is an increasing demand on the water and sewage systems," Basma Al-Khatib, the Assistant Director General of the Society for the Protection of Nature. "It's even more difficult because the refugees are localized in certain areas very close to the border. We need for them to spread out a little more."
But of greater concern is that sectarian violence could lead to new fissures in Lebanon. Lebanon fought a long and bitter civil war from 1975-1990 during which an estimated 150,000 people lost their lives. Lebanon's population is divided: 60 percent are Muslim and 39 percent Christians. The Muslims are evenly divided between Sunni and Shiite. The Christians are also divided between Maronite, Greek Orthodox and several other sects. In total, there are 18 recognized religious groups.
To try to avoid sectarian violence, Lebanon instituted a system called "confessionalism." Different government posts are reserved for members of specific religious groups. For example, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim.
Officials worry that the carefully crafted agreement could come apart if sectarian tensions spill over from Syria. In the Al-Meqdad case, they are Shiite and the people they kidnapped are Sunni. Bashar Assad is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, while the rebels are primarily Sunni. Tourism Minister Fady Abboud said he does not believe that Assad's regime is on the verge of collapse.
"It's not something which is going to resolve itself in a few weeks," he said. "It's a long-term thing."
Abboud said religious tensions in Lebanon or the rest of the Middle East have only negative consequences.
"Instead of spending money on education and development, we are spending money fighting each other," he said. "We are so stupid, and we are acting as the rest of the world did in the Middle Ages."