Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Lebanon’s government can be professional

Despite popular belief that the Lebanese government is either corrupt or incompetent, and most likely both, there is one big exception to the rule: The Sûreté Générale. This is where all foreigners have to go to in order to renew their residence permits. And they renew them in a highly efficient and professional manner.

Today I had to go do my paperwork there. As always, things went very smooth. They have put up huge posters that list all required documents. This is a major step against corruption because it informs citizens exactly of what is needed for a residence permit. Other governmental agencies don’t have this level of transparency, which can be very frustrating. For sure you will be missing a certain paper here or a stamp there.

It’s almost a funny process: The government employee starts to look painfully at a certain document, usually all written in Arabic so the foreigner can’t read it. As an experienced actor and with much regret in his voice, he then informs you that a stamp is missing. “Ai, too bad, because now you have to restart the whole procedure”, he kindly adds.

This leaves you with two options: either go home and get the damn stamp or ask him if he can somehow solve it because you are in a hurry and surely he would appreciate the urgency. “Of course”, you add slyly, “I understand if there are certain extra costs involved to fast track my application”.

The last option is well, let’s say culturally attuned to Lebanon, but it’s not easy to do, especially when coming from a country like Holland where such behavior could lend you in jail. The first option, while fully legal, usually results in yet another paper missing next time you bring him the missing stamp. It can literally take many visits to the ever gentle employee to finally get all the papers and the stamps.

None of this at the Sûreté Générale, though. The whole process is clear and really highly professional. One glitch occurred, however, when I submitted my application. First, he asked me what profession I have because the residence paper is linked to your job. So I told him ‘Auditor’. Then I gave him my passport pictures. The rules on the huge billboard in the hallway require two passport pictures, which I meticulously had brought with me.

But no, he looked at them and shook his head: “Not nice picture”. First I thought he was joking so I wittily replied: “I told you I am an auditor, not Mr. Lebanon so I don’t care for a nice picture”. He laughed but that didn’t change his opinion, the pictures were not nice. Impressive, because usually a nice comment or a little joke goes a long way in Lebanon, but not here, not now.

After a bit going back and forth, it turned out that the pictures had to be in color and mine were black and white. “But I am wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a very dark, almost black tie. My eyes are grey and my hair is white…so what good would a color picture do?” Again, he laughed but again my joke didn’t change his opinion. I had to go to a photographer to get color pictures.

And you know, I was highly impressed with this: there is no room for negotiation at the Sûreté Générale. The rules are applied without exception. Very good indeed. If only all government branches were as professional as the Sûreté Générale, this country could go places.


Gerard said...

Passport pictures these days are problematic in Holland too. Pictures need to obey many conditions. And even though photographers are instructed, many people are sent away by the civil servant to bring new pictures. As was my wife lately. I told her these are Lebanese conditions. And see, I was right.

George said...

Good article, thanks. I fully agree with the professional level of the surete general. BTW, it's not only for foreingers but also for Lebanese who get their passports from them. Jamil Sayyed has done a good job, although now he's in jail for his involvement with the Hariri killing.

abollam said...

In Canada, your official picture is not acceptable if you were smiling!

Erik van Ommering said...
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Erik van Ommering said...
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Sietske said...

Get a fixer, and you will never have to see the Surete General from the inside again. Very good for your stress levels. It is also a sign of your advanced stage of integration into Lebanese culture/society. (Dat is er een voor de inburgerings cursus)