Was Intra Bank's Fall A Prelude to Lebanon's Downfall?

06/22/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Forget local history books that don't fully account for a civil war and other setbacks that ruined the country and follow the money in Lebanon's tortuous slide from "Switzerland of the Middle East" to dysfunctional entity par excellence.

To do so, one must read Kamal Dib's tome "Yousef Beidas: The Intra Empire & Money Sharks in Lebanon" that painstakingly (and painfully) recounts the story of a prodigy who parlayed a money exchange business into one of the world's fastest growing international banking empires before internal and external enemies conspired to ruin him and his carefully nurtured domain.

Yousef Beidas: The Intra Empire & Money Sharks in
Lebanon (Abu-Fadil)

Lebanese-Canadian Dib, who also penned "Warlords and Merchants: The Lebanese Business and Political Establishments" a decade before the recent Arabic language book hit the shelves, carefully blends economics - his specialty - with history, human interest, politics and intrigue to paint a tormented picture of Beidas' adopted country and its subsequent unraveling.

"Beidas' astounding rise and fall was considered by some to presage the terrible Lebanese-Palestinian disputes of the seventies, but it seemed to me to symbolize the broken trajectory imposed on so many of us by the events of 1948," wrote the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said in his memoir "Out of Place," which Dib quoted.

Former Intra Bank building in Beirut (Abu-Fadil)

Palestinian militias in the 1960s and 1970s helped trigger and inflame Lebanon's civil war.

To understand the dynamics, Dib shows how the transformation of Palestine (Said's and Beidas' native land) into Israel in 1948 led to a diaspora of Palestinians who sought refuge in neighboring countries like Lebanon, and beyond, where many became legends in their own lifetimes.

One such star was the Clark Gable-like, Nazareth-born Beidas, a successful Christian who managed Britain's Barclays Bank branch in Jerusalem before sending off his Lebanese wife Widad to Beirut and eventually taking flight when heated battles between Zionist organizations and Palestinians made life impossible for the couple.

Widad Beidas 1965-66 (Abu-Fadil)

He set up a currency exchange business before developing it into a full-fledged bank

"Half a century after the fall of Intra Bank, we remember the giant behind it, Yousef Beidas, and its earth-shattering impact on Lebanon, not just economically, but on the political front, notably its Arab and international ramifications that since the late 1960s legitimized the destruction of Lebanon's economy and its gem Beirut," writes Dib in his 543-page account.

Intra Bank was later reshaped into an investment company, a shadow of its former glorious past.

Beidas' fault: he was an ambitious, self-assured Anglophile outsider to the cutthroat clubby deal-making Francophile milieu of Lebanese finance, politics, sectarianism and Levantine mercantilism.

Screen shot of Beidas (left) at Intra Bank's New York branch opening in 1963

His success was in establishing and expanding a bank that owned prime real estate on New York's Fifth Avenue alongside Rockefeller Center, Paris' Champs Elysées, London, Geneva and other world money centers, providing services nobody else offered, and buying into (or founding) key Lebanese enterprises.

Predictably, it made him a long list of enemies.

Google Earth image of 680 Fifth Avenue, former Intra Bank building

Part of Intra Bank's empire included Middle East Airlines (Lebanon's national carrier); the five-star Phoenicia Hotel ravaged during the 1975-90 civil war and later refurbished; the Casino du Liban, a gambling and entertainment magnet for Arab and foreign big spenders; countless companies; and Studio Baalbeck, a sound recording and movie production enterprise that promoted Lebanon's and the region's singing and acting stars.

Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel ravaged during civil war (Abu-Fadil)

Not only did Beidas believe in Lebanon's potential as a banking, tourism and services center, he also sought to turn it into Hollywood East by convincing cinema glitterati to shoot feature films in it. He even bought into Warner Brothers studios in the U.S.

But the debonair banker was also said to be secretive, to fly by the seat of his pants, to enter into risky deals without referring back to his board, and to not play by internationally recognized banking rules.

At that time, regulatory parameters weren't the norm in Lebanon.

Yousef Beidas 1965-66 (Abu-Fadil)

Beidas' foes included then Lebanese president Charles Helou, prime minister Abdallah El Yafi, the president's brother-in-law and acting central bank head Joseph Oghourlian, countless politicians, and other financial heavy-hitters.

Author Dib also pointed an accusatory finger at the rise of global neoliberalism represented by multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex and the collusion of Lebanese flunkies with neo-colonial mindsets whose interests lay outside Lebanon.

It didn't help that Beidas was an Arab nationalist who supported the Palestinian cause and eventually turned on Arab (notably Gulf) bank patrons who he felt had sold him out in favor of Western interests.

The circling vultures in Lebanon caused a run on the bank through the rumor mill by falsely stating Intra was folding, thereby causing a liquidity crisis although the institution had money and more than adequate assets to cover any losses, as later reports attested.

MEA plane cockpit (Abu-Fadil)

Lebanese powers-that-be remain in a state of denial and won't acknowledge they killed the goose that laid the golden egg, literally and figuratively.

Intra collapsed in 1966 when the Lebanese central bank refused to help save it, and Beidas died a sick and broken man two years later in self exile in Switzerland leaving a legacy that will never be replicated.

His wife and children spent years in litigation trying to salvage what they could from his personal assets.

Dib did pre- and post-war generations a great service by writing Beidas' biography and meticulously chronicling a significant portion of Lebanon's modern history.