Business / Corporate

Dramatic downfall of Carlos Ghosn reverberates in Lebanon

by Zeina Karam

AP

He may have fallen from grace internationally as one of the auto industry’s most powerful leaders, but Carlos Ghosn can count on continued support in at least one corner of the globe.

Lebanon has long held hopes that Ghosn, whose grandparents were Lebanese and who holds extensive development projects in the country, would play a bigger role in politics one day, or help rescue its increasingly sluggish economy.

But Ghosn, ex-chairman of Nissan Motor Co., was detained in Tokyo last month on allegations of underreporting his income, and on Friday, a court approved extending his detention for 10 more days.

Now, politicians across the board in Lebanon are mobilizing in his defense, with some suggesting his detention may be part of a political or business-motivated conspiracy, and the government even considering extraditing him from Tokyo to face trial here.

“To Carlos Ghosn in his predicament I say, a Lebanese phoenix will not be scorched by the Japanese sun,” Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said at a security conference in Beirut last week.

Lebanon, a tiny country of 4.5 million, takes excessive pride in its huge emigrant community and successful businessmen and celebrities of Lebanese heritage. They include Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, Colombian singer Shakira, Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek, Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney, and fashion designers Elie Saab and Reem Accra.

The Lebanese took special pride in the auto industry icon, who holds a Lebanese passport, speaks fluent Arabic and visits regularly, including a last visit right before he was detained in Tokyo. Born in Brazil, where his Lebanese grandfather had sought his fortune, Ghosn grew up in Beirut, where he spent part of his childhood in a Jesuit school.

As he began his ascent in the auto industry, first with Renault and then by bringing Nissan back from the brink of bankruptcy, Ghosn kept in touch with old friends. He married twice, first to a Lebanese woman who resides in Beirut and again in 2016 to Carole Nahas, also of Lebanese heritage.

As a Maronite Christian, Ghosn’s name occasionally popped up as a possible candidate for the presidency, but he repeatedly dismissed suggestions he would run for office, saying he is not a politician. The post of president is reserved for a Christian in Lebanon’s sectarian-based system of government.

Although the extent of his businesses in Lebanon is not known exactly, Ghosn has spoken in interviews about various real estate projects in the country and sits on the board of several universities, hospitals and charities. In 2012, he became a partner in the Lebanese winery IXSIR, and is a board member of family-owned Saradar Bank.

In 2017, the government honored him with a special postage stamp, a show of respect to a man considered a model of Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit.

So when news broke Nov. 19 that Ghosn, 64, had been detained on allegations he underreported billions of yen in income, and that Nissan is accusing him of using company money for personal gain, people in Lebanon were stunned — and many were unconvinced.

Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil promptly issued a statement saying Lebanon would stand by Ghosn, adding he had asked Lebanon’s ambassador to Tokyo to look out for “the model of Lebanese success abroad.” The ambassador has since reportedly met three times with Ghosn — who is being held in a small cell in Tokyo Detention House — providing him with a mattress and food, according to one report on a local TV channel.

Ghosn’s dramatic downfall has sparked various conspiracy theories, with some claiming that his arrest was a U.S. ploy to punish him for resisting sanctions on Iran and others speculating it was an internal coup engineered by Nissan executives.

Melhem Riachi, the information minister, urged officials to intervene with the Japanese government, tweeting: “An investigation is extremely important. Something stinks.”

Allegations against Ghosn that have reported in the Japanese media, but unconfirmed, suggest he spent Nissan funds on fancy homes in Paris, Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Amsterdam, and on family vacations and other personal expenses. Ghosn has denied the allegations against him, saying he had no intention of underreporting his income, the reports say.

Ghosn’s three-story property in one of Beirut’s most prized real estate districts stands out for its pink walls and blue shuttered windows. The traditional old Lebanese house was acquired and renovated in 2014, according to neighbors who said they occasionally saw him visiting.

“He is a successful businessman with a good reputation … he is not someone you would expect to be a cheat,” said Rouba Rabah, who owns an art gallery opposite Ghosn’s property.

Another neighbor who declined to give his name said he was stunned by the news like every other Lebanese would be, recalling how he would see Ghosn personally overseeing the renovation work four years ago.

Lebanese businessmen, many of them personal friends of Ghosn, have rallied around him, even after he was stripped of his title as chairman at Nissan and at partner Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

A group of Lebanese lawyers is now considering forming a team for his defense, and Justice Minister Salim Jreissati told Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that the government is considering asking Japan to extradite Ghosn to face trial on Lebanese soil.

Lawyer Amal Haddad said she and the current head of the Lebanese Lawyers’ Syndicate, Andree Chidiac, were considering the options. “That’s all I can say until we are formally assigned the case,” Haddad said.

In Ghosn’s downfall, many here see a lost opportunity. The country’s economy is struggling, with experts warning it is dangerously close to collapse after decades of mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

Cabinet Minister Mouin Merhebi said Ghosn’s arrest is regrettable.

“He is an important personality, an economic personality we had hoped would one day play a role in Lebanese political life, a role to salvage Lebanon,” he said.