BEIRUT: “The delay in the formation of the Lebanese government has not stopped the continuation of Lebanon’s implementation of projects and reforms of the Cedar Conference,” Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri told the Lebanon-UK Businessmen and Investment Forum in London on Wednesday.
During the Cedar conference in Paris last April, Lebanon received about $11.8 billion in loans, grants and investments to help fund structural reforms. However, talks to form a new Lebanese government following elections in May have been deadlocked for months, finally prompting President Michel Aoun to intervene in an attempt to broker a deal.
“The region is moving toward a stage of security and stability despite all the ongoing turmoil,” Hariri said. “We all need to be prepared for this stage to take advantage of the investment and commercial opportunities that lie ahead for reconstruction.
“We have reconsidered some sectors and projects to accelerate the planning and implementation of projects. We maintain regular dialogue with multilateral development banks to harmonize funding with investment-spending projects, and the Lebanese Parliament has also passed important legislation on some of the reforms required.
“The economy of Lebanon is under tremendous pressure, in part because of the continuing regional turmoil. Moreover, the economic and social challenges we are facing are exacerbated by the continued existence of one and a half million displaced Syrians for the eighth consecutive year."
Hariri also stressed “the role of the private sector in Lebanon and Britain to establish partnerships and joint ventures.”
He added: “The Tripoli Special Economic Zone in North Lebanon is the ideal platform for British manufacturers to produce and export to the region. It is only 30 km from the Syrian border and can make Lebanon a natural platform for the reconstruction of Syria.”
Alistair Burt, the British minister of state for international development, reiterated his country’s solidarity with Lebanon and respect for its independence and sovereignty, and pledged UK support for dealing with the complex situation in the region.
In particular, he praised “the Lebanese armed forces, which provides security and stability in its territory and on the Syrian border for the first time in the history of Lebanon, and was able, thanks to its capabilities, to defeat Daesh.”
He also stressed his nation’s “commitment to supporting these (Lebanese armed) forces,” and noted that “Britain has lifted the ban on its citizens visiting several places in Lebanon. All of them can now visit Baalbek, and see its magnificent monuments and enjoy the exceptional Lebanese hospitality.”
Burt also highlighted the business opportunities in Lebanon for British companies.
“The investment opportunities available in Lebanon are many and varied and include a variety of fields, which encourages the British private sector and investors to take advantage of the opportunities available to them and participate in the implementation of the Cedar projects, which makes it necessary for Lebanon to implement necessary reforms and form a government as soon as possible,” he said. “Lebanon is an important center of democracy and Britain is proud to be its partner.”
One British company already reaping the rewards of doing business in Lebanon is Rolls Royce, which signed a $300 million aircraft-engine contract with Lebanese national carrier Middle East Airlines at the forum. In the presence of Hariri and Burt, Mohammed Al-Hout, the chairman of the airline’s board of directors, and Rolls-Royce Chairman Ian Davies signed the agreement for the British company to provide the carrier with its latest Trent 7000 engines, along with servicing and long-term maintenance.
Simon Penney, the UK’s trade commissioner for the Middle East, said the deal was an example of the potential rewards awaiting British investors.
“Lebanon enjoys a dynamic, ambitious and open-minded business environment and we encourage investors in our country to look at it seriously,” he said. “Last year our trade volume was about £600 million ($760 million). Direct British investment in Lebanon rose by 47 percent in 2015 and 2016.
“The Beirut Container Terminal Consortium, a joint venture with Mersey Docks and Harbour UK, helped make Beirut Harbor the busiest port in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and the Lebanese-British Technology Center has supported, since its launch in 2015, more than 80 startups and helped create 2000 jobs.
“Last month, the London Stock Exchange Group launched its new ELITE program for Lebanese business under the auspices of the Lebanese Financial Markets Authority. Today, we have a deal worth $300 million between Rolls-Royce and Middle East Airlines.”
Penney urged Lebanon to fulfill its “commitment to economic reform to prove that it is a country that can be invested in.”
Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in the Lebanese caretaker government, called for “the safe, dignified and sustainable return of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their country, away from any political agenda, because Lebanon should cease to be a victim of the crisis in the region and in Syria. It should be a platform for reconstruction of Syria, Iraq and the East at the right time.”
As the one-day forum concluded, Hariri said: “Investors are keen to come to Lebanon because they know that there are real opportunities that will be provided by Cedar.
“The formation of the government should have taken place earlier; I am ready, the names are ready and so is the distribution of the portfolios, but everyone knows by now where the disruption comes from.
“President Michel Aoun is making contacts and the Lebanese are all appreciative of what he is doing. We are doing what we have to do. Hopefully, the efforts will lead to positive results. I realized something positive today and we will remain positive for the benefit of the country.”