Lebanon 2012 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Salim Zeenni, Chairman of the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, on trade ties between the US and Lebanon, the roles of the chamber, and the investment potential of the country.

Salim Zeenni
An industrialist by profession, Salim Zeenni runs a plant in the north of Lebanon for the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of consumer care and food industry products to the Middle East, Europe, and North America. He is an active member of the business community, and as well as his role at the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, he is a Member of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, Vice-President of the Chemical Industries Syndicate, and Member of the Executive Committee of the Children’s Cancer Center in Lebanon.

Excluding GCC countries, Lebanon is the MENA region's highest per capita importer of US goods and services. What current trends can you identify in US-Lebanese trade activities?

US exports to Lebanon constitute around 10% of Lebanon's total imports, and that number is on the rise. Given that Lebanon is such a tiny country, it is a huge market for US products and services. Despite the political situation and sensitive relationship Lebanon has had for a long time with the US, the demand for American goods seems to be constantly increasing. For the last three years the US was Lebanon's number one trading partner, with some of the main exports to Lebanon being mineral fuel and oil, machinery and equipment, vehicles, pharmaceutical products, cereals and tobacco, textiles, as well as others.

What is your outlook for US-Lebanese trade levels for 2011 and for the medium term?

Lebanon's reform efforts are a priority for the country, especially in the field of telecommunications, education, and electricity, as well as other infrastructure developments. Any positive outcome will make room for further collaboration with the US and increase investment opportunities and eventually our commercial ties. Given the recent legislation Congress has passed reauthorizing the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP)—the program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by providing preferential duty-free entry for up to 4,800 products—we suspect that exports to the US should increase.

What steps do you feel should be taken to further boost commercial relations between Lebanon and the US?

Lebanon is currently still negotiating its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which will facilitate trade and investment between Lebanon and other countries, and mainly the US. We still have a lot of improvements and reforms to make before we are eligible to join, but once we do, so many doors will be opened and trade will flourish. These improvements and reforms are familiar to us and not unattainable. We have been lobbying for them for a long time, and hopefully things seem to be picking up.

“Lebanon's reform efforts are a priority for the country, especially in the field of telecommunications, education, and electricity, as well as other infrastructure developments."

What are Lebanon's advantages as a destination for current or potential American investment?

There are several factors that make Lebanon a good business partner. It has highly educated human resources, a good quality of life, and a strategic location in the Middle East that qualifies it to be a regional hub and an ideal location for regional headquarters. Lebanon offers one of the most liberal investment climates in the Middle East and offers incentives to attract foreign and domestic investment, including low income tax rates for individuals and corporations. Lebanon has a free-market economy based on a laissez-faire philosophy, and it is mostly dollarized. The absence of controls on the movement of capital and limited restrictions on investors also make it a great candidate. Furthermore, Lebanon was not really affected by the global financial crisis because of its banking regulations and restrictions, and it still boasts high levels of liquidity and remittances.

What is the chamber doing to promote dialogue with public institutions?

The many projects and activities the chamber organizes in collaboration with other associations in Lebanon help foster relationships within Lebanon's public institutions. AmCham Lebanon supports several initiatives by other associations and helps promote their activities if they fall under the general AmCham mission. We have had countless partnerships with public institutions and created dialogue and a synergy between the many entities in Lebanon.