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Lebanon 2015 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Salim Zeenni, Chairman of the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, on trade activities between the two countries and how to further develop that trade.

Salim Zeenni
BIOGRAPHY
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 in addition to 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.

What trends do you identify in US-Lebanese trade activities?

Consuming America is always a trend, everywhere in the world really. While nothing dramatic has changed, the exchange rate between euro and the dollar has had an impact. The dollar was becoming very strong versus the euro. This will automatically encourage certain fields of imports from Europe versus the US. Nevertheless, we have a dollarized economy in Lebanon, so we are very comfortable about this level of exchange.

What trends have you witnessed in terms of companies applying for membership in the last years?

We have always kept a steady number of companies who are joining the chamber. Most of them are the major corporations operating in Lebanon, either Lebanese or American companies. In fact, there hasn't been much change in the structure of our membership in the chamber.

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

The outlook is good. In fact, I recently came back from the US where Amcham and Startup Megaphone held the first Start Up Lebanon conference in NYC. This is the future of the economy, especially in countries like Lebanon. Definitely any development of this sector would be towards the United States because this is the biggest market in the world for start-ups. We had a very interesting and successful trip there. We took approximately 40 start-ups from Lebanon, introduced them to major players in the US, and it was impressive to see the level of interest in Lebanon. We had around 250 people the whole day during the conference. All start-ups had the chance to meet with major investors, funds, and VC's. We are optimistic about the next period.

What is your assessment of the overall business environment in Lebanon and where in particular can new reforms be implemented in order to facilitate country's further economic growth?

The competition is the strongest from the Gulf region. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar are developing so quickly and unfortunately the political problems in Lebanon affect our ability to compete with these markets. But, at the same time the business environment in Lebanon is not only about investing in the infrastructure and telecommunication sectors, it is also about the Lebanese way of life. To be in Lebanon, you need good internet connection and ICT, which are now available. We had some hiccups over the years but we are now in a steady period. The only challenge we still have is to attract more international companies so that the investor in Lebanon will be better exposed to the global market—this is a major advantage the Gulf states have over us. In terms of reforms, there is a lot to do. The major things we should focus on is the public sector; refurbishing the infrastructure, developing the ICT sector, pushing for privatization, investing in the facilities that would attract investors, and building new airports. The capital market is also important because to invest in a company you need an exit strategy and you can't have an exit strategy if you don't have a capital market. Laws have to be changed or amended concerning investments and exit strategies in Lebanon, and intellectual property protection laws, in particular, need tougher enforcement.

What sectors of the Lebanese economy are in the highest need for FDI and what are Lebanon's advantages as an investment destination?

Energy is important for Lebanon because it is a way out from the burden of debt. Unfortunately, I don't see it growing in the near future. The next thing that should be done besides developing the ICT sector is investing in the Lebanese people through the educational system—not only the private education system. The public education system was very good before 1975, now it is almost non-existent. A good public educational system will enable the Lebanese people to have the chance to be a part of the country's development.