GOOD TRADE

Lebanon 2016 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Salim Zeenni, Chairman of the American-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, on the draw of Lebanese skilled labor, promoting SMEs, and opportunities for US investments in Lebanon.

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 as the Chairman of 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 are the factors that make Lebanese talent so attractive abroad?

Lebanon has always been a trend-setter and a gateway to the Middle East, whether it is for business, fashion, or any other sector. One always sees Lebanese people carrying out entrepreneurial projects, doing business abroad, and working as professionals around the world, from Gulf countries to Latin America. Traditionally, European countries were the ones taking advantage of that, especially France, due to the historical ties we have, but in the past year this trend has been expanding to countries that lay farther from Lebanon, the US being the clearest example. Lebanon is an excellent place to establish a foothold in this region because we know the markets—we have done business with every single one of these countries, we speak three languages, and we have the human capital to serve as a platform for companies' expansion across the Middle East.

How does American influence on Lebanese education institutions benefit the bilateral relationship?

We have a close bond with the US education system, which has prompted a positive effect on building trade relations and promoting businesses between our countries. The most prestigious universities in Lebanon are connected to American universities on a varied scale and this has transformed their structure in different ways. Also, a large number of university-educated people in Lebanon come from an American educational background, many of them even going to the US to study. This trend has existed for years and has eased the path for people who want to do business with the US or who want to take part in their operations there. An Americanized education has not only taught them to negotiate in English; it has also showed them the culture there and how to succeed in such a competitive market. When thinking about business opportunities that can develop from both sides, we have the most important factor already in place: human capital.

What is your strategy for globally promoting Lebanese SMEs?

New regulations establish various customs standards and one of our jobs has been to educate SMEs so they know what these regulations are and how they can abide by these standards. Bringing Lebanese SMEs up to international standards has been the biggest challenge thus far, but we are focusing our efforts on making this happen. We hold conferences and workshops to educate them on the many regulations, how they can comply with them, and the benefits that fulfilling this framework can bring about. Our biggest contribution has been advising SMEs and raising awareness of what is happening in their surroundings, how to structure a well-planed strategy to grow their business, and how to come up with innovative solutions that will place them in an advantageous position. The chamber is fully committed to the improvement of Lebanese SMEs and we want to contribute as much as possible to their development.

What are the major opportunities for companies in the US to do business in Lebanon at this moment?

Unfortunately, investment opportunities in Lebanon have fallen in the last two years, mainly those that were once shining opportunities for US companies. The political instability and economic downturn have severely affected most sectors in the economy and made them risky to invest in; having said that, Lebanon is a great gateway into the MENA region, especially GCC countries. We know those markets well, and it is easy to start from Lebanon and move from there. We also relate well to the way of doing business in Western nations, combining the best of both worlds. My hopes are for a brighter future for Lebanon in the coming years, where it will become an attractive hub for investment and for companies basing their regional operations here, and where local businesses are ready to prosper outside the country.