STAYING POSITIVE

Lebanon 2016 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Nabil Itani, Chairman-General Manager of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL), on the role of the organization in attracting investment to Lebanon.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the enactment of Law 360 to foster investments into Lebanon. What is your assessment of the current state of investment in Lebanon?

Doing a briefing of what these past 15 years have been for Lebanon since Law 360 was implemented, the first thing that comes up is the country's resilience and ability to continue attracting investments despite the many national, regional and international challenges. When the worldwide financial crisis hit global markets in 2009, Lebanon was hitting growth rate figures of more 10%, and FDI reached all times high of USD4.96 billion. When the region was engulfed in the Arab Spring, Lebanon remained one of the few regional economies to register positive growth in FDI levels. We have managed to maintain FDI levels at around USD3 billion, proving Lebanon's resilience and forcing us to do more as this number does not match our ambitions. Despite drop in FDI figures in 2015 as per the last UNCTAD report, we see positive prospects for the year to come given Lebanon's fundamentals and an increasing momentum by the national government in mobilizing diaspora investments. We are currently working on increasing diaspora direct investments to Lebanon and we have a series of roadshows coming up across the globe to present our country's opportunities, which are many. In addition to that, there is an increase belief in the role that Lebanon can play in serving the regional market specially conflict areas which might be in need of basic commodities in the years to come. We are seeing increase investments in the food and beverage sector with exports increasing at a CAGR of more than 8% and relocation of Syrian firms to Lebanon. In addition, Lebanon is being more and more seen as a destination for business process outsourcing.

Amid the complex environment Lebanon has faced in the past year, what have been some of the actions of IDAL to turn these challenges into opportunities?

The challenges have been impacting both our foreign and national investments but also exports. With the closure of the Syrian border, half of our trading routes were suddenly cut. With IDAL's main mandate to support in the promotion of Lebanese goods, it has put in place a new program, namely the Maritime Lebanese Export Bridge Program (M.Leb), which basically supports exporters to transport their goods via maritime means to counter for the loss of the land route. This program has had a positive impact on exporters in the agriculture, agro food, and industry sectors with many companies benefiting from government support. The impact on investments and with the recent measures imposed by some Gulf states to forbid their citizens from visiting Lebanon the tourism industry, which has been relying heavily on Gulf spending, has suffered. This was an opportunity for us to tap again into our diaspora before by working in partnership with public and private organizations to identify diaspora members who would either directly invest in Lebanon or support in outsourcing part of their operations to Lebanon. We have a very large diaspora presence in Latin America, Western Africa, and the Gulf, and we plan to use their influence to establish trade ties, sign partnerships with local companies, and in the best cases attract investors to see the potential Lebanon entails. It is also important to note that, despite the many challenges, our main duty as national investment agency has been to continuously promote our sector's competitive advantages. We are just starting a campaign to promote our sectors and remind investors of the many facilities available to them.

IDAL has structured different strategies to approach the Lebanese diaspora. What are some of the actions you have taken in this regard?

The initiative to approach our diaspora around the world is a unified effort from IDAL, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the private sector. We have been working for several years in cooperation with the international institutions, especially EUROMED MIGRATION, the Med Generation project, and ICMPD to develop a national strategy to attract direct investment from expatriates and increase the effectiveness of the economic link between Lebanon and the diaspora from around the world. The strategic framework we are setting today is based on the identification of the productive sectors of interest to expatriates from the investment side and the promotion of Lebanese products through specialized exhibitions in the prevalence countries. Also, we are working on identifying the major sites that the initiatives should target and recommendation of steps to be taken in order to link IDAL initiatives to expatriate concerns. We organized several workshops along with the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) to map those economic sectors in countries with large Lebanese presence. This allowed us, for instance, to go to Silicon Valley and identify which ICT companies are led by people from Lebanese origins to link them to our local ecosystem here. We also created a database with all the information coming from the countries where the diaspora is spread to link them and let them take a part in this activity. We have taken actions at a PR level with exporters and other business people to connect them through technological applications. Every Lebanese expatriate has the will to reconnect to their country, but many of them do not have the means to do so; IDAL is now creating the means, the opportunities, and the capabilities to bring them back in any form possible.

The knowledge economy sector is one of the most promising ones at the moment. How have you channeled your resources to help this sector grow?

Three years ago we developed a business process outsourcing strategy given our belief in the potential of the country to serve as outsourcing destination to companies engaged in ICT-related services. We carried out several roadshows to promote our location advantages. This year we partnered with Berytech to promote Lebanon in the Canadian market and we held a presentation and workshop in Paris for Lebanese companies to establish partnerships and business opportunities with French companies. We have tailored tax break incentives and easier licenses issue for the startup ecosystem and we have partnered with many incubators and accelerators to simplify the process for companies to set up their companies. We are currently preparing an ICT sector event in Oman due to that country's increasing interest in our ecosystem.

What is IDAL's involvement in the project to create three industrial cities across Lebanese territory?

We have carried out different studies for the development of the industrial and economic zones that are taking over the national territory, not only for these three planned cities, but also for the Tripoli Special Economic Zone and other flagship projects in the country. We identified that the demand is in the manufacturing sector here, so we arranged this industry to allocate a series of companies under one single umbrella that would ultimately become the industrial zone. We also identified that there were some underdeveloped regions in the country across the south and the east, so we pushed for the relocation of these industrial cities to those unprivileged areas. Finally, we are working now on setting up the incentive plans that will attract investment to these regions.

With the eventual development of the oil and gas sector in Lebanon, have you started approaching potential investors?

The studies have been finalized, and now we are preparing to launch the tenders that will serve for international investors to see the potential of this industry in Lebanon. The oil and gas sector is currently supervised by the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA), so we are working in partnership with it to promote the tenders, but we are not directly involved in the attraction of investors. What we are expecting is for peace to settle in Syria so we can manage all the reconstruction efforts from Lebanon, and also for our promising oil and gas industry to finally take off.