PHOENICIA TO THE MOON

Lebanon 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Salim Zeenni, Chairman of American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), on initiatives to bring Lebanese start-up culture to the world, how to advocate on behalf of SMEs, and sectors driving the Lebanese economy forward.

 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.

How would you evaluate the evolution of the business environment in the wake of the new political stability?

The business environment in Lebanon has grown used to unrest and political instability over the decades; therefore, it is hard to see real quantifiable evolution in development or growth. However, the general sentiment is optimistic and hopeful. Most corporations are starting to feel the positive effects and would say that business is “doing better.” People are more confident, ready to take risks, and venture into new businesses because the political situation is stabilized.

How will the policies of the US president affect economic relations between the US and MENA?

The AmCham MENA Council aims to promote intraregional trade relationships, while promoting the region as a whole to the US. So far, we have not seen any negative effect on economic relations between countries in the region. President Trump is a businessman at heart, and it seems that he has the interest of the private sector, so we hope this will affect us positively rather than negatively.

What are the main highlights of the Startup Lebanon-Silicon Valley Roadshow?

Caravan Beirut was a showcase of Lebanese designers, artists, and creativity in general. We managed to attract hundreds of people to our pop-up exhibition over four days in the middle of M Street in Georgetown, DC, and to put the spotlight on the alternative and unique side of Lebanon. Everyone was impressed with the talent and capabilities of the Lebanese. Which brings us to another related sector that we have been promoting heavily for the past two years: the start-up and entrepreneurial world, which has been on the rise for the past few years. We started with “Startup Lebanon” in New York City in 2015, followed by the “Startup Lebanon Silicon Valley Roadshow” in September 2016. Both initiatives were extraordinary in their reach and outcome, and were extremely successful in fulfilling their main mission: to showcase and promote Lebanese entrepreneurs and start-ups to an audience of investors, diaspora, accelerators, and other successful Lebanese start-ups in the US, while giving young entrepreneurs and the Lebanese start-up ecosystem a taste of the famous American tech story, particularly in Silicon Valley. We still have plans for future initiatives that will emerge in due time.

How is AmCham working to educate SMEs about new regulations and opportunities?

AmCham is a platform for exchange of knowledge and a resource for awareness and advocacy. We have several committees that work on sector-specific concerns, and throughout the year we organize various workshops, conferences, roundtables, and meetings to discuss and advocate for key issues that are important to our member companies, most of which are SMEs. We are also a network that connects companies and creates opportunities for its members.

Which sectors are currently the most attractive for investors?

Energy and alternative energy, oil and gas, financial technologies, hospitality and tourism, technology start-ups, and food and beverage.