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Nabil A. Itani

LEBANON - Economy

A Few Simple Steps

Chairman and General Manager, Investment Development Authority Lebanon (IDAL)

Bio

Born in 1953, Nabil A. Itani is Chairman and General Manager of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL). His career spans over three decades of professional achievement, including significant contributions to the architectural profession and diligent service to his native Lebanon. An accomplished architect and architectural consultant, his professional experience is wide-ranging and far-reaching, encompassing the design and supervision of landmark projects in Lebanon and around the Arab world.

"We have a good number of foreign investors who entered the Lebanese market recently."

How would you assess the flow of FDI in 2013?

The main mandate of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) is to encourage investment and attract foreign capital to Lebanon. In the last few years, the turmoil happening in the MENA region has had its toll on the image of the region as a viable destination for investment, and since Lebanon is well known as the region’s business hub, we were indirectly affected. From an investor’s point of view, regional opportunities and access are more important than local access, and it is the regional picture that matters the most. If the region is unstable, then investing in a country as a means to reach out to the wider market becomes precarious. Since 2011, the Middle East has been passing through challenges with the various revolutions in places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. In 2012, the conflict in Syria began to escalate and it directly affected the economy in Lebanon. Syria is a neighboring country and our land exports and transit depend on it for us to reach our traditional markets. This resulted in an economic slowdown in some sectors; however, UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2013 and the Arab Investment and Export Guarantee Corporation recently released FDI figures for 2012 that highlighted that, despite the current political and security conditions, FDI inflows to Lebanon reached $3.79 billion. This is a 8.5% increase from 2011, making Lebanon one of the largest recipients of FDI in the region, ranking third after the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Lebanon’s positive growth was enhanced by foreign acquisitions in the insurance industry and in services related to real estate. New gas discoveries in Lebanese waters along the northern maritime boundary with Cyprus and Syria offer prospects for the country to attract FDI in oil exploration.

Who is currently investing in Lebanon?

To understand who is investing in Lebanon, we need to look first at what makes the country an attractive business destination. The country relies on many competitive advantages, among which are its liberal market, strategic geographic location, cosmopolitan lifestyle, the availability of skilled labor, and the soundness of the banking sector, among others. These advantages contribute to attracting investment from three main categories: local investors and expatriates, Arab investors, and international investors. As it is quite well known, Lebanon has a wide diaspora, with many success stories across the globe. Recently, we have started witnessing the re-location of some of their businesses to Lebanon after they were affected in their host countries by the financial crisis and the political situation in some of the Arab countries they are in. The second category as mentioned includes Arab investors, especially from the Gulf area. Lebanon depends heavily on this category of investors. The third category represents international companies that choose Lebanon as a hub for their operations in the Middle East. Investments established by this category of investors are witnessing a current slowdown due to the regional instability, although they highly believe in the potential of the Lebanese market and this is reflected by the number of enquiries we are receiving from potential investors on a monthly basis. Lebanon’s main foreign investors come from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, and the UK.

What figures are you expecting in terms of FDI?

Investments that pass through IDAL to benefit from financial incentives and our one-stop-shop services do not represent all of the investments in the country. This is because there are some eligibility criteria, such as the size of investment and number of jobs created, which are taken into consideration. Consequently, in terms of the overall size of investments, and according to the UNCTAD, we reached $3.79 billion in 2012, up 8.5% on the previous year. As such, we are among the few countries that registered an increase in FDI during 2012.

“We have a good number of foreign investors who entered the Lebanese market recently.”

What new international companies have recently entered Lebanon?

We have a good number of foreign investors who entered the Lebanese market recently, among them of which is Majid Al Futtaim from the UAE, one of the biggest real estate and retail companies, and Arwan, in the pharmaceutical industry.

What are Lebanon’s advantages as a destination for FDI?

There are four main advantages: accessibility to regional markets (consisting of 300 million consumers) enhanced by a great number of bilateral agreements; accessibility to human resources—qualified workers can be hired in Lebanon at a very competitive price compared to other areas in the region; accessibility to resources and raw materials—Lebanon is situated in an area that is rich in raw materials; and accessibility to finance—due to a very sophisticated banking and services sector that surpasses our boundaries as we have around 112 branches of Lebanese banks outside Lebanon, targeting the diaspora all over the world as well as Gulf and EU citizens. The deposits in the banking sector are three times the GDP of Lebanon. All of these pillars constitute a well regulated, investor-friendly environment.

How do you assess the process for a foreign investor coming to Lebanon compared to other countries in the region?

One of our main pillars for attracting investment is our economy, liberal market, and a helpful regulatory environment; for example, it will take you only 37 procedures and around nine days to start your business in Lebanon.

What are the most attractive sectors for foreign investors at the moment?

Over the past year, tourism has been the most attractive sector. If you look at the projects that are passing through IDAL, around 54% of them fall under tourism. The tourism sector holds promising investment opportunities such as in health care, since Lebanon boasts a highly skilled workforce in that area and attractive infrastructure comprised of 35 doctors and 31 hospital beds per 10,000 people. Another sub-sector of tourism is conferences and exhibitions. Although it is witnessing a slowdown due to the geopolitical situation, this sub-sector holds great potential. Another area is the agro-industrial sector, which exhibits a growth of 15% a year on average. A large amount of investments have been channeled into this sector in recent years. A further one is ICT, which is very promising, especially in the field of service outsourcing for the international market. Lebanese ICT companies have good links with international companies and many have become success stories. Skilled and multilingual human resources are fundamental in this sector. We have 3,000 engineers graduating from universities yearly. The hiring cost of these engineers is very competitive relative to other areas. The yearly salary of an engineer is around $50,000 compared to Germany, where it reaches around $150,000. This boosts Lebanon as a hub for EU and US companies that are seeking to outsource their services related to mainframes, programming, and e-commerce. We have some promising sub-sectors in the industrial sector as well, such as high-tech pharmaceuticals. In pharmaceuticals, we produce only 9% of our local demand, and export around 91%. It is a promising sector to invest in.

What is your outlook for Lebanon’s economy in the medium term?

Despite the unstable situation in the region, I believe that the Lebanese economy has shown very strong resilience, which has enabled it to face a lot of challenges. The private sector is very active; networking between Lebanese people with people in other countries is also very dynamic. I think that this resilience has helped us a lot in achieving a positive economic growth of 2% or 3%, and will serve as a pillar to prosperity and success in the future.

© The Business Year – July 2013

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