What could prompt the cooperative efforts of a Lebanese bank to engage a French building materials company and 15 additional regional and international financial institutions from all over the globe and seal a $380 million deal? Apparently, cement is the glue behind one of largest private financing syndicates for industrial projects in the Levant.
“The current construction boom in the Middle East which has increased the consumption of cement, combined with an acute shortage in the region, has driven cement prices to unprecedented levels. Our region, and Syria in particular, has a shortage of about 4 million tons per year,” explained Ramzi Saliba, General Manager of Bank Audi’s corporate banking division. The Syrian cement deficit comes alongside an ongoing housing crisis and lack of raw materials, a result of decades of nationalization and the centralized economic policies under the ruling Baath Party.
For decades cement production remained a state monopoly in Syria. However, recent circumstances have prompted the Syrian government to open the sector to private investors, and to compensate by introducing a limited liberalized economy. “Contrary to common belief, Syria has modernized and liberalized its laws considerably in the last few years,” Saliba confirmed. “That, coupled with the explosion in construction has made cement a very attractive sector for Bank Audi, now and for years to come.”
Bank Audi, coordinator and leader of the syndication, is among the first banks to set up in Syria after the government allowed private banks five years ago. “Private banking in Syria is still in its infancy stages, and it is a natural place for Lebanese banks to take hold of opportunities, more so than any other country. We know the market well, we know the people well, many large Syrian names and corporations have been the clients of Lebanese banks for 40 years, so we know the business very well,” Saliba said.
As far as Bank Audi’s interest in putting together a bridge loan in Syria, Saliba outlined that, “This deal was in line with the regional expansion strategy of Bank Audi, helped by several factors. The main reason was the shying away of larger international financial institutions on large deal because of the economic crunch that’s taking place in the US and Europe. That gave us a really great chance.”
Capitalizing on the window of opportunity, Bank Audi pursued Egypt’s Orascom Construction Industries. Saliba detailed the progress of the operation: “We had started discussions with Orascom Construction, OCI, and in the interim, Lafarge bought OCI’s cement business. We asked them to carry on with the discussions, and they saw how far into the deal we’d gotten, so they continued working with us; it worked out.”
Global leaders in building materials, French cement maker Lafarge boosted its market position to No. 1 in the region after acquiring the cement business of Egypt’s Orascom Construction Industries at the close of 2007. Having secured the deal with Bank Audi for its subsidiary, Syrian Cement Company, Lafarge Group will now continue its expansion in the Middle East with the setup of a greenfield cement plant near Aleppo.
The new plant is scheduled to begin production in 2010, and will have the capacity to generate 2.9 million tons per annum. This should help put Syria on its way to meeting its cement demands, which are expected to grow drastically from 7 million tons per year today to around 18 million tons in the next three years due to the surge in real estate, construction, and tourism development.
The considerable size of the bridge loan, which stands be replaced after 18 months by a longer-term loan, and more importantly the union of so many diverse investors serve as clear indication of Bank Audi’s notable regional role. “It’s the first such transaction done by a Lebanese bank, in terms of region or even international financing opportunities,” Saliba said. “It’s the first, and certainly not the last for Audi, and I hope for other Lebanese banks who may be contemplating an effective regional role.”