Lebanon is Britain’s eighth largest trading partner in the Middle East, and exports from the United Kingdom to Lebanon in the first half of this year amounted to $348 million, while UK imports from Lebanon added up to $40 million. This is fairly small fish compared to Lebanon’s trade with other European countries, but Sir Andrew Cahn, chief executive of UK Trade & Investment — roughly equivalent to a minister of trade — is looking to change that. Executive sat down with him on his recent visit to Beirut to find out what the UK has to offer besides tea and Manchester United.
E Britain is a relatively minor trade partner for Lebanon at the moment – do you have targets for how much you’d like to increase trade by?
I don’t think it’s helpful to have targets because I can’t pull levers to make targets work, the business communities are independent. But what I would say is that I think there’s scope for significant increase and we should work to that.
E What are the sectors that you think that can be targeted?
Well, I met the minister for telecommunications, the minister for health and the president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, and I was going to meet the minister for energy but it wasn’t possible. But I think that gives you a hint. Our largest volume export is pharmaceuticals, and they’re pretty significant for us, and the whole healthcare sector is one where Britain is world-leading — not just pharmaceuticals but medical devices and provision of healthcare.
In telecommunications, clearly we have leading companies, and I think the whole IT sector is one where Lebanon really does need to raise its game.
[As for] construction, I went with Solidere and saw their development and there was a lot of British involvement in that, but I would have thought that there’s much more scope for British involvement — not so much a construction company coming in and doing the building, but as architects, designers, quantity surveyors.
I also spent some of the afternoon at the port. British port people actually run the port of Beirut and rescued it from when it was nothing — it had almost stopped entirely — and now it’s about to double in size. That’s been a very successful joint project between British operators and the Lebanese government.
E Do you do any work with the government to prepare the ground for British companies and services?
I certainly find myself saying to ministers you need to change your regulations or you need to change your laws. For example, Britain is world-leading in public-private partnerships; we invented it, we perfected it over the 1980s and 1990s. But…if you want public-private partnerships to be successful, you have to have the proper legislative background…in order to make it work.
E Does the security situation give you have any concerns about promoting Lebanon as a business destination to British companies?
Nobody is pretending that Lebanon is quite the same as, say, Belgium, but on the other hand lots of people are doing business here, and the British should be doing more. I don’t have any hesitations in saying to British companies there is good business to be done in Lebanon…but they have to go in with their eyes open.
E What can Britain offer Lebanon that other Western countries can’t?
London is often seen as the financial services center of the world and it is… but London is also the creative industries capital of the world. If you want to be in architecture or fashion, design or advertising, music or film, you want to go to London. And I think…the people of Beirut, are very fashion conscious, very design conscious, very chic and very international. I think Britain therefore has a lot to offer here, and I would hope we can offer more.