Road ahead

The war on Iraq and fledging trade agreements present new challenges for Lebanese industrialists

by Eleanor Blanch

“I’ll be glad if my watch could stop today,” said Jacque Sarraf, chairman of Malia Holding and former head of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI). “The year 2004 offers a vision of turmoil regionally and locally.”

Lebanon in 2004 will have to elect a new president or renew the mandate of President Emile Lahoud and hold municipal elections, two big political events that could shake the economy, said Sarraf.

“If you look in the region, there is no war but there is also no peace in Iraq. New problems are emerging in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, with increased threats to Syria and Iran,” he added.

For the record, official government figures show that 418 new industrial units were created up to September 2003, while industrial exports in the first three quarters of the same year increased by 20% from the same period 2002. However, industrialists are not celebrating.

The US-led war on Iraq may have been shorter than previously expected, but it paralyzed a segment of industrialists who relied on an Iraqi market that catered to 24 million people. Many of the Iraqi officials Lebanese industrialists had dealt with were no longer around and some industrialists spent the latter part of the year trying to get money owed to them by the ousted Baathist regime. Major hostilities in Iraq were declared over in May, but oil prices continued to rise and industrialists had to endure higher fuel oil and electricity bills, which were will already steep in the run-up to the war.

The impact of the war on the economy as a whole was cushioned by last year’s Paris II donor conference, which gave Lebanon a breathing space and $4.4 billion in soft loans to reschedule its high public debt over a longer period and at a cheaper cost. The conference banished talks of a financial meltdown that would have hit industries hard. The Paris II loans worked on significantly lowering interest rates on government treasury-bills and deposits at banks, but most industrialists and merchants who were expecting a similar drop on loans were asked to wait.

Industrialists in 2003 also entered into a virtual free trade zone with Syria, which had signed with Lebanon an agreement that phases tariffs on industrial products traded between the two countries by the beginning of this year. The agreement has not rectified the trade imbalance with Syria, which has low labor costs, a vast range of raw materials and large swathes of industrial land.

Lebanese industrialists also entered into a semi free trade zone with the European Union when an interim free trade agreement with Lebanon’s number one import market came into force in March 2003. The interim Association Agreement, signed in the middle of 2002, gave many of Lebanon’s industrial, agro-industrial and agricultural exports nearly tariff-free access to the EU before the actual agreement was ratified. The Arab world remains the number one export market for Lebanese goods, but they are importing less and less products from Lebanon as production costs increase. The agro-industry sector is one victim of such high productions costs. “We were exporting $600 million of agro-industrial goods in 1996,” said Ateff Idriss, head of the Syndicate of Agro-Industries in Lebanon. “We lost in the last ten years more than 50% of agro exports, which stand today at $250 million a year.”

Industrialists are increasing exports because they cannot afford not to. Reducing production costs was top priority for industrialists in 2003 and will be their obsession in 2004. “In Lebanon the cost of land, financing and energy are more expensive than regional countries,” said Fadi Samaha, director general of the industry ministry. “Fuel costs alone represent 20% to 30% of general production costs,” he continued, adding that the ministry is working with the central bank to help cut the cost of financing for industrialists. Currently, the central bank subsidizes interest payments on loans extended to productive sectors.

“The Central bank subsidies are for a short period of seven years, but industrialists need loans for seven to 20 years,” said Samaha. “The loans subsidized by the central bank only cover investing costs, but not operating cost such as the financing of raw materials imported by industrialists.”

The central bank began this year to help the private sector lower the cost of its financing needs by urging banks in Lebanon to lower interest rates on loans, and one bank obliged. It also brokered an agreement between banks and the private sector to reschedule bad loans that banks wanted off their balance sheets and clients, such as industrialists, wanted to reschedule over a longer period of time.

Fadi Abboud, head of the ALI, estimates that 18% to 20% of the $4 billion in bad loans in question belong to the industrial sector. “Yes, the agreement will settle problems, but it does not address how a company is going to refinance itself,” said Abboud.

The industrial sector requires vast investments to help it modernize and compete with a influx of cheap and competitive goods that are finding their way into the Lebanese market. Meanwhile, many industrialists argue they will not be able to export much to European Union under the Association Agreement because they do not have the means to upgrade their industries to meet European standards.

“The EuroMed partnership allows us to have access to markets, but it has its own price because we have to have standards,” said Samaha. “It is not a given for everybody and we have to work on quality to reach European standards.”

Compliance with standards is another issue that is dogging the Lebanese industry, particularly the agro-industrial sector, which got a bad rap this year with rumors of contanimated dairy products finding their way onto the shelves.

“We need a food safety law, a sound legal framework, accreditation and research centers to modernize the agro-industry,” said Idriss. “Research is important for increasing exports because we cannot export unsafe packages to the European Union.”

For the meantime, many Lebanese industrialists are concentrating on a less demanding market, such as Iraq, Lebanon’s former number one export market. But insecurity and US control of government decisions in Iraq is not helping. Nonetheless, Lebanese industrialists returned to Iraq as soon as the war was over, trying to revive contacts and make new ones.

“The war on Iraq paralyzed industries for four to five months and we lost the work of seven years,” said Ahmad Kabbara, head of the export committee at the ALI. “But the Iraqi private sector has started to import from us goods such as cement and electronics.”

There are no accurate figures about the amount of goods Iraqi traders are currently importing from Lebanon, particularly as no proper Iraqi government is yet in charge.

“If the war did not take place, we were expecting to sign contracts worth $1 billion a year,” said Kabbara. “If the Iraqi private sector is revitalized, I think we can export $300 million a year to Iraq.”

Before the war started in March, Lebanese industrialists and businessmen signed over $1.1 billion in contracts with the Iraqi government under the United Nations brokered oil-for-food program. Some $450 million of these contracts were unpaid when the Iraqi government lost power in March. “The United Nations has rescheduled all contracts signed under the oil for food program,” said Kabarra. “We were paid $250 million and some $200 million have yet to be paid.”

For Kabarra and many other industrialists, Iraq still remains a market worth venturing in, despite security concerns and current competition from Americans, Europeans and other countries that were shunned by Saddam. “Lebanon, Iraq and Syria is the most important economic triangle that is capable of solving our problems and making us self-sufficient,” said Kabbara. “We will not need to rely on any other country as this triangle has sufficient raw material and human resources.”

Achieving this triangle requires a broader vision from Arab countries, which are usually more adept at erecting trade barriers, as is the case with the much-feared Greater Arab Free Trade Area that will come into force in the beginning of 2005. Most of the signatories to the agreement have not honored their commitments, leaving Lebanon’s open markets prey to their goods without reciprocal treatment.

“We are not prepared for the Arab invasion because Arabs are implementing the agreements in an Arabic way,” said Kabbara. “We face problems in transportation and transit taxes.”

Many industrialists lament the government is quick to sign trade agreements without studying their effects on the Lebanese industry, particularly as the broad cuts in import duties in 2000 reduced tariffs on industrial imports to an average of 5%.

Most industrialists expect exports to increase by 15% to 20% next year, but they do not think much of the increase. Lebanon will be preparing itself in 2004 for GAFTA and entering into serious talks with the World Trade Organization, which will leave Lebanon’s open markets without protection barricades. “We are seriously planning to address the WTO and EU that at this moment we can’t afford to have customs duties abolished due to high production costs,” said Abboud.

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