BEIRUT: United States Ambassador Maura Connelly praised Lebanon’s economic “potential” but had harsh words for Hezbollah during a special farewell luncheon hosted by the American-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce Monday. The luncheon was hosted by AMCHAM and attended by caretaker Minister of Finance Mohammad Safadi, caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, caretaker Economy Minister Nicholas Nahas and caretaker Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian, as well as Ambassador Tony Chedid and Salim Zeenni, president of the American-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce.
In her speech to the Lebanese business community and assembled ministers, Connelly called Lebanon an “exciting and challenging place for an American ambassador.”
She pointed to the gains made in Lebanese-American trade, including $2.3 billion in U.S. exports to Lebanon in 2012, as well as the presence of many top American businesses as “solid proof” that “U.S. companies believe in Lebanon’s potential.”
“During my term here, the embassy advocated energetically for an environment marked by transparency and fair competition, in which the bids of U.S. firms will prosper,” Connelly said.
“Unfortunately, Lebanon still has obstacles that are hindering American companies’ ability to do business here,” she continued. “In some cases, government red tape, corruption and insufficient protection of Intellectual Property Rights constitute major obstacles to investment and entrepreneurial activity, signaling that Lebanon is not fully open for foreign investments.”
Connelly went on to criticize the additional costs of high electricity bills and slow Internet speeds.
“These factors weaken the ability of Lebanese companies and U.S. companies to compete in this marketplace and create the jobs that your talented young people are yearning to fill.”
Connelly reminded the audience of the urgency of strengthening the Lebanese economy, especially in light of the influx of Syrian refugees.
She also praised U.S. efforts, through USAID and other programs, to provide assistance to farmers, women and small businesses, especially in areas hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees.
“As I come to the close of my assignment here, I leave with great faith in the Lebanese people – their talent, energy, resilience and innate entrepreneurialism,” she said. “But I also leave worried that the current political impasse has compromised the institutions of the state, primarily to serve the interests of Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor. And I am afraid this trend will lead Lebanon down a dangerous path.”
Hezbollah, she said, has “repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for international norms of behavior,” which earned the party it’s recent EU designation as a terrorist group.
“[Hezbollah’s] violation of the Baabda Declaration undermines the Lebanese state and risks moving Lebanon from having to contend with spillover effects from Syria to outright involvement in a wider Syrian conflict,” Connelly stated.
She also called for the state to pass an “acceptable electoral law that allows for elections as soon as is practical.”
“Lebanese democracy needs to be restored to ensure that Lebanese business – the lifeblood of Lebanon – can continue to work its magic and keep this country strong,” she concluded. – The Daily Star