Beirut business meet looks to tap Gulf oil windfall

BEIRUT: As domestic conditions gradually improve in the wake of the May 21 Doha accord, the worldwide rise in oil prices is expected to bring a large influx of Arab investments to Lebanon and its economy is likely to blossom, speakers said at the opening of the 12th Arab Investors and Businesspeople Conference in Beirut.

With a long tradition of liberal investment policies, coupled with a vibrant banking sector, Lebanon's economic future is promising - if political stability is maintained, because fulfilling the potential of the growing tourism and the service sectors depends on such stability, said Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad.

The minister stressed that the remittances sent by Lebanese expatriates were estimated at around $6 billion in 2007 and helped Lebanon overcome the enervating political crisis that overshadowed the entire year.

Furthermore, the excess of available liquidity would create more job opportunities for the Lebanese, leading to an increase in growth and a reduction in public debt, said Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

He added that economic reforms should be implemented alongside the expected rise in investments in the country, if Lebanon were to reduce its annual budget deficit and the albatross of public debt.

With the incessantly rising prices of oil leading to a boom in the economies of many Arab countries, Lebanon is primed to attract a variety of projects and investment ventures with the nation's qualified workforce and its relatively free economy, said the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Ghazi Koraytem.

One of the aims of the conference was to support Lebanon after the country's political leaders managed to settle the 18-month political stalemate, a crisis that heavily taxed the entire economy, said Arab Institute for Insurance director Fahd Rashid al-Ibrahim.

In the post-Doha period, he said the the Arab Institute for Insurance would expand its efforts to provide coverage for investors and exporters against many kinds of risk.

"Our goal is to directly advertise and encourage investment projects in the public and private sectors," he said.

Many attendants stressed the  importance of boosting trade and implementing commercial agreements among Arab countries, in order to face economic challenges and encourage local investments instead of establishing ventures outside the Arab world.

Many also called for further investment in the agricultural sector and asked for the development of necessary infrastructure for agriculture and food-production industries.

"We should provide investors with exceptional incentives to put money in this sector, especially after the large spike in food prices worldwide," said Economy and Business Group director Raouf Bou Zaki.

One main concern was to deal with inflation, as it will greatly influence Arab economies because they import the vast majority of their food products, said Adnan Kassar, chairman of the General Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture.

"The Arab countries together annually import the equivalent of $30 billion in food products," said Mervet Telaoui, representative of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.





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