A Smart Step to Push Economic Development in Lebanon

Monday, August 27, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

In a break from the continuous concern with what’s not helping Lebanon, we recently hosted a delegation who presented some thoughtful steps about how to promote the country’s industrial sectors. The Association of Lebanese Industrialists (www.ali.org.lb), in a program supported by the Center for International Enterprise (www.cipe.org), is working to upgrade Lebanon’s export potential in light of the difficulty of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) at this time due to security and corruption issues.

Represented by board member Paul Abi-Nasr and General Manager Talal Hijazi, the ALI representatives came to the US to better understand how professional trade-related associations determine their agendas, promote their missions, and develop programs in support of their goals. As Mr. Abi-Nasr explained it, their trip had two purposes: to better understand how professional trade associations function and to evaluate responses to ALI’s message that Lebanon can be a great business partner in the region. He is well-schooled in international affairs, is quite adamant about ALI’s potential, and heads the Young Industrialists Committee.

Mr. Hijazi and Mr. Abi-Nasr believe that the potential is huge for Lebanese companies that are willing and able to be local partners for US companies that want to expand their overseas markets but are unsure of how to work with the uncertainty in the Middle East. Lebanese companies are well-positioned as business partners because they have done business throughout the region, know the business culture and understand how to work with it, and have the capabilities to respond to the needs of changing tastes and preferences. Mr. Hijazi brings more than two decades of experience in business development to his job and believes that Lebanon can take advantage of its historical commercial role to rebuild its economy.

For the members of ALI, there are several important steps to fully represent its members; the first job is to build a detailed catalog of sectors and sub-sectors which reflect their strengths. This includes production to US import standards and building their clustering capabilities for adding value to Lebanese exports. This work is not for the faint-hearted as it often means upgrading infrastructure, human resources, and input sourcing to meet customer requirements.

Another key component is to provide services to companies so that they are export-ready, which is, having the financial strength, legal resources, and production capacity to engage companies that want to buy Lebanese products. It is no longer merely a question of buyer and seller as all countries have established import criteria to facilitate trade and protect consumers against tainted products.

ALI was formed in 1942 so it has been in existence throughout Lebanon’s modern history. It has a great deal of experience and expertise, and “participates in policy-making consultations on a very broad range of issues, including economic and social policy, labor legislation and industrial relations, social security and health care, taxation, policies for small and medium-sized enterprises, education, research and development, technology, and the environment,” according to its fact sheet.

Another major challenge they identified is ensuring that the Lebanese workforce has the necessary skills to contribute to the industrial sector. As in other Arab countries, there is a problem with obtaining qualified labor, as most university graduates shun blue collar jobs and there are not enough graduates in vocational and technical skills to meet the needs of the workforce. ALI has made recommendations for government policies to grow the number of skilled workers and several proposals are being considered in the Parliament.

Of course, ALI’s members want to be seen as a hub for Syrian reconstruction but first have to deal with challenges at home including upgrading the country’s infrastructure and energy sectors. When asked about the conditioned aid from the CEDRE international donors conference and the potential for missing out on the existing World Bank projects, both Abi-Nasr and Hijazi expressed concern that the lack of the government formation and movement on policy reforms only makes their mission more difficult. They are hoping that internal political agendas that are obstructing the needed changes will give way to more common sense in facing the larger task of building better internal security through economic growth, jobs, and a fully functioning infrastructure, serving all the people of Lebanon.

As ALI moves forward with its agenda: to serve as the voice of industrialists’ interests, increase growth opportunities and expand exports, improve awareness of the positive impact of the industrial sector, support its members and the organization, it welcomes potential partners overseas that want to import products from Lebanon and support its sustainability and independence.