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French Version

The man from LIBAN with the diaspora in his sights

Jreissati's network aims to create an Arab davos

Business in person

In a week dominated by the brutal assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri Lebanon has taken a long hard look at itself. Amid the huge public outpouring of grief and anger, most attention has been focused on the political ramifications of Hariri's murder. But fears have also been expressed for the well being of Lebanon's economy, which Hariri, more than anyone, was identified with reconstructing out of the ashes of the civil war.

His death has raised concerns in the business community about both the prospect for future foreign investment, and retaining current investment levels.

But Lebanese International Business Associations' Network (LIBAN) founder and president Robert Jreissati insists there is much to be confident about despite this week's tragedy.

"Despite my grief for Hariri and his family for its terrible loss, whoever did this wanted to destroy what Hariri has been doing, but we should not be negative," he says. "On the contrary, we should keep on going for a better future, and I am positive about the future."

LIBAN was founded in October, 2000, as a nonprofit, nonpolitical association with the goals of reinforcing economic and commercial relations between young Lebanese businessmen in Lebanon and in countries of Lebanese emigration. Tapping into the talents of the diaspora is the best way to describe its activities. The group is operating in 25 countries around the world and aims at increasing that number by the year end.

Jreissati, 37, is a partner in his father's law firm but now devotes most of his time to setting up new LIBAN chapters, attracting investment, and lobbying the government for practical economic and legislative change.

"In each country we have real success stories," Jreissati says. With unabashed enthusiasm he then reels off a long list of LIBAN's prosperous members around the Middle East and in Europe - the CEOs of conglomerates, industrial leaders, financers, distributors and heads of family businesses.

Jreissati has every reason to be upbeat, LIBAN having launched a new Syrian chapter just 10 days ago in Beirut.

"We asked the leading 10 most prominent Syrians of Lebanese origin to join us, and we invited 10 prominent Syrian businessmen as guest members. We did the same in Turkey last year, and launched it with the Turkish Embassy here in Beirut," he says.

LIBAN's membership policy is the same for each country, bringing together 10 Lebanese businessmen and 10 locals.

"We are a quality group and can afford to pick our members. We want to promote business for honest people, so business ethics are very important. When we choose our members we take into consideration the origin of their money, because we don't want gangsters in our group," he says, the lawyer in him shining through.

LIBAN also has chapters in Cyprus and Switzerland, and is currently in talks about opening up shop in Iraq as well as expanding into the Arab Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt.

"We would love to launch, from Lebanon, a Palestinian chapter, and also for Libya," he adds. The ultimate aim though, is to create an Arab Davos. "We would make it an annual occasion, and work on opening a chapter in every country in the world."

The next chapter to open will be Jordan, and LIBAN is working in collaboration with Escwa to hold a regional conference in downtown Beirut. "We hope to have the support of the EU, as they have already offered us two experts who have done analysis and research on LIBAN. This would promote at the highest level import and export investment, and to mobilize the Lebanese diaspora abroad for the sake of Lebanon, their sake, and the country they live in," he says.

Jreissati describes the networking that LIBAN promotes as "a win-win situation" for members in terms of business, and the knock on effect for their respective economies.

"The system is not really based on big groups but on smaller concerns and we should help and give support to young people to do business."

The word 'youth' features strongly in Jreissati's language, switching to the topic of why Lebanese emigrate, particularly the youth.

"Young Lebanese people here and abroad feel frustrated because they have no spokesman to lobby for what they want. I am always accusing the government of not doing enough. It is not enough for the government to say we love you and don't go abroad. We cannot be taken by nice words, we are more practical and need more action. Where is the action?" he asks, sitting up in his seat as if to smack his fist on the desk.

"So far we have been forbidden to be among the main economic organizations of Lebanon, except the Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Ministry. What was the reason? Because we are young? But if you see how Lebanon is run it is by young people who provide the work and are active. But when the time comes to hear their opinion they are told to shut up. All these things combine to frustrate young Lebanese business people," he says. "In fact, young business people have had enough in the Middle East, and we will not shut up from now on," he adds.

But it is not just problems for the youth, Lebanon needs to do more for its emigrants by giving them votes and to take reform seriously Jreissati says.

"We can lobby the government and parliament to make better laws and offer incentives, but we are far from Dubai. Why can't Lebanon be a Dubai? Sheikh Maktoum has made it easy to do business in Dubai. So far, Lebanon has not implemented enough incentive for investment."

Jreissati believes that through a worldwide family of Lebanese expatriates, socioeconomic and political reform can happen in Lebanon.

"Lebanese are as wealthy and powerful as the Jews around the world. Whether you like the Jews or not you have to respect them, in the way they help each other and mobilize wealthy people. Why don't Lebanese do this? Lebanese are individualistic abroad, who in many cases went from nothing to creating business empires. If you help, you will profit, we will profit and both countries will profit," he says.

In addition to reclaiming investment from Dubai, Jreissati thinks that Lebanon has the potential to rival Monaco or the South of France as a Mediterranean business and tourist hub. One way of achieving this, he reckons, is to attract investment through Lebanon's offshore company and banking system. And now that Cyprus has joined the European Union it has had to rescind most of its offshore banking laws, which Jreissati believes should provide Lebanon with an opportunity to cash in.

"We should promote the fact that thousands of companies in Cyprus should come here as they cannot operate there anymore and benefit from zero percent tax. You could do billions in offshore business here, and Lebanon would profit. We want foreign companies to have their headquarters in Lebanon through offshore companies, and to be able to import and export to the Arab countries. It could be fantastic," he says with a broad smile.

"I've been working on it, and the Russians have just asked us to translate the Lebanese offshore laws into Russian. There are 34,000 companies closing down now in Cyprus, and if only some come here, they can boost the Lebanese economy," he adds.

But as this week's tragic events have shown again, Lebanon still has a reputation to live down when it comes to providing the kind of stable environment investors require before committing cash. But Jreissati remains almost boyishly enthusiastic.

"Even in dark moments we have to be like a phoenix," he says. "We believe in continuation. Hariri's death is a terrible loss for Lebanon, but Hariri's family have to keep doing what Hariri has done for Lebanon, to keep it alive, and to grow stronger with the younger generation."

20-SECOND RESUME

In the family: Not married. Mother and father both judges, a sister in Omaha, Nebraska, and a brother in Lebanon.
What car do you drive? Mercedes 300E, I like powerful German cars.
Last book you read? “The Secrets of the Lebanese War” by Alain Menargues.
Last vacation? Sharm el-Sheikh, diving, snorkelling and partying,but I spend a lot of time traveling for LIBAN.
Hobbies: Skiing, reading, squash, swimming and traveling.


Amman,02 28 2005
Paul Cochrane
The Daily Star
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