Businessman Marwan Kheireddine has a deep love for Lebanon. AM Bank Chairman believes better days are coming for his homeland, but he also acknowledges that the country is currently in a deep economic crisis. However, he sees how implementing reforms can generate revenues and turn non-performing assets into performing assets.
“If you look at the balance sheet of the government of Lebanon, you realize that, on the one hand, they have accumulated over the past 30 years, a figure of around $100 billion [deficit],” Marwan Kheireddine says. “On the asset side, Lebanon is one of the richest countries in the world. The government of Lebanon still controls most of the productive industries in Lebanon.”
Marwan Kheireddine says he doesn’t know of any other country besides Lebanon that still owns 100%, or near 100%, of its telecom sector. “Lebanon still owns and runs its ports,” he explains. “It owns and runs its airports. It owns and runs all the utilities, from water to electricity. The Lebanese government also has a network of hospitals spread all around the country, where significant capital investments have been done in the past decade or so, or more than that, in the past 30 years.”
Marwan Kheireddine defines Lebanon as asset rich and cash poor, and those assets that the government owns have been grossly mismanaged, because of corruption.
“A lot of them are actually a liability as opposed to being an asset to the government,” he adds. “For example, the taxpayers in Lebanon have financed north of $40 billion out of the [$100 million] gap that we have to finance electricity.”
Since the late ’90s, Marwan Kheireddine says the utility company has been selling electricity at a price that’s far below its actual cost. Because of this, he explains, the utility is losing money.
“There’s not a country in the world where electricity does not generate money to whoever owns it,” Marwan Kheireddine says. “Essentially, what I’m saying is the government needs to recognize that what is being called losses is actually debt and they need to go and make those assets work more efficiently in order to be able to generate free cash flows out of them to repay the debt over a period of time.”
In the meantime, PBS and NPR report that Lebanon’s most challenging days are still ahead.
At the end of last year, the United Nations estimated that approximately half of the Lebanese people were food insecure and the number is growing. PBS recently reported that Lebanese people are chopping down trees in an attempt to get wood to burn for warmth and some have resorted to burning their furniture. While salaries remain unchanged, the currency has plummeted from 1,500 lira to the dollar to 30,000. PBS also states that power, food, and transportation have become luxuries.
While the government has accumulated the $100 billion debt over the past 30 years, Marwan Kheireddine believes they should be able to come up with a plan to repay that debt over the coming 15 to 20 years. “It should not be an issue,” he says. “Once you have a plan in place, once the government declares that it has liability and it has the fiduciary responsibility to repay that liability, then you start rebuilding trust. You start calming the market down. You start giving people hope that there is a future.”
Marwan Kheireddine says it’s at that point that Lebanon should begin to experience foreign direct investments (FDI) coming back. “We will start seeing more foreign transfers from the Lebanese expat community back to Lebanon because Lebanon has essentially now become a country of opportunity,” he adds. “Lebanon has become so cheap that a lot of investment opportunities exist, but you need to provide those potential investors with a fair investment environment.”
According to Marwan Kheireddine, a fair investment environment requires stability. “It requires the ability to project and forecast, and requires a legal system that is efficient, where rights and obligations are protected under the law,” he says.
Despite all the challenges, the businessman who brought Virgin Megastores to Lebanon and has guided Lebanon’s youth as a professor at the American University of Beirut and through entrepreneurial initiatives continues to keep an optimistic approach toward Lebanon.
Within the next decade, he sees Lebanon’s political leaders finally realizing they can’t continue running the country in such a corrupt manner.
“I think Lebanon will be in a much better place,” he says. “We need a clear recovery plan to move us out of the dilemma.”