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Main Lebanese Companies :
Financial Services
Interview with Habib Aoude, General Manager of Mideast Assistance

A leading economic sector in Lebanon : Banks & Insurance sector

Lebanon was often called the Switzerland of the Middle East, mainly because of its well-reputed banking network that was built up between the end of the first world war and the beginning of the civil war in the mid-seventies. The power of the Banking sector in Beirut drew in most of the Arab capital from the Gulf, later proving its ability to manage funds from any origin.

This became a true tradition, forming the cornerstone of the image of Lebanon’s wealth.

Despite more than 15 years of war, and although Beirut lost a part of its market share in the area, its reputation remains. Since the 90's, the banking sector has been playing a significant role in the recovery of the economy. Major foreign banks and brokers have been progressively returning to Lebanon since, and the banks are often quoted as an example and a model towards other economic sectors at the level of modernisation and restructuring. This has mainly been done through a program of successive centralisation in order to attain the critical competitive size on the international financial scene.

Banks in Lebanon mainly play the traditional role of society's financial go between. They play this role in an open and liberal financial market that encourages competition. 69 Banks are registered at the National Bank of Lebanon/Banque du Liban; With 62 active commercial banks and 7 specialised medium and long term credit banks, the Lebanese Banking sector currently employs about 15,000 individuals in 780 branches
conveniently spread throughout the country, and manages more than USD 45.7 billion in assets nation-wide.

Foreign representation is significant, whether through foreign banks maintaining their branches in Lebanon or equity stakes in several local banks. Lebanese banks recognise that they are both a part of society and have responsibility towards society. Their social practices and initiatives reflect this understanding. Most banks have a code of ethics that stresses customer satisfaction, confidentiality in dealing, fairness and integrity. Banks are very involved in their local community through the sponsorship of cultural activities and social events.

Lebanese banks are working hard to fight financial crime. In addition to their efforts in training their employees, introducing tight internal procedures, and cooperating with government agencies, banks in Lebanon also signed a convention on due diligence to combat money laundering of illegal drug-trade funds.

The Lebanese Banking Industry was capable of sustaining a long destructive war and flourished in time of peace to become the banking centre of the region. It is currently being rebuilt in order to regain a leading place on the regional and international markets.

At present, this industry is best described as financially sound, stable, and playing a key role in an economy where banks continue to dominate the financial system of the country in an open and liberal market economy that promotes competition. Since the 1950's, the country has been practicing a liberal financial policy, which conforms to the GATS agreement. All banks are aware that the milestones achieved in the last few years only represent the early stages of our journey, in which the focus is on creating the foundation for us to build on. Challenges still lie ahead. However, with challenges come opportunities.

Banks, like other financial institutions in Lebanon, fall under the jurisdiction of the Bank of Lebanon (the country's central bank). The Bank of Lebanon controls entry into the banking industry and defines the scope of banking activities. It sets prudential regulations and codes of practice for banks. The Banking Control Commission, established in 1967, is responsible for supervising banking activities and ensuring compliance with the various rules and regulations. Overall banking activities are subject to both the Code of Commerce (1942) and the Code of Money and Credit (1963). Without a doubt, both the Banking and Insurance sectors play a major role in the recovery of Lebanon, and in the trust any Lebanese citizen or foreign investor can have in the sound and prosperous future of the country.

Jean Marie Druart