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French Version

Business dismisses official claim of increase in exports

Industry insiders attribute rising figures to sale of personal jewelry

Lebanese exporters on Tuesday scoffed at the Customs Administration's claim that 2006 exports surpassed the 2005 total by 21 percent.

Exporters were almost completely cut off from the outside world for two months by the Israeli naval blockade, and their 2006 sales closely resembled their 2005 numbers, exporters from a variety of sectors told The Daily Star on Tuesday.

The rosy numbers were distorted by gold, as Lebanese citizens took advantage of soaring gold prices to sell personal items, mostly to Switzerland for purification. Major export sectors such as industry and agriculture saw their outside sales rising before the summer 2006 war with Israel, but their 12-month results reflect the damage wrought by the war and the embargo.

Customs released figures of total 2006 exports at $2.28 billion, up from $1.88 billion in 2005. However, the category of gold exports soared by $325 million for the year, accounting for more than 80 percent of the overall $400-million spike. Industrial exports rose less than 0.5 percent for the year, which "is nothing to write home about," said Fadi Abboud, president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI).

"What we are trying to say politely is that what the customs referred to as exports are not exports," he said. "Things are mixed up. Nothing to do with the Lebanese government is clear.

"If you look at the tonnage, there is no increase - the increase is in money. You cannot take the number without really going through the details of what really increased - take into consideration prices of raw materials.

"If we are exporting more scrap gold, this is not something we should be proud of. It means women are exporting their gold," he added.

Lebanon does not have any gold mines, so the skyrocketing export income is not the result of any successful entrepreneurs, but rather evidence of individual sellers exploiting a bull market, said Nazareth Sabounjian, a member of the Syndicate of Jewelers of Lebanon and treasurer of the ALI. Gold prices had long fluctuated around $300 per ounce, but over the past three years the commodity's value has doubled. Gold was trading at about $660 per ounce in New York on Tuesday.

"It is not export, it is the opposite of this - it is a sign that the Lebanese are getting poorer and selling their gold," he said. "These are fictitious numbers. When you take something from the customs, you cannot be sure what they mean."

Lebanese ditching their personal gold accounts for more than 80 percent of the $445 million of exports of precious metals and stones trumpeted by customs, said Antoine Moughanni, president of the syndicate.

The country's jewelry industry is witnessing a boom and its exports are rising, but the inscrutable customs statistics make it impossible to know how well the industry is doing, he added.

"We don't have the exact numbers at all," Moughanni said. "Lebanon's jewelry industry is getting bigger and bigger because of the quality. We can compete with the Europeans because Europe is so expensive.

"We have a jewelry industry - we don't have gold."

Some 5,000-6,000 people work in the jewelry sector, taking advantage of design know-how and cheap labor to grab a healthy share of Gulf markets.

Other exporters sense the potential for growth, although the war scuttled 2006 results and the current political mess is wreaking havoc this year. For example, Lebanon's leading wine exporter, Ksara, saw sales in the UK leap by more than 70 percent in 2006 despite the blockade, although total exports fell by about 5 percent, said a board member who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal export figures. The company projects a 10-percent increase in exports for 2007 - if the political landscape remains stable, he said.

Food exporters sense a general demand abroad for Lebanese cuisine, but last year's exports stagnated as the war ruined crops and made access to fields impossible, in addition to the embargo, said George Nasraoui, president of the Association of Food Exporters.

"Nobody has increased food [exports]," said Nasraoui, who owns Sonaco, the producer of the Al-Rabih brand of food products. "These numbers are not really exact for all the industries."

Beirut 14-02-2007
Michael Bluhm
The Daily Star

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