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French Version

LIA chief eager to dabble in the bigger picture (Daily Star)

Fadi Abboud on red tape, bureaucracy and ralph nader
Association head believes industry must be the catalyst to cure the country's ills

Standing over six feet tall, the president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association, Fadi Abboud, is a big man.

His physical presence is reinforced with a bone-crushing handshake and a deep thundering voice.

Most importantly, Abboud's frame is matched with his big ideas on the future of Lebanon.

Abboud is the chief lobbyist for Lebanese industry, which accounts for around 17 percent of the country's GNP. It's an important job, and he clearly enjoys doing it, but one can't help feel that Abboud would rather be painting on a broader canvas.

When asked if he had any political ambitions, he concedes: "I would not be honest if I said that did not cross my mind."

Born in Beirut 49 years ago, Abboud made his money in London as founder and chairman of General Packaging Industries, a food packaging company, and Tuula Fashion House, before returning to Beirut in the early 1980s.

"I came back to Lebanon because I wanted to make a difference to my country," he says. "When I finish my work in industry, I want to be the Ralph Nader of Lebanon," Abboud says, insisting that were he to run for office it would be as an independent.

But all this betrays the fact that his ambitions extend beyond his current job.

Fadi's uncle, Assad Ashkar, was a prominent Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) leader and helped lead an unsuccessful 1961 coup against the Chihab government. Fadi's cousin is actress, theater director and SSNP member Nidal Ashkar, known as much for her outspoken politics as her role in the French art film "Place Vendome" with Catherine Deneuve. Another cousin is Metn MP and government loyalist Ghassan Ashkar.

He talks in sweeping macro-economic terms, offering large scale plans to enable Lebanon to deal with globalization, overhaul the country's automobile inspection process, and everything in between.

Abboud believes industry must be the catalyst for curing many of the country's ills, such as high unemployment and the crippling brain drain.

He has a tough task on his hands in this respect. Lebanese industry is largely fragmented and not well-diversified, consisting mainly of family-run businesses in areas such as cement, timber, plastics, marble and furniture. Companies that employ over 50 people still amount to less than 1 percent of all industries in Lebanon.

But to Abboud, the main problem facing Lebanese industry is not a lack of diversification, but that businesses are tied up with government red tape.

"This country is absolutely incredible; the type of bureaucracy we have here," Abboud says. "You need 18 signatures to export one container load. This is the mother of all battles," he quips.

When Abboud isn't knocking his head on his desk in frustration at the government's treatment of industrialists, he's offering his own political vision for Lebanon's future.

Even when he's wheeling and dealing on behalf of industrialists, Abboud often sounds like a candidate for prime minister. Last spring he chided the government at a news conference for failing to create enough jobs, and his current position keeps him involved in day to day parliamentary battles. Recently, he faced off with the General Labor Confederation over the proposed minimum wage hike, which Abboud says will exacerbate Lebanon's roughly 20 percent unemployment rate and cause inflation. He called the plan "a recipe for disaster." He also arranged a deal with former Premier Rafik Hariri to discount electricity for industrialists and to allow manufacturers to purchase their own electricity transformers, rather than buying them from the state through Electricite du Liban.

"Lebanon is the most expensive country in the Arab world," he says. "The only little window open for us is to become a highly efficient society."

To do this, Abboud wants to create a "one-stop export shop" so industrialists don't have to chase down various bureaucrats to get the proper papers signed.

He also wants to computerize port inspections. "Isn't it about time we had a scanning machine at the port?" he asks.

But advocating for port scanners isn't exactly changing the way American automobiles are produced or helping found the Environmental Protection Agency, as Nader did, and Abboud has his eye on larger issues.

"To my dislike," he says, "I am always taking care of micro-issues."

Abboud's big picture mentality is more apparent when he talks about globalization and trade.

Despite his criticism of liberalizing measures, Abboud says he is bothered by the "myth" that his association is against joining international trade organizations.

In the new global market, Lebanon's competitive advantage must be identified - high-priced textiles is one - and import tariffs must remain to prevent an influx of cheap Asian products, Abboud says.

"It's more important for the Lebanese consumer to be employed than pay $0.20 extra for a T-shirt."

Abboud says countries like Great Britain and the United States became strong by developing their own industries.

By pressuring Lebanon to liberalize trade completely, the big powers, says Abboud, are like "someone who climbed the roof, and when he was on the roof kicked the ladder and doesn't want anyone to use the ladder to get where he is."

It's hard to keep Abboud focused narrowly on the topic of industry - the macro-ideas always get in the way.

While not offering many specifics, he says: "We need to re-write the system in Lebanon."

Abboud is not just talking about imports and exports.

He wants to alter the education system and even change the way car mecanique fees are paid.

The education system, he says, "is not designed to integrate," adding: "The dream for the Lebanon of tomorrow is different for each sect."

On car repairs, Abboud complains that mecanique employees have an incentive to fail people on their inspections. A better regulatory system, he says, is needed to empower consumers.

"Once you know your rights with [mecanique employees inspecting] your car," he says, "you start exerting your rights with your MP."

But after polishing off education and auto repairs, some topics are just too politically hot for Abboud to touch - at least for now.

On the topic of UN Resolution 1559, which has divided the country between those who support Syrian military presence in Lebanon and those who don't, Abboud is uncharacteristicaly reticent.

"At this stage in my life," he bites his tongue, "I have nothing to do with either politics or politicians."

Beirut 31-01-2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star

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