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French Version

New Lebanese Finance Minister upbeat on economy

Kattar keen to support small businesses

Newly-appointed Finance and Economy and Trade Minister Damianos Kattar said on Saturday the government will "pump money into the market" and promised more loans for small businesses. Speaking at a ceremony in his hometown of Jezzine, which gave him a "key to the town," Kattar said he was encouraged by an upswing in the market following the formation of a new Cabinet headed by telecoms tycoon Najib Mikati last week.

"The government should not say it doesn't have the funds because the people are paying their taxes," Kattar said. "So the government has to pump money into the market and keep the wheels of the economy turning."

"We must allow small institutions and enterprises to get loans from banks," Kattar said. "The means to get loans must be improved."

Kattar also said the new government is working hard to have a lucrative summer tourist season, when wealthy Saudi Arabian and Gulf tourists descend on Lebanon and inject millions of dollars into the economy. Tourism numbers fell off sharply in February after the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

"We must support productivity, industry, and tourism," he said.

Kattar added: "The economic situation is good and the government will exert all efforts to ensure that progress continues. The new government is serious and it is cohesive."

The formation of the new government last Tuesday strengthened the pound and pushed up shares for real estate developer Solidere, which plunged momentarily in February following Hariri's murder.

The Finance Ministry also released figures this month showing the budget deficit at a post-war low as a result of increasing tax revenue from VAT and a drop in expenditures.

Kattar, who was greeted by cheering supporters and Jezzine's mayor, Sayeed Abu Aql, also promised to procure funds to help development in the Chouf town.

Kattar, a businessman who previously served as an advisor to financial groups in the Gulf, is expected to stay in his post until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late May.

He is expected to focus on providing aid to small businesses which were devastated by the economic downturn following the Hariri assassination and the string of bomb attacks in commercial areas last month.

A government soft loan program called Kafalat, intended to help small business owners, has seen applications surge for its almost zero interest loans after bombs ripped through an industrial complex in Sad al-Bouchrieh and a commercial area in Kaslik in March.

While no official figures exist, estimates of the total damage to Lebanon's economy since February have reached as high as $800 million.

Beirut 25-04-2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star

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