Lebanon and Gabon sign "significant" economic cooperation agreements

 Lebanon and Gabon have signed six economic agreements and pledged to boost bilateral trade during an official visit by Gabon's Prime Minister Jean-Francois Ntoutoume Emane to Beirut. Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his Gabonese counterpart signed a general cooperation agreement at the Grand Serrail in downtown Beirut, and ministers from both countries signed the accords to protect and encourage investment, avoid double taxation, develop air links and tourism cooperation, and general trade cooperation. Hariri and Emane hailed the agreements as "significant". At a news conference, Mr. Emane said the agreements would "put bilateral relations within a legal framework and allow. relationships to develop". The Lebanese Premier said they will "advance bilateral ties. and encourage Lebanese to invest in Gabon". Hariri also said he accepted an invitation by Gabon's Prime Minister, who is heading a large ministerial delegation on his three-day stay, to visit the African state. The Premier praised Libreville's continuous support for Beirut especially at the United Nations and the Francophonie Organization.

 At a dinner banquet hosted by the Lebanese Prime Minister in honor of his Gabonese counterpart, Mr. Hariri said relations between both countries date back some one hundred years, when the first Lebanese arrived in the African state, way before diplomatic ties between Beirut and Libreville were forged. Hariri thanked Gabon for making 6,000 Lebanese living in Gabon feel at home. He said both countries have common values of "unity, work and justice," and described Mr. Emane as a "friend of Lebanon and the Lebanese people". The Prime Minister expressed confidence that Gabon will contribute to the upcoming Francophonie Summit next fall, which will be hosted by Beirut. "Lebanon has pledged to put the country back on the right track. to integrate (the country) into the world economy that is why we took many measures aimed at liberalizing and modernizing the national economy. to turn Lebanon into a paradise for investors and to reclaim its role as a regional trade center," Prime Minister Hariri told the dinner banquet. He said recently adopted measures by his new government, including an Open Skies policy, a major reduction in customs duties, and steps to conclude an economic partnership agreement with the European Union by June, are aimed at stimulating economic growth and open "huge" markets for Lebanese. The Prime Minister also stressed that efforts are underway to gain membership at the World Trade Organization.

 Despite the faltering regional peace process, Beirut will continue to develop its economy "and will not await peace to realize its national ambitions," the Prime Minister said. Mr. Hariri made clear that the absence of a just and comprehensive regional peace based on UN resolutions poses a major challenge to Lebanon, especially in light of Israeli Likud leader Ariel Sharon's election as prime minister. "We know his past but he has to decide on his future. Peace for Lebanon means Israel's complete withdrawal from occupied Lebanese territories, including the Shebaa Farms, and the return of our detainees (held) in Israel. The corner stone for peace in Lebanon is the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their land in Palestine.. Lebanon cannot and will not accept their resettlement," Hariri told the gathering. In his address, Gabon's Prime Minister congratulated Lebanon for Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon last May, but said: "We wished that Israel would have withdrawn from all occupied Lebanese territories". (February 21, 2000).


Arabs Will Not Close The Door To Peace

Despite Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon's notorious past, Lebanon and the Arab world "will not close the door to peace," Prime Minister Rafic Hariri told BBC's Hardtalk news program on Monday night. "Knowing the past of Mr. Sharon we can say this is a dangerous reality. The Lebanese remember Mr. Sharon and what he did during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. We have seen the bad side of the war: destruction, massacres of Sabra and Chatila.. and it is one of the terrible memories in our history", the Prime Minister said, but he added Beirut wants "to give peace a chance". Hariri said: "If he (Sharon) is going for peace, then we are ready. To make peace, you have to believe in it strongly in your heart and in your mind. You have to live it, to imagine it. You have to believe that you can live in peace with your neighbor. Sometimes you hate some people. We used to have this feeling, we no longer have it," the premier told BBC. He stressed Lebanon is "ready to do anything for peace. ready to forget and forgive", but Israel has to respect international law and implement UN resolutions to achieve a regional settlement. Israel has to express a "genuine" desire for peace just like Arabs have done: "I do not want to close the door on peace and one day in the future have one of my grandchildren say to me, why it is I closed the door for peace. Arabs have taken a strategic decision to go ahead with peace.. When you take such a decision, you do not consider who presides as prime minister in Israel". Hariri pointed out that Arabs have made compromises but they also "have a public opinion" that they "need to listen to".

Lebanon and Syria are committed to reaching simultaneous peace accords with Israel since both countries have joint "national interests". The Prime Minister said despite Israel's pullout from Southern Lebanon last May, Israel constantly threatens Lebanon and refuses to withdraw from the occupied Shebaa Farms. Hariri added although the Shebaa Farms is "one little area", as the BBC program host referred to the region, "it is part of our land and heart.. we will not give it up". In response to questions on Syrian-Lebanese ties, the Premier said Syria's troop presence in Lebanon is "temporary and legitimate". "I was Prime Minister from 1992 to the end of 1998 and I know exactly what Syria has done to Lebanon, how much they helped us. I came to office at the end of the war. The militias were almost disarmed but I know how difficult it was, for the Lebanese to bring the country together. The Syrians helped the Lebanese to reunify and train the (Lebanese) Army, they helped to ensure security throughout the country. Now the situation is completely different. The Lebanese Army and security forces are controlling most of the territory in the country. Syrian troops are not controlling these areas, but we believe we need them, even though their mission today is different from what it was initially," Hariri said.

Israel must respect the Palestinian refugee's right of return. Mr. Hariri reiterated Beirut's rejection of any attempts to resettle refugees in Lebanon, saying they "represent about ten percent of the total population". The Premier made clear that "Israel is responsible" for the fate of refugees, whose right of return must be respected. In response to a question on Lebanon's stance on the Palestinian uprising, Hariri said: "We support the intifiada because we understand it. We understand why a Palestinian mother does not want to live the same life she lived over the past fifty years. Living without a nation, without identity and occupied by another nation and another people".

 Hardtalk asked the Prime Minister whether Washington will reduce its role in the Middle East peace process. Mr. Hariri expressed confidence that the US will maintain its involvement "because the region is important to America, not only Lebanon, Syria and Israel but rather the whole area.. especially the Gulf for the oil.. the oil and the region are very important for stability in the West, especially in the United States as well as in Europe.. if anything happens between Israel and the Arabs, the whole area will be destabilized".

On the economic situation in Lebanon, Mr. Hariri expected growth to reach "at least 3 percent this year", and to steadily increase in the coming year. The Prime Minister reiterated that while peace will help bolster Lebanon's economy, Beirut will not await its arrival before it develops the economy. "I believe that peace is a good thing, it is necessary and we need to work hard to achieving it, but I do not at all believe that in order to do something we need to wait for peace.. otherwise we cannot do anything," the Premier told BBC. (February 20, 2001)


Lebanon and France decide to bolster strong ties

Strong Lebanese-French relations have received a boost following Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's three-day official visit to Paris which ended on Friday. Hariri met twice with President Jacques Chirac and held discussions with his French counterpart Lionel Jospin on bilateral ties and developments in the Middle East. The Prime Minister described the meetings as "fruitful and very honest". Hariri said his visit to France "reactivated bilateral relations on political and economic levels".  The Prime Minister gave detailed explanations to French officials on measures the new government has been taking to stimulate economic growth and attract foreign investors. "The French government encourages the French private sector to invest in Lebanon," Hariri told entrepreneurs and CEO's of top French companies at a meeting in Paris's Chamber of Trade and Industry. He told business delegates, the government is moving ahead with plans to privatize public utilities, including water, electricity, and telecommunication sectors, and expected the proceeds to reach some five billion US Dollars. Hariri said they will help reduce the country's public debt and budget deficit. The Prime Minister invited French companies to use Beirut as a springboard for their activities and trade in the Middle East, citing negotiations underway with Brussels to sign a trade association accord with the European Union. "We seek to attract European investors, especially French, through (this agreement)," Hariri said. Lebanon, he added, offers numerous incentives for investors including low taxation, and recently adopted measures to sharply reduce customs tariffs and simplify procedures at ports of entry to Lebanon. The Prime Minister stressed that a law being drafted by the government to attract foreign investors will further simplify bureaucratic procedures and boost the sectors of agriculture, Information Technology, Industry and tourism. Economic growth will also be stimulated, Hariri said, by the Council for Development and Reconstruction's implementation of development projects worth some 1.5 billion dollars this year.  "We seek to open the country as much as possible as we did with the adoption of the Open Skies policy. We want to turn Lebanon into a cultural, business, trade, and economic center for the region. We believe in a liberal economy and we are working to revive the private sector," the Prime Minister Hariri told business delegates, adding there are plans to "make Lebanon the hospital of the Arab world". Mr. Hariri updated business delegates at the Chamber of Trade and Industry on tourism potentials in Lebanon, including major projects being planned along the coastal region between the southern port city of Tyre and the international border. Hariri also reaffirmed the government's commitment to financial transparency, saying Lebanon is coordinating with international institutions to draft financial laws in line with the requirements of key global organizations. He stressed no money-laundering is taking place in the country. Prime Minister Hariri has traveled extensively since returning to office last October, to inform Arab and world leaders of his new government's plans to bolster Lebanon's economy. He has secured development pledges from foreign governments and a 100 million Dollar deposit at the Central Bank. Hariri was accompanied to Paris by Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi, Finance Minister Fouad Saniora, Interior Minister Elias Murr, Public Works Minister Najib Mikati, Energy and Resources Minister Mohammed Abdel Hamid Beydoun, State Minister Fouad Saad, Economy and Trade Minister Bassil Fuleihan, Telecommunications Minister Jean Louis Qordahi, State Minister Michel Pharaon, and Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh. The ministers held intense talks with their French counterpart on ways to strengthen economic, cultural and trade cooperation between Beirut and Paris. France is Lebanon's second biggest trading partners, after Italy, and a source of direct investment in the country. French exports to Lebanon were 527 million US Dollars last year compared to 37 million Dollars of goods exported to France.

 FRANCE AND LEBANON IN AGREEMENT OVER MIDDLE EAST DEVELOPMENTS Prime Minister Hariri said after talks with President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin that he was in agreement with French officials over regional developments following Ariel Sharon's election victory in Israel, and that security and stability are a direct result of peace. Hariri reaffirmed Lebanon's commitment to a just and comprehensive regional peace, and that the Middle East conflict should be resolved politically and not through military means. Hariri said everyone is waiting to see the policies of the new Israeli agreement. "No one has closed the door to peace... The only way for our children and Israeli children to live in peace and security is through a peace resolution (to the conflict) for Israel to respect UN resolutions and international law..  We know Mr. Sharon's past well.. If he chooses a policy of force, that's one thing, and if he chooses a policy of peace, that's another," Hariri told reporters. In response to a question on the deployment of Lebanese Army troops along the border with Israel, Hariri said: "The deployment of the Army is part of securing peace and stability in the region.. We believe that security and stability result from a peace agreement that includes all parties and from Israel's withdrawal from all occupied Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian territories". Hariri said his analysis of the situation was similar to Jospin. The Prime Minister dismissed Israeli claims that a Palestinian assassinated by its forces was linked to the Hizbollah resistance movement. "Lebanon has no link with what is going on in Israel. What Israel is saying is not true at all.. It's easier for the Israelis to say that they have assassinated a Palestinian belonging to Hizbollah than an aide to (President Yasser) Arafat," Hariri said. Hariri's visit to Paris was his first to a European capital since Israel elected hardliner Ariel Sharon as its new leader.  Prime Minister Hariri planted a Cedar tree at the Versailles Palace Gardens in Paris to symbolize strong French-Lebanese bonds. The Mayor of Versailles Etienne Pante, the French Ambassador to Lebanon Philippe LeCourtier, Lebanon's Ambassador to France Elysee Alam, and officials from both countries attended the ceremony. A large portion of the Garden was destroyed by a violent storm in 1999. Hariri said this "symbolic gesture" should serve to be the first occasion for a new pact of friendship and solidarity between the two countries, to witness the resilience of the Cedars despite all difficulties and to symbolize the resumption of Lebanon's traditional leading intellectual and economic role. Special French-Lebanese ties will be highlighted when Beirut hosts the Francophonie Summit later this year. Lebanon currently holds the rotating presidency of the 55-nation French speaking bloc. (February 17, 2001).


Lebanon and EU to sign partnership accord this year

Lebanon and the European Union have decided to launch intense negotiations in Brussels next week to reach an economic partnership accord by June or July. Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and visiting European Commission President Romano Prodi, announced following talks in Beirut on Friday, that Economy and Trade Minister Basil Fuleihan will hold talks with EU officials to finalize the association agreement, which lifts trade barriers between Lebanon and EU states. Hariri and Prodi told a news conference there are minor details that need to be resolved. But they expressed confidence that an accord will be reached before August. Hariri said negotiations are in the "final stages". The Prime Minister stressed the agreement will benefit Lebanon. "With European Union assistance, it will allow our government to continue with its policy which will make Lebanon the center of many cultural, financial, trade, shopping and tourist activities. It will also allow us to profit from European businessmen and industrialists to work and perhaps have a base for their activities here in Lebanon. We can benefit from the information technology and other advanced technologies they have," Hariri said. The Prime Minister stressed that Lebanon will receive assistance after signing the accord adding the EU will encourage investments in Lebanon and has been helping the country modernize its laws.

The EU Commission President praised Hariri's government for measures it has been taking, which Prodi said will help accelerate negotiations for an EU-Lebanon association accord. He said: "Lebanon is working, as fast as I have seldom seen, in the direction of completing reforms in the working of state, administrative structure and of the market.. We of course support the reforms because we understand that this is what will give Lebanon a new role in the area, a leading role. We also understand the many difficulties and problems, as well as the great challenges that are obstacles to such reforms". Prodi told reporters "it is not only an economic agreement, it is a signal on the sharing of the same values, same laws, and being in the same group of countries".

In November, shortly after he returned to office, Prime Minister Hariri said Beirut wants to relaunch association talks with a view to signing a deal this year. Negotiations were first launched in 1995, but ran aground because of disagreement over high tariffs. But at the end of November, Hariri's new government decided to sharply reduce customs duties, eliminating them entirely on raw materials used in local production and industries. The customs reduction measure is part of a comprehensive program the government has adopted to revive economic growth and turn Lebanon into a regional business and trade center.

EU Commission President, Prodi, vowed to encourage European banks and private firms to invest in Lebanon and promised to help in demining operations in the zone Israel occupied for 22 years in the South until last May. He described the landmine problem as a "humanitarian disaster". Asked by reporters on his tour of the Beirut Central District before holding the news conference, Prodi said: "I was surprised to see that the Beirut I saw was the Beirut I knew in 1958". Prodi last visited Lebanon in 1997 in his capacity as Italy's Prime Minister.

On Thursday night, Prodi attended a dinner banquet held in his honor at the Grand Serrail in downtown Beirut. It was attended by leading political, economic and diplomatic figures. Hariri reaffirmed strong EU-Lebanese ties, and said the government wants to enter major trade blocs. "We are aware of all the economic challenges facing Lebanon and we have planned strategies to face (challenges) based on strong attention to quick developments in the world economy and to prepare Lebanon," Hariri said. He also urged European firms to invest in Lebanon, citing a low cost of living, modern laws that are similar to European legislations, and low taxes. Prodi supported Hariri's call and stressed that the EU seeks stability and prosperity in the region, adding:" "Through this partnership, Lebanon has a leading role to play and we welcome your government's decision to intensify negotiations to reach a partnership agreement". The Prime Minister addressed regional developments at the banquet, following Ariel Sharon's election as prime minister in Israel. "We will be patient.. We will not engage in a provocation, but we will not accept provocation.. You know as I know that the peace process today is not very clear. But I can assure you that the Lebanese in particular and the Arabs in general have made a strategic choice for peace... The Israeli people have chosen Sharon and we have a very bad memory of his past. His future, he will define and be responsible for," Hariri said. The Prime Minister referred to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Chatila massacres, which were masterminded by the then defense minister Sharon, and the Sa(February 9, 2001).

Lebanon can serve as a gateway for Japanese investment and trade in Arab world

 Lebanon and Japan have taken steps to strengthen bilateral economic and political ties following three days of top level and intense talks Prime Minister Rafic Hariri held with senior officials in Tokyo, including his Japanese counterpart Yoshiro Mori. Officials promised the Prime Minister to hold a special forum on investment prospects in Lebanon next May. Hariri who returned to Beirut on Wednesday told a cabinet meeting his discussions in Tokyo were "excellent". Cabinet instructed Tourism Minister Karam Karam and Economy and Trade Minister Basil Fuleihan to prepare for a week-long tourism and trade exposition that will take place in Tokyo in May to attract Japanese tourists and investors to the country. Hariri told a cabinet meeting, headed by President Emile Lahoud, Japanese officials expressed interest in helping Lebanon especially after the government decided to disburse previously unused Japanese loans. Hariri has said in an interview with the daily as-Safir newspaper his talks in Tokyo were successful since they shed light on the significance of bilateral cooperation and prospects for Japan to use Lebanon as a launch pad for exporting goods to Arab markets. The Prime Minister also updated Japanese officials and top financial figures in Tokyo on measures the government has been taking to revive Lebanon's economy and turn the country to a regional trade, tourism and financial hub. Hariri told the Beirut daily he reaffirmed the government's commitment to activate undisbursed Japanese loans.

Mr Hariri, who was accompanied to Tokyo by Finance Minister Fouad Saniora, Economy and Trade Minister Basil Fuleihan, State Minister Bahij Tabarra, and Central Bank Governor, Ryad Salameh, discussed with his Japanese counterpart, Mori, ways Lebanon and Japan can strengthen economic and trade ties. The Lebanese Premier explained to Mori plans to conclude a partnership agreement with the European Union which would pave the way for Japanese to invest in productive sectors of Lebanon's economy and export goods tax-free to Europe. The Prime Minister also decorated Mori with the Order of Merit in the name of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud for his efforts in advancing Lebanese-Japanese relations when he headed the Japan-Lebanon Parliamentary Friendship Committee. Mori praised Hariri's plans to revive Lebanon's economy and expressed "Japanese people's and companies' interest in investing in Lebanon" and hoped Lebanon "will regain its progressive role in the Middle East". At a meeting with editors-in-chief of top Japanese newspapers, following his talks with Mori, Hariri called on Japanese entrepreneurs and investors to use Beirut as a launch pad for exports to Europe and the region. The Prime Minister stressed that an economic revival program by his government, which includes a recently adopted Open Skies policy that lifted restrictions on air travel and measures to further open Lebanon's economy, aim to attract foreign investors. "We have recently adopted an Open Skies policy so foreign airlines can use Lebanon as a linking point and we want to turn Lebanon into a trade, cultural, tourism, and financial center.. There are also many tax breaks for companies. (taxes) do not exceed 51 percent and income taxes are around ten percent.. We also have a skilled labor force and the cost of living in Lebanon is much cheaper than in Europe and of course Japan.. We are trying to attract investors to Lebanon to use the country as a gateway for exports and production of goods.. We import goods from abroad about seven billion dollars and our population does not exceed 3.5 million people," Hariri told a news conference. The Prime Minister urged Japan to resume direct flight of its national carrier Japan Airlines to Beirut and to allow Lebanon's cargo airline, Trans Mediterranean Airways freer access to Japanese skies. Hariri told reporters: "These flights could, once again, make Lebanon as before a major link between flights linking Japan to both the European and American continents". The Prime Minister explained that Lebanon has a free market economy and is simplifying some administrative procedures to ease services for investors. Hariri told reporters the government is also amending a law that would allow foreigners to own land and property in Lebanon. Hariri reiterated the government's pledge to move ahead with plans to develop Lebanon's economy regardless of stalled Middle East peace negotiations: "Lebanese are a peaceful people.. We want peace.. We will try our utmost to achieve peace in the region but at the same time we will continue to build our country and economy.. There are many opportunities in Lebanon for investors who want to effectively participate in the development of a country that suffered a lot.. has the will to recover. with the cooperation of all those who want peace in the region and the world". The Prime Minister also called for more media and cultural exchanges between both countries. In an interview with the Nihon Keizai Newspaper, the Prime Minister said his government is working to draft legislations and laws similar to those in Europe and up to international standards. Hariri said that will further advance foreign investment prospects in Lebanon. The Premier stressed that Lebanon's geographic location, its well educated and skilled population, and advanced banking system will all help Lebanon regain its previous role as a regional trade and financial center.

 Top financial figures in Japan were upbeat on the government economic policies following talks with the Prime Minister. The head of Japan's International Cooperation Agency, which specializes in technical aid, Koniheco Saito, said the institutions will undertake some feasibility studies for Lebanon, especially with regard to laying down a future master plan for the water and sewage networks. Saito said: "When peace arrives I think Lebanon has all the essential need to progress, there is a good basic infrastructure and the Lebanese people are very educated and officials have integrity and strong leaders, I think you have made a great leap forward".

Encouragned by government efforts to bolster Lebanon's economy and turn Beirut to a regional commercial hub, the head of Japan's Foreign Trade Organization (JITRO), Hata Kamaya, pledged after meeting Hariri to hold a special forum in Tokyo on May 22-25 to encourage Japanese investment in Lebanon. JITRO will also hold another investment forum to shed light on the business atmosphere in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in 2002.

Finance Minister Fouad Sanyoura described Hariri's trip to Japan as "very successful" and productive. He said Japanese officials have expressed readiness to issue "Samurai" Treasury Bonds in Yens for Lebanon and to offer new loans to finance environmental projects. Sanyoura stressed that the government plans to use some 118 million US Dollars in unused loans for development projects throughout Lebanon. A delegation from the Japan International Cooperation Bank is expected to travel to Lebanon to discuss ways to use the loans and the possibility of funding more projects in the country.

The premiers' talks in Tokyo also focused on the regional peace process. Japanese Foreign Minister Yohi Kono who met Hariri, said Lebanon's stability is essential for security and stability in the region. Hariri also met Bahrain's Foreign Minister Mohammed Ben Moubarak al-Khalifah who was in Tokyo. (February 8, 2001).


Prime minister urges banks to support government policies

Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has urged Lebanese bankers to support government plans to subsidize loans on interest rates in productive sectors of the economy to encourage local industries and boost exports. At a meeting with the Bankers Association on Thursday, Hariri called on Lebanese banks to do their utmost to implement government policies aimed at reviving economic activity and stimulating development and growth. The meeting at the Grand Serrail was attended by the President of the Bankers Association, Farid Roufayel, Finance Minister Fouad Saniora, State Minister Bahij Tabarra, and Central Bank Governor Ryad Salameh. Roufayel said the Prime Minister updated them on economic policies the government has been adopting and on measures to support loans to productive sectors. The Bankers Association voiced readiness to support government plans. Hariri has said subsidizing interests on loans to agri-industries and other productive sectors will encouarge exports and secure employment opportunities throughout Lebanon. The government has launched a comprehensive program to revive the Lebanese economy. (February 2, 2001).


World bank president applauds government economic revival policies

 World Bank President James Wolfensohn has voiced support for economic measures adopted by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's government to revive economic growth in Lebanon. Wolfensohn met Hariri and senior officials during his 24-hour visit to Beirut that ended on Tuesday. He applauded a series of policies adopted by Hariri since the new government's formation in October, particularly tax cuts. Wolfensohn said the World Bank and the government saw eye-to-eye on the reforms and downplayed the effect deadlocked Arab-Israeli pace moves has on investors' view of Lebanon. "The position of the Hariri government is sensible in first trying to restore confidence," Wolfensohn said at a joint news conference held with Hariri at the Grand Serrail in downtown Beirut. Hariri aims to boost growth in 2001 to between three and five percent through privatization, increasing investment spending and reforms. The new government has slashed custom duties, scrapped some taxes and implemented an open skies policy. Hariri said: "We believe the international community, especially the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and Arab funds will help us and also we have to do something here inside, we have to help ourselves, so many steps have been taken, we already took some steps, other steps have to be taken from the Lebanese government". Wolfensohn urged all Lebanese to rally support behind the government's economic revival program saying: "There is a need to help rebuild confidence, build the income stream .I am going away with a very convinced sense that the programs that are being implemented are an important element in the restoration of confidence. They will not do it alone, there is a need for the whole country to come behind the programs".

 Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon has received 750.44 million dollars in World Bank loans, of which some 385 million dollars remain undisbursed. But Wolfensohn said there are already some projects "on the track". Hariri stressed that there is a possibility Beirut may get more World Bank loans. "We still have about 400 million dollars not used yet, but the possibility of having more contracts with the World Bank is there provided we have projects, and we start with the old protocols and agreements that were signed".

 At the news conference, Hariri announced plans to boost the role of the government agency in charge of attracting foreign investment to Lebanon. Hariri said there is a draft law that will be discussed by Cabinet to expand the scope of IDAL, Investment and Development Authority of Lebanon, "to carry out a larger and more active role in attracting investments to Lebanon".

 On Monday night Hariri reiterated at a dinner banquet held in Wolfensohn's honor at the Grand Serrail, government efforts to modernize existing laws to restore Lebanon's status as a regional trade and tourism center. The Prime Minister said it is part of a "comprehensive economic strategy" that would recreate "a niche for Lebanon in the Arab and global economy". He stressed the government has a "view to recapture" Lebanon's "leading role as an open, liberal market economy," adding the next few weeks would see "new initiatives, including Social Security reform and a new investment law". The Prime Minister voiced confidence that Lebanon's friends in the international community will help the government realize its goals. "We are not adventurers and we know what we are doing very well and we are betting on ourselves and our friends.. We know we have to spend lots on security, spend lots on education, spend lots on servicing our debt and develop our infrastructure but we know we can make it," Hariri said. 

"We have experienced several years of war, our country was invaded by Israel and part of our country was occupied for twenty-two years. Bu the will of our people, who deeply believe in democracy and free speech, paid a very high price to maintain democratic values in this society. We know that we are confronted with many a challenge. Yet, we are fully aware of the fact that there are many friends on our side. We know that this government will lead the country towards a better future," Hariri said.  (January 30, 2001).


PM Hariri encourages Oman’s business community to invest in Lebanon

Prime Minister Rafic Hariri urged Oman's business community to invest in Lebanon at a meeting with officials of the Sultanate's Chamber of Trade and Industry. Hariri who concluded a two-day official visit to Oman on Sunday, during which he discussed bilateral ties and regional developments with senior officials including Sultan Qaboos, supported a proposal by Omani businessmen to reduce taxes on goods from Gulf states and to use Lebanon as a launching pad for exporting Gulf products to Africa, Europe and the Americas. Hariri said: "Lebanon is ready, capable, and interested in reducing taxes. This point will be taken into consideration.. Required contacts with the Gulf Cooperation Council's Secretariat" will be held to discuss the proposal. Hariri told businessmen at the Chamber of Trade and Industry in Muscat the government has already taken major steps to reduce taxes on imports, citing a recent decision to sharply reduce tariffs on raw materials and hi-tech goods. The Prime Minister said negotiations to enter a European Union partnership agreement will further reduce trade tariffs, adding Lebanon is the top candidate among Arab states to lift restrictions on free trade. Hariri updated Omani businessmen on the policies his new government has adopted to attract investment and revive Lebanon's economy. He said an Open Skies policy makes it "possible for Oman Airlines to depart and arrive in Lebanon without restrictions". That coupled with a decision to annul visa requirements for nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Omanis, "confirms Lebanon's interest in strengthening ties" with Gulf states.  He urged entrepreneurs to take advantage of new Lebanese laws that make it easier for Arabs and foreigners to invest in Lebanon. The Premier pointed out that profit taxes in Lebanon are only 15 percent, and that the "government wants to keep taxes low". The Premier announced at a news conference that most utilities in Lebanon will be privatized by 2002 and 2003, and unveiled that electricity supply to all of Lebanon will reach 24 hours a day starting mid-2002. He told reporters that Lebanon's telecommunications sector "is among the most modern in the world". Hariri addressed Omanis saying:: "Lebanon is your country, it is open  for you, the best advice (to boost ties) is to exchange visits, this allows us to know each other".  

The President of Oman's Chamber of Trade and Industry, Sheikh Salem bin Hilal bin Ali al-Khalili, said after meeting Hariri that the private sectors in Lebanon and Oman should take steps to boost trade ties. Sheikh al-Khalili called on the governments of both countries to support private sector initiatives. Hariri had asked Sultan Qaboos to encourage Oman's private sector to invest in Lebanon. They also agreed to draft two agreements to encourage investments and avoid double taxation between Lebanon and Oman.

Before concluding his official visit, Hariri held a news conference in Muscat, during which he reaffirmed his government's support for public liberties and the freedom of expression of Lebanon. Hariri said press reports showing debates in Lebanon are a "a sign that the country is healthy" and the constitution is being respected. "The war ended in Lebanon following a lot of suffering... What you hear today, the debates and arguments, are part of Lebanon's democratic system," the Prime Minister, who earlier met editors in chief of Omani press and representatives of the Lebanese community in Muscat, said. In response to a question on the situation along the Lebanese-Israeli border, Hariri said: "Israel knows that any security disturbance in Lebanon will have an impact on it.. We want to safeguard stability.. We do not want to spark a problem with Israel.. It is true that Lebanon does not have the military capability to fight Israel but it has enough grounds to make Israel move towards peace". The Prime Minister reiterated calls for Israel to release Lebanese detainees, resolve the Palestinian refugee issue outside the realm of resettlement in Lebanon, and to withdraw from the occupied Shebaa Farms. Hariri said Arabs are strong enough to face regional challenges, adding: "There has been an incredible progress in the Arab nation and the Gulf states on the financial and human resource levels". (January 28, 2001).


Lebanon will not allow Palestinian attacks on Israel from its territories

 Prime Minister Rafic Hariri commented on reports that two Palestinians were killed on Saturday as they were preparing to launch an attack on Israeli occupation troops in the Shebaa Farms by saying "if the reports are confirmed.. and that the attackers were Palestinians, we consider what happened as a big mistake because Lebanon has a resistance". Hariri told reporters on his way back to Beirut from an official visit to Oman: "I don't think Palestinians have an interest in launching resistance activities against Israel from Lebanon". Hariri said Lebanon "will not allow Palestinians to revive the atmosphere that prevailed in the past because it is not in the Lebanese nor Palestinian interests." The premier added: "We are investigating the incident and if we find out those behind it are Palestinian, it will be totally rejected from the Lebanese government because Lebanon will not permit such activities". Hariri said if Palestinians "want to resist Israel they can join their brothers in the intifada against Israeli occupation troops". (January 28,2001).


Oman and Lebanon decide to bolster economic and trade ties

 Oman and Lebanon have taken steps to bolster bilateral relations during a two-day official visit by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri to the Sultanate. Both countries agreed to draft two agreements to encourage investments and void double taxations, following Hariri's talks with Sultan Qaboos, Foreign Minister Youssef bin Eliw bin Abdallah, and Sultan Qaboos's Advisor for Economic Planning Mohammed bin el-Zebeir. Hariri described his closed-door meeting with Sultan Qaboos as "good and very positive". He told reporters both countries agreed to sign economic agreements to boost economic and trade ties. He also informed Sultan Qaboos of Beirut's approval of an Omani request to allow Omani Airlines to launch direct flights between Muscat and the Lebanese capital. Hariri also inquired about the possibility of Oman depositing money in Lebanon's Central Bank. The Sultan gave preliminary approval to the proposal. Central banks in both countries will discuss the issue after which the amount of the deposit will be determined. Sultan Qaboos also responded positively to a request by the Prime Minister to encourage the Omani private sector to invest in Lebanon. Hariri informed the Sultan of Beirut's decision to annul visa requirements for Gulf Cooperation Council nationals, including Omani citizens, and proposed an easing of entry requirements for Lebanese to Oman. Sultan Qaboos immediately gave instructions to take steps that would make it easier for Lebanese to travel to Oman.

 Prime Minister Hariri said measures adopted by the government to revive Lebanon's economy have already showed positive results in some economic sectors. He stressed that the 2001 draft state budget, which was approved by Cabinet last week, will have a positive impact on the Lebanese economy. Hariri told Lebanese and Omani reporters the budget will accelerate the implementation of a number of projects, encourage the agriculture sector, secure loans and subsidize interest rates on loans, allocate funds for the Lebanese University, public schools and judicial fund, and secure funds for the Council of the South to implement road and water projects in Southern Lebanon.

 A top level Lebanese delegation accompanied Prime Minister Hariri to Muscat, including Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, Finance Minister Fouad Sanyoura, Economy Minister Basil Fuleihan and the President of the Council for Development and Reconstruction Mahmoud Othman. They held discussions with their Omani counterparts on ways to strengthen bilateral economic and trade relations. Oman's Foreign Minister said work meetings focused on ways to strengthen relations and ways to activate private sector investment in both countries. Bin Ilwi said Lebanese expertise is needed in a number of fields in Oman, including the tourism and services sectors. Sultan Qaboos's Economic Planning Advisor described Hariri's visit to the Sultanate as "significant", and stressed that discussions between Lebanese and Omani officials centered on ways to upgrade economic and trade relations. Lebanon's Finance Minister said policies adopted by the new Lebanese government, including an Open Skies policy and the annulling visa requirements for GCC states, will bolster Omani-Lebanese ties. He also expected the agreements to encourage investments and avoid double taxations between Muscat and Beirut to be signed soon. (January 28, 2001).



Stability in the region uncertain if Sharon elected prime minister

Prime Minister Rafic Hariri said a victory of Likud leader Ariel Sharon in upcoming Israeli prime ministerial elections would make it "almost impossible" to achieve peace in the Middle East. Hariri said in an interview with BBC's Arabic-language service: "It will be difficult, even almost impossible that the peace process will move forward with Ariel Sharon.. the stability of the region will not be assured.. A government led by Ariel Sharon would encourage extremism even more, because Sharon's ideology tends in that direction". Hariri stressed that Lebanese hold "bitter memories" of Sharon- "a man of war," and that "no one in Lebanon believes that Ariel Sharon could become an artisan of peace". The Prime Minister was referring to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, when Sharon was defense minister. Lebanon will not accept a resettlement of refugees in the country as part of a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. "No government can agree to settlement and Lebanon cannot agree to it because of the domestic situation and the general conviction," Hariri said. He added that the US and European states have reassured Beirut that any resolution to the Palestinian refugee conflict "will start from Lebanon". The Premier said the issue is a prime responsibility for Israelis and Palestinians to solve.

The US has an interest in Arab-Israeli peace, Hariri told BBC Radio. He said the new policies stated by President George W. Bush's new administration "indicate that the US wants to follow a balanced policy in the region". The Lebanese Premier expressed confidence that Washington "has a real interest" in a regional peace and that Arabs have "expressed readiness and willingness (to achieve peace) since peace is a strategic choice for them".

Hariri also reaffirmed Beirut's commitment to cooperation with the United Nations in Southern Lebanon, but reiterated the government's stance that it will not deploy troops along the frontier with Israel. Hariri said Israel seeks to "ensure stability for its northern borders without signing a peace agreement," but Lebanon believes "stability in the region is a result of a peace agreement". The Prime Minister stressed that peace can only be achieved once Israel withdraws from all occupied Arab territories, adding: "We as Arabs have said we are ready for peace but Israel has yet to resolve its stance". (January 24, 2001)


Lebanon and Kuwait sign economic agreements

 Lebanon and Kuwait have signed three agreements to strengthen bilateral economic ties during an official visit to Kuwait City by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The Lebanese premier and Kuwait’s Crown Prince, Prime Minister Sheik Saed al-Abdallah al-Sabah presided over the signing ceremony on Sunday. Two agreements to encourage and protect investments and to avoid double taxation in both countries were signed by Lebanese Finance Minister Fouad Sanyoura and Kuwait’ Finance and Transportation Minister Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. A third agreement to bolster land transportation and the international movement of goods between Kuwait and Beirut was signed by Lebanese Transportation Minister Najib Mikati and his Kuwaiti counterpart Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Hariri praised the accords reached during his visit and described his discussions in Kuwait “as very positive”, adding: “We discussed ways to further boost bilateral relations, promote investments and ease issues related to Lebanese workers in Kuwait, and we found positive response from the officials in the State of Kuwait”. The Prime Minister discussed bilateral ties and regional developments with Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saed al-Abdallah al-Sabah, Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and Kuwait’s Parliamentary Speaker Jassem al-Khurafi. Hariri was accompanied to Kuwait by Saniora, Mikati and Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud.

Hariri told a news conference before ending his fifth official visit to Kuwait since 1993, the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab and Economic Development (KFAED) and the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) will help finance “a large portion” of an irrigation project to exploit water from the Litain River in Southern Lebanon. The project aims to use water from the Litani River to revive villages in the region. “It (the project) is worth 500 million dollars. The Lebanese government is now gathering information and will update earlier studies about the project in order to issue tenders,” Hariri said. The Prime Minister also told reporters Kuwait will help in demining efforts in the zone Israel occupied for 22 years until May last year. In 1999, the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab and Economic Development pledged 200 million dollars in soft loans to help finance development projects in Lebanon with a focus on transport- like roads, drinking water and sewage networks. Some 140 million dollars are still available. Kuwait has extended to Lebanon other soft loans and grants totaling some 421 million dollars, of which 127 million dollars have been in the form of grants. A reporter asked the Prime Minister at the news conference: “What do you think of Iraqi threats against Kuwait and other states?” Hariri responded: “Lebanon is a peace-loving country... We suffered a lot from the absence of peace and from discord in the region.. that is why we support efforts to safeguard peace.. We believe that Kuwait’s sovereignty and independence are vital for regional stability and any escalation will affect Arabs and Muslims in the region.. The resolution of all these (problems) can only take place through the respect for international law and the implementation of UN resolutions”.

Israel must withdraw from all occupied Arab territories. Hariri reiterated calls for an Israeli pullout from the occupied Shebaa Farms, saying Syria had presented documents to the UN proving the region belongs to Lebanon. He also said tensions will prevail as long as Israel continues to occupy the Shebaa Farms, violates Lebanon’s territorial waters and airspace, and peace remains out of reach. Hariri said Israel’s withdrawal from most of Southern Lebanon last May was “a step forward’, but stressed that Israel must all vacate Shebaa Farms, the occupied Golan Heights, and all of the occupied Palestinian territories. The Premier reaffirmed close coordination with Damascus in any peace negotiations with Israel due to common Lebanese-Syrian interests. “Developments in the Palestinian territories prove that peace which is not comprehensive leads to conflict,” Hariri said. He also told reporters Beirut rejects any resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon due to the country’s “internal circumstances” and to uphold the refugees’ right of return. The Prime Minister called on US President George W. Bush’s new administration in Washington to play a balanced role in the region and to protect Arab rights in line with UN resolutions. He said Bush must work to “regain Arab confidence”. In response to questions on upcoming Israeli prime ministerial elections, Hariri said Lebanese have “suffered under both (Prime Minister Ehud) Barak and (Likud leader Ariel) Sharon... so we cannot say one is outstanding and the other is” not as good. But the Premier stressed that Sharon is linked to the Sabra and Chatila massacres, and to the occupation of the capital city Beirut during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Barak, he added, ordered the shelling of Lebanese towns and villages during his mandate, and now Palestinians are being killed. (January 21, 2001).


Lebanon and Kuwait have common interest in regional stability

 Prime Minister Rafic Hariri reaffirmed Beirut's commitment to strong ties with Kuwait in an interview with Kuwaiti journalists on the eve of his departure on an official visit to Kuwait City. Hariri said both countries have common interests including security and stability in the region. The Prime Minister whose discussions in Kuwait will focus on bilateral ties, the Middle East peace process, and Kuwaiti assistance in the reconstruction of Lebanon, called for a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti conflict. "Kuwait's conflict with Iraq should be resolved through the respect of international resolutions.. An escalation will lead nowhere.. Arab countries constantly call for the implementation of international resolutions and criticize double standards in dealing with them... We have an interest in appearing to the world as states that respect international law and seek to implement it," Hariri told Kuwaiti journalists in Beirut. The Prime Minister reiterated sympathy to the plight of Iraqis under a decade-old UN embargo, but stressed Lebanon's "clear and solid" support for Kuwait's independence and sovereignty over all its territory. Hariri said Lebanon and Kuwait have special bonds and strong ties. He highlighted Kuwait's continuous support, along with Saudi Arabia, for the reconstruction of Lebanon. Hariri unveiled that projects financed by Kuwait and worth some 140 million dollars are being discussed. Hariri expected ties between Lebanon and Gulf states to be further strengthened. He cited an increase in the number of Arab visitors to Lebanon in the past few months, and said more will visit during February's Shopping Festival. The government's adoption of an Open Skies policy that reduced the cost of travel to Lebanon, and sharp cuts in customs duties should attract more Kuwaitis and Gulf visitors to Lebanon.

 NEW US ADMINISTRATION NEEDS TO BALANCE WASHINGTON'S MIDDLE EAST POLICY The Prime Minister downplayed the possibility of an Arab-Israeli war, but said dangers and risks are prevalent due to the absence of peace in the region. The Prime Minister described Israeli Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who is running for prime ministerial elections next month against Labor leader Ehud Barak, as "war rhetoric". The premier said Sharon's comments on the peace process defy international law and people's feelings. Hariri also said Israeli society remains "lost and divided" over peace with Arabs. "Israelis want security, stability, and peace... But they also want to keep (Jewish) settlements and Jerusalem under their control... But security is the result of peace, which only emerges when the least of people's rights is fulfilled," Hariri said, adding the Palestinians have accepted proposals that only give them control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Israel is now rejecting these proposals. The Prime Minister said a victory in upcoming elections by Sharon would have different consequences than if Barak is elected, although both leaders have "close stances towards Arabs". But the Premier said Barak had two years in powers to achieve peace if he was seeking that goal, adding "peace is not a maneuver, it is a goal that is entrenched in the mind of" a leader. He told Kuwaiti journalists, peace should be built on "health principles" to last, that is why Lebanon constantly reaffirms its commitment to a peace agreement based on justice. The Prime Minister called on the new administration of US President George W. Bush to play a more "balanced" role in the Middle East peace process, citing the incoming US President's "strong ties with Arab states, especially Gulf countries". But he expected Washington to continue to support Israel in line with their "strategic alliance". Hariri said: "(Syrian) President Bashar al-Assad's call on the new administration to work and regain Arab confidence is very clear.. President (Bill) Clinton believes in peace.. But his overall administration adopted stances that were very biased towards Israel, which damaged the peace process". Hariri said the US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk's admission that there were mistakes in Washington's Middle East policy only serve as evidence of the "unbalanced US policy", which "led to many of the current tragedies in the region".

LEBANON WILL NOT BET ON PEACE Hariri said Beirut is committed to peace in the region, but will not bet on it. "We will not bet all what we have on this (peace) process.. We will continue to develop our country, if peace prevails we are ready to take part in it," the Prime Minister said. He also spoke of challenges facing the region, including Lebanon, saying: "I believe we will enter a new stage that is full of challenges, so we have to prepare ways to face these (challenges). It is not possible for a people to sit and wait for a paper to sign, which will change some political and security aspects but will not change the (country's) status quo. Peace will not solve our problems if it materializes in the country has a deteriorating economy.. There are certain matters we need to take care of.. It is an illusion that peace removes all problems". The Prime Minister reiterated international support for Lebanon's refusal to resettle Palestinian refugees in the country. "All countries concerned with the issue of Palestinian refugees believe Lebanon is not the place where Palestinians should remain," Hariri told reporters. He was also asked about reports that Israel used Depleted Uranium weapons during its occupation of southern Lebanon. He said Cabinet has asked the UN to investigate the matter. (January 20, 2001)


Government wants to expand economy without increasing  taxes  

  Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's government is adopting  measures that will expand Lebanon's economy and raise  the country's national income without increasing  taxes. "I support a policy of economic growth that  keeps tax rates low and puts Lebanon on a par with  advanced countries. the main pillars (for this task)  is protecting freedoms, democracy, judicial integrity,  reviving the economy, and opening up to everyone,"  Hariri told Lebanon's honorary consular corps during a  meeting at the Grand Serrail in downtown Beirut.  Hariri added, the government has been implementing  policies that aim to boost confidence in the country,  increase exports abroad, and attract foreign investors  who need to be reassured about the Lebanon's  investment climate. Hariri said: "We want through  these policies to turn Lebanon into a financial, trade  and shopping center for the entire region". The Prime  Minister cited his government's decision to liberalize  air travel in the country by adopting an Open Skies  policy, and the sharp cuts in customs duties. Hariri  made clear, while "it is no secret that Lebanon has  public debt and a budget deficit", the government is  working to overcome obstacles to revive the economy.  The Prime Minister reiterated there are plans to  support productive economic sectors and to subsidize  interests on loans given to agri-industries in a bid  to encourage exports and secure employment  opportunities for Lebanese youths. Hariri unveiled  that this year's state budget allocates funds for  subsidizing interests on loans for industrialists. The  government is also studying ways to reduce the burden  on industries that owe large sums of money to the  National Social Security Fund.   

The head of the honorary consular corps Joseph Habis  praised Hariri's policies, saying: "We hail the bold  financial, economic, and development decisions adopted  by the government, in a short period of time, which  aim to revive the economy and advance productive  sectors that improve socio-economic circumstances and  living standards".   

Lebanon will continue to develop its economy with or  without peace with Israel. Hariri told the honorary  consular corps that most Lebanese agreed on the need  to pursue the peace process with Israel as long as it  protects the country's national interests, but  Israelis remain divided over peace with Arabs. "They  want peace but they also want to keep occupied land..  there is discord among Israeli leaders over peace and  their slogan do not serve peace.. Peace is linked to  security, there is no peace without security", Hariri  said. The government will not link the future of  Lebanon to peace with Israel, which has yet to decide  whether it seeks peace with Arabs. The Premier also  made clear that Lebanon will not concede any of its  national rights and will continue to coordinate peace  moves with Syria. Any peace agreement with Israel,  Hariri said, will be signed simultaneously by Syria  and Lebanon, in line with both countries' interests.  The Prime Minister questioned whether Israeli Prime  Minister Ehud Barak was an extremist or a moderate  leader, saying he clamped down on Palestinian  civilians. Hariri said Ariel Sharon, who is competing  with Barak in upcoming prime ministerial elections, is  seeking security without peace and wants to push  Palestinians out of their homes to Jordan. The Prime  Minister made clear that all Lebanese, including the  country's political and religious leaders, reject any  resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the country.  (January 17, 2001)