Lebanon has a population of 3.96 million, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) statistics. It was the 54th largest market for U.S. exports in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics. The Lebanese Customs Authority reported that Lebanon’s total imports in 2011 reached approximately $20 billion, of which $1.99 billion (constituting 9.9 percent of the total) came from the United States.
In 2011, the United States ranked as Lebanon’s number one trading partner ahead of Italy, China, France and Germany. According to Lebanese Customs statistics, major U.S. exports to Lebanon were mineral fuel and oil ($1,066 billion), vehicles ($186 million), machinery ($176 million), pharmaceutical products ($85 million), cereals ($82 million), medical equipment ($63 million), and electrical equipment ($47 million).
Real GDP growth is estimated to have slowed from 7.5 percent in 2010 to 1.5 percent in 2011, according to IMF preliminary estimates, with nominal GDP estimated at $41.5 billion in 2011. The IMF forecasts that growth could reach around two percent in 2011, which is in line with Banque du Liban’s (BdL) estimates. The BdL projects real GDP growth could reach four percent in 2012, with six percent inflation (versus four percent in 2011).
Lebanon’s economy follows a laissez-faire model. Most of the economy is dollarized, and the country has no restrictions on the movement of capital across its borders. The Lebanese government’s intervention in foreign trade is minimal.
Lebanon faces major financial challenges, notably a very high level of public debt and large external financing needs. Moreover, the political and security instability in the Arab world, especially in Syria, is expected to have a negative impact on the domestic business and economic environment.
The U.S. Government has neither a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) with Lebanon nor an agreement on the avoidance of double taxation. However, the U.S. Government has signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the Government of Lebanon to help promote an attractive investment climate, expand trade relations, and remove obstacles to trade and investment between the two countries. Since 1999, Lebanon has had observer status at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2006, Lebanon signed an association agreement with the European Union.
Starting a new business in Lebanon is relatively simple and open to all, but petty corruption is an issue. The World Bank noted improvements in Lebanon's mechanisms for paying taxes and in business start-up procedures. According to the World Bank's Doing Business 2012 report, opening a business in Lebanon requires an average of five steps and nine days, compared to the average of 8.2 steps and 20.9 days in the MENA region.
According to Transparency International's (TI) 2011 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Lebanon ranked 134 out of 183 countries worldwide and 14 out of 20 MENA countries. Foreign companies have complained about impediments such as arbitrary licensing decisions, complex customs procedures, archaic legislation, an ineffectual judicial system, high taxes and fees, high telecommunications charges, poor power services, slow and unreliable internet services, varying interpretation of laws, and a lack of adequate protection of intellectual property.
Lebanon adheres to the Arab League boycott of Israel. Enforcement is selective, as many goods on the boycott list are available in the Lebanese market. The Arab League’s Central Boycott Office maintains a blacklist of U.S. firms that are believed to contribute to Israel’s military or economic development. In accordance with U.S anti-boycott regulations, U.S. companies may not certify that their products do not come from Israel. If there appears to be any request that might be in support of boycotts, companies should contact the Bureau of Industrial Security (BIS) in the U.S. Department of Commerce (http://www.bis.doc.gov).
The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) is the government’s executive body responsible for tendering major projects, procuring financing for these projects, and supervising their execution. Major projects lie in transportation, electricity, telecommunications, education, solid and water waste. These projects are listed at www.cdr.gov.lb. CDR, in coordination with the concerned ministries, launches these projects.
In May 2000, parliament adopted a privatization law that established a framework for the privatization of state-owned enterprises, but privatization of state institutions has been delayed because of lack of political consensus. At the Paris III Donor Conference in 2007, the government presented a master plan for reform that included the privatization of the two mobile phone companies, the fixed line network, the electricity sector, the water sector, the national airline, and other government-owned entities. Most of these plans remain on indefinite hold.
The year 2012 is expected to offer significant investment opportunities for international companies. In the electricity sector, the Ministry of Energy and Water is expected to upgrade its generation and distribution systems. In September 2011, the parliament passed an emergency $1.2 billion bill to boost electricity production by 700 MW. This will create commercial opportunities worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Ministry of Energy and Water is also expected to invest over $1 billion for water and waste water projects in the coming few years. For more information about electricity and water projects, visit the Ministry of Energy and Water website at http://www.energyandwater.gov.lb.
Significant investment opportunities also exist in Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas exploration. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Levant Basin Province, which includes waters shared by Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and the Republic of Cyprus. In 2012, the Ministry of Energy and Water is expected to launch first round of tenders for the offshore oil and gas exploration projects.
U.S. companies interested in doing business in Lebanon are advised to hire a Lebanese agent or distributor. Although working through an agent is a very common practice in Lebanon, networking and lengthy investigation are key to finding an appropriate one.
U.S. companies do not need to visit Lebanon to find an agent. The U.S. Commercial Service can help U.S. companies find the right partner through the International Partner Search (IPS) service. More information on IPS can be found at
The Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL), a public agency responsible for promoting investments in Lebanon, has a “One-Stop Shop” service to issue permits and licenses for investors.