Lebanon on Crossroads between U.S. Congressional and Saudi Led Sanctions

10 November 2017

Bachir El Nakib (CAMS), Senior Consultant - Compliance Alert (LLC)

Spreading rumors about an imminent financial collapse is short-sighted. It would harm the average Lebanese citizen while ironically emboldening rather than undermining the country’s ruling class.

Corrupt politicians run government deficits and accumulate debt; their friends in the financial sector (including BDL) keep on lending them and make profits; and to finance this operation they set high interest rates to attract overseas deposits, mostly from the Lebanese diaspora.

Following Congressional decision dated December 2015 against Hizbollah, the GCC council led by Saudi Arabia took action on March 2016 against Hezbollah taking legal measures against TV channels affiliated with or it’s leader as well as companies and individuals affiliated with it. Political and economic measures taken by Arab countries, which come in the backdrop of increased tensions with Lebanon, could further damage the country’s already fragile economy. beginning in a move that marks further US escalation directed at the Iranian government and the Lebanese armed group Hizbollah, US Congress and House of Representatives took first step a week ago in approving unanimously three resolutions that tighten the economic screws on Tehran and the Shiite militant party, after almost six months of deliberations and amendments, the US House of Representatives passed a bundle of bills with measures designed to curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme and Hizbollah’s funding.

A unanimous majority of Democratic and Republican members of Congress voted orally in unison and passed the following resolutions:

- 1- H.R 359 - Urging the European Union to designate Hizbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization;

- 2-H.R. 3342 - Sanctioning Hizbollah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act;

- 3-H.R. 3329 - Hizbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2017 (HIFPA).

Following a visit to the U.S. to meet officials last month, Head of the Association of Banks in Lebanon Joseph Torbey said:

The association told the U.S. administration and correspondent banks that new legislation should not be harmful or cause collateral damage to Lebanon, its economy, its banks or the savings of the people.”

Last week,Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon o n Monday of declaring war against it because of what it called aggression by the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah. If the next government is more pro-Hezbollah , that could lead to devastating sanctions. It could even increase the chances of a new war with Israel, which would see added justification for its argument that there is little distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state.

Between that (Hariri’s resignation)  and the missile launch on Riyadh ... the coincidence of those two does mean that the prospect of some escalation, some strike either against Hezbollah or against Iran or against both is more likely, certainly than it was a few days ago.

From last month meetings held in Washington by IMF, and the US-Mena Private Sector Dialogue at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, NY, USA, Marshall S. Billingslea, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist financing in the US Treasury Department as key note speaker, sent alarming messages to Lebanon banking sector attending the event:

The US Department of Treasury thinks that the creation of the CFTC (Counter Financing Terrorism Centre) in KSA is the bone to encounter Iran threats in the Middle East, the ballistic missiles program, the release of huge amount of funds through Syria to Hizbollah and the Taliban by way and means that Iran IRGC via Mahan Air, the second largest airline helping Hizbollah in collaboration with commercial entities doing business with Mahan Air, the designated Hizbollah continue to build its defensive  construction. Our actions and the Congress not directed against Lebanon. We encourage you not to provide financial services to Hizbollah, you must focus and monitor Non-profit circles continue to make threats in finance Terrorism Charities and MSB continue to be a risk funding Terrorism We do recommend to do risk based assessment Focus on charity Non-Financial banking sector, we encourage you not to provide financial services to Non-profit circles, MSB (Money Service Businesses) or employees in MSB that continue to make threats in financing terrorism, we do recommend to do risk based assessment focusing on charities, non-financial banking sector, there's the real Risk. 

Impact of Sanctions

The Lebanese financial sector is concerned with all these laws, and had to absorb in a record time these sanctions and their potential impact on economic growth. If new tougher sanctions are enacted, growth is expected to decline as people hit by the sanctions may move their businesses to other parts of the world. Of course when the sanctions are against a country and multi-lateral, the economic impact will be maximized.

When sanctions are against individuals and unilateral, the economic impact will be lesser. Lebanese banks were very keen on quickly abiding by all sanctions and new regulations, simply because the Lebanese economy is heavily dollarized and Lebanese banks could not function without their U.S. correspondent banks. 65% of deposits in Lebanon are in U.S. dollars, and 72% of loans are denominated in U.S. dollars. Lebanese banks are in need of correspondent banks in the U.S. to clear their transactions in U.S. dollars.  New sanctions could therefore be a major destabilizing factor for the Lebanese economy.

Raising the public’s sentiments and fears on an imminent breakdown of the financial system would scare off these foreign transfers and reduce confidence in the economy. Although ultimately our reliance on such transfers should be reduced, yet this is not the right time to help squeeze the country’s only lifeline.Also, the ruling political groups are experts on how to use scare tactics in their favor. They prey on people’s fears and anxieties, and having a threat of financial meltdown is a perfect setting to push populist agendas and show how they are the true guardians of the country’s stability. As Moubarak used to use “Al istiqrar aw al kharab” (stability or chaos), the ruling parties in the country use threats of crises to justify their collective agreements and strengthen their grip on power.

So instead of falling into the ruling cartel’s rhetoric, opposition voices are better off proposing concrete and bold plans to get the country out of the debt trap, away from populist and shortsighted tactics.

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