The shadows of power

By Sami Halabi

Up close Lebanon’s energy overhaul looks like a boon for the sector; but in the distance an uglier reality awaits

Zouk, Lebanon (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Promoting one’s own vested interests has always been the mantra of Lebanese policy makers, and we’ve become accustomed to seeing them endlessly tie up progress until they come to an agreement on how to divvy up the spoils. So alarm bells ring when our so-called leaders finally agree on something.

On the surface the announcement that our cabinet agreed to Energy Minister Gebran Bassil’s 5-year electricity plan looks like a step toward reform. Ostensibly, the plan aims to end the country’s chronic blackouts and relieve the sector’s deficit burden from the government, which amounted to $1.5 billion last year.

But it is likely intended to preserve the minsters’ own interests — such as reinforcing the pillars of the sectarian system through which they secure their influence — before it serves the needs of the people.

What needs to be done is obvious. In production, transmission and generation the sector needs a complete overhaul, and there needs to be a purging of the political patronage systems endemic at Électricité du Liban, Lebanon’s state-owned electricity provider. To his credit, Bassil’s plan addresses these elements in detail and proposes fixes that, according to most experts, could alleviate our short-circuited sector. But before we start to borrow and spend $4.8 billion, we should ask ourselves if this time we do it by the book, or ‘a la Libanaise’.

The convoluted and dysfunctional process by which decisions in the electricity sector are currently made — or more accurately, not made — between the cabinet, the ministry and parliament, is not going to produce decisions that are free from political and sectarian influence.

For all the positive elements of Bassil’s plan, he is advocating against setting up a regulatory body to oversee the overhaul of the system until many of the changes have been implemented. Without the proper checks and balances we risk repeating the same type of ‘sector suicide’ we experienced with telecommunications, which now plagues our economic competitiveness and makes us the laughing stock of the regional telecom industry.

Allowing government to regulate the sector cannot continue, and yet the cabinet has approved the plan in question, provided that it also has the authority to oversee it.

Aside from the opaque manner in which public borrowing and spending of $2.5 billion to reform electricity is being carried out, if the cabinet is allowed to chaperone implementation, the other $2.3 billion being requested from the private sector will also likely be farmed out to sectarian interests, effectively slicing up our electrical pie. Without conflict of interest legislation and a truly independent regulatory body (not one that is also appointed through sectarian patronage,) the provisioning of electrical production and distribution will be subject to the same nepotistic tendering and distribution of power that typifies our existing institutions.

What’s more, if the practice of local distribution is adopted without ensuring that regional leaders do not monopolize the provisioning of electricity to local populations, there will be nothing to stop them from subjugating the people through greater dependency on them for basic services.

Some have suggested that sectarian loyalties are the only way to guarantee customers actually pay their power bill, but if the cost of tariff collection is strengthening an institution that tore this country to shreds and continues to stunt its potential, then I would personally prefer to live in the dark.

With new legislation covering public-private partnerships (PPP) now making the rounds to include the private sector in electrical reform, we have the opportunity to start protecting our economy from conflicts of interest, not just the “principles of transparency and equality among participants,” as the new PPP draft is proposing.

If we are to take the long strides we need to in order to solve our structural problems, such as electricity, once and for all, we cannot do so while ignoring what produced our predicament in the first place — unless of course we want to protect the candle-makers.

A similar version of this article was published in Executive Magazine’s August 2010 issue


Leaving the dark ages

By Sami Halabi
Lebanon’s cabinet approves a plan for an electricity overhaul and opens the door to sectarian influence
There's a long road ahead to reform the Zahrani power station (Photo: Sam Tarling)
Today the Lebanese pay for electricity four times: when the bill collector comes knocking, when the government has to use money collected from the citizens or borrowed in their name to cover losses in the sector, when they pay for private generation, and when the television fizzles out due to power surges.

The situation has persisted since the end of the civil war, with plans to reform the sector coming and going as quickly as Lebanon’s post-war governments.

As such, it would be easy to dismiss the most recent plan issued by Energy Minister Gebran Bassil and approved by the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, as just another chapter in the long running saga that is Lebanese electricity. But given the relative stability of Lebanon’s political scene of late and the broad nature of the new plan, at least comparatively speaking, this time could be different.

The five-year plan, which was intended to start at the beginning of this year, allocates some $4.87 billion to reforms aimed at halting power rationing by 2014 and bringing the sector into the black by 2015, plus a further $1.68 billion investment for the “long term.”

At present, between generation and imports Lebanon effectively has 1,500 megawatts (MW) of electrical capacity, while average demand ranges between 2,000 and 2,100 MW, peaking in the summer at 2,450 MW. To accommodate for expected growth in demand, the new plan proposes to increase generation capacity — which is technically at 1,875 MW but cannot be fully utilized due to technical inefficiencies — by 47 percent to 4,000MW. Demand for electricity between 2008 and 2009 grew by 7 percent, up from 6 percent growth the previous year.

To fund the new plan, the private sector will be asked to put up $2.32 billion to take part in the production and distribution of electricity, while the public sector will retain its infrastructure and control the transmission of electricity from plants to local districts. The rest of the money sought to implement the reforms is to come from the government ($1.55 billion) and international donors ($1 billion). The initial figure does not include the longer-term plans, which are contingent on the private sector shelling out a further $1.2 billion and international donors putting up another $450 million.

“The plan is beautiful, the minister knows where he wants to get,” says Albert Khoury, deputy general manager of E-Aley, an electricity concession that distributes electricity to the district of Aley. “But the devil is in the details.”

Part of Khoury’s reservations stem from the long-standing debate between the energy ministry, the concessionary companies, and Electricite du Liban (EDL), Lebanon’s state-owned electricity provider. The conflict centers on the rate at which the state sells to the concessions and how much the government spends producing electricity, epitomizing just how fiendishly difficult of a task it is to unravel and reshape Lebanon’s medieval electricity sector.

According to Bassil, electricity costs the government $0.17 per kilowatt hour (KWh) to produce and is sold to the concessions — which serve the districts of Bhamdoun, Aley, Zahle and Byblos — at a loss-making rate of $0.05 per KWh. It is then sold onto consumers at around $0.08 per KWh.

Khoury disagrees with the latter figure, protesting that “the government forces us to sell [to consumers]” at between $0.02 per KWh and $0.05 per KWh, which corresponds to the existing tariff structure at EDL, for power consumption of up to 300 KWh monthly.

A World Bank paper that addressed the situation in 2008 stated that “it is unclear how this agreement is regulated and by whom.” What is clear, however, is that the government is losing money to the tune of $20 million per year based on estimated average sales of between 900 to 1000 gigawatt-hours annually, according to the World Bank. This figure is estimated to rise to $40 million per year by 2015 if the situation persists.

“Gebran Bassil is attacking us and he’s misunderstanding the situation,” says Elie Bassil, chairman and managing director of Electricite du Jbeil, the concession in the Byblos district. “They say we’re buying electricity for low prices. Meanwhile, our overhead is increasing. If the cost of energy increases, we’ll be forced to shut down.”

With the government and the World Bank saying one thing, the concessions saying another and no one seeming to know exactly how the whole thing works, the concessionary issue alone would be enough to stymie reform. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider that last year alone, the government had to pay out $1.5 billion, or around $375 per person, to cover the deficit of the sector.

Paying the real price

For the electricity sector to even become economically feasible, let alone become an attractive investment to the private sector, supply and demand curves will need to reach equilibrium.

At present the price floor set by the existing tariff structure — which was set when a barrel of oil cost $21 dollars in 1996 and has remained unchanged since — has prevented this from happening. The power to change the tariffs lies with the cabinet, which has been unable to address issue because of political squabbling and the sensitive social implications.

The pre-tax tariff structure for low voltage consumption, the type used by most residential consumers, is divided into six price categories for every 100 KWh consumed per month. The lowest amount charged is $0.02 per KWh and the highest is $13.3 per KWh for consumers who used more than 500KWh a month. Public administrations and “handicraft and agriculture” industries pay $9.33 and $7.67 per KWh, respectively.

Under both the scenarios envisaged in the current plan, tariffs will start to rise in the third year. Under the first scenario, tariffs will be increased on average by 43 percent to break even in 2015; the second will increase the price of electricity by 54 percent to start making money in 2015. However, both of these scenarios face potential hurdles.

“The amount that is being asked from the private sector will not come, for the simple reason that tariffs will not change for three or four years,” says Hassan Jaber, energy consultant and vice president of The Lebanese Association for Energy Saving and for Environment (ALMEE).

Asking the private sector to enter into an unprofitable industry is in itself a tall order, let alone one whose eventual profitability is contingent on factors such as a sustained period of peace and political stability, donor willingness, streamlined political decision making and a steady supply of hydrocarbons.

However, Minister Bassil believes that as the private sector is only being asked to provide about a third of new power generation, the impact on retail costs will be limited. Within a few years of the plants being built, the government will be able to make up the difference through the planned tariff increases, he claims.

Ziad Hayek, secretary general of the Higher Council for Privatization (HCP), the government body in charge of planning, initiation and implementation of privatization programs says that these agreements should not be thought of as all debt or all equity but rather a combination of the two. This, he believes, might make private sector involvement attractive to a certain degree.

The specter of EDL

Supposing all the pieces related to additional generation fall into place, the existing electrical framework will still have to be managed by the EDL, which employs “2000 contractual and daily workers, many of whom are political appointees and unqualified workers,” according to the plan. As to which political parties are impeding progress, “you can never be sure,” says the energy minister.

EDL is supposed to have 5,027 full time employees, but today 3,125 of those posts (63 percent) are vacant, and with an average staff age of 52, the organization suffers from an attrition rate of around 8 percent every year due to retirement. One electricity expert who spoke on condition of anonymity described EDL’s situation “as if you cut off a man’s legs and then tell him to run.”

According to ALMEE’s Jaber, EDL is in such disarray that it “has 200,000 [electricity] meters missing and they don’t have the money to buy them, which means you have 200,000 users that are paying a standard price.” This and other instances where people steal or underpay for electricity are classified as “non-technical losses” and are estimated to constitute half of the $300 million in EDL’s operational losses each year, according the energy ministry.

Uncollected bills, a much heralded and politicized argument for the decrepit nature of Lebanese electrical infrastructure, account for only 12.5 percent of revenue loss; technical losses constitute around 37.5 percent.

Getting the private sector involved in these areas looks like it will be a tough sell for the government. “In some places we cannot reach more than a 5 percent rate of collection, so how will the private sector come in?” asks Bassil.

What adds insult to injury is that if existing electricity legislation passed in 2002 was applicable, EDL as we know it today would not exist. Law 462 mandates that the company be turned into a corporate entity, which would result in the management having control over day-to-day business functions such as hiring and firing of staff, and eventually be partially sold to the private sector in a period of less than two years. Eight years later, not one part of the law has seen the light.

“If someone wants to hinder the process of corporatization, politically they can because it is mostly related to the employees,” says Bassil, whose plan allocates $15 million to reforming human resources at EDL.

Legal issues

Rather than amending law 462, the new plan calls for setting it aside and creating a new structure for the private sector to participate in during the interim period of the plan’s application.

The new arrangement will adopt the principle of Independent Power Producers (IPP), which, in Lebanon’s case, allows private sector players to bid for contracts to enter into Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements with the government.

However, a PPP law will have to be passed before any private production of electricity can take place.

Moreover, legislation covering a law for new power plants, effectively breaking the monopoly of EDL, will also have to be passed either as a law on its own or as a part of the PPP law. A draft PPP law has already been submitted to parliament by Amal MP Ali Hassan Khalil and is currently making the rounds in the halls of government.

Applying Law 462 would mandate the unbundling of the sector into production, transmission and distribution segments, which must be up to 40 percent privatized within two years through an international auction. Notably, the plan does include the corporatization of EDL, which should be completed by the end of the third year of implementation at a cost of $165 million.

Having committed to apply the corporatization part of Law 462, Bassil’s position, and ostensibly that of the cabinet who ratified the minister’s new plan, is that Law 462 will be ignored until after the new electrical regime is in place.

The minister is not happy with the prospect of a regluator while he implements his plan (Photo: Sam Tarling)

“It is fair to say that the minister is not interested in implementing Law 462 as it is because his concerns center on the creation of a regulator [Electricity Regulatory Authority],” says the HCP’s Hayek, whose permanent members are the ministers of finance, economy and trade, justice and labor — all of whom are part of the same political camp opposed to Bassil’s.

Having a regulator would necessarily take away many of the powers of the minister, who states in the last words of the plan: “Exceptional powers should be  given to the Minister of Energy and Water and the Council of Ministers.” In his previous post as telecom minister, Bassil was constantly at loggerheads with the Telecom Regulatory Authority over prerogatives in the sector, something he says he wants to avoid while the energy plan is being implemented.

“We would be mixed up with two sets of prerogatives and have EDL still working and fixing the price. We need to prepare the ground for the ERA to come in later on and see what it will need in terms of regulation, then we will decide when to launch it,” he says.

Regulation or sectarianization

Without a regulatory body to uphold the general rules and regulations of the sector, the country and the private sector risk having any plan annulled or changed when a new minister comes in. The constant shuffling of ministers has long been blamed for the discontinuity of policy and reform in the sector; since the beginning of 2008, Lebanon has had three energy ministers.

“Regulatory authorities allow us to transcend the individualization of power, especially in sectors that involve the provision of services because they should not be politicized,” says Hayek.

Another area where a regulator could prevent undue influence is in the distribution sector. Many fear that if local and sectarian leaders are allowed to enter the distribution market, as is being proposed under service provision arrangements, then they would have control over power to local populations, in effect increasing their constituents’ dependence on them.

Under the current plan, three scenarios have been proposed for the break up of Lebanon’s energy distribution into 15 zones. Scenarios one and three have non-contiguous parts, which could make any assessment of individual service providers’ performance difficult, according to Hayek.

The break up of the country in the second scenario seems loosely based on the geographical distribution of Lebanon’s major sects. According to a source involved with the negotiations with foreign funders, European Union representatives working in Lebanon on infrastructural reform are “not happy at all” with this scenario and will have reservations when asked for funding if this sort of distribution is adopted.

“The fewer regions there are the better because these regions should not become local fiefdoms,” adds Hayek. “Once you have vested interests in companies managing these regions, and if money comes to the hands of influential people, we will never be able to reform further.”

Bassil rejects the idea that he formed the areas on the basis of a sectarian break-up and says that the only consideration was the current structure at EDL.

He also added that he has 12 other scenarios that could be employed, giving the feeling that the plan is more of a “roadmap,” as Jaber calls it, than a detailed plan.

Some, however, believe that Lebanon’s fractious sectarian nature makes this kind of arrangement a more viable option than global best practice.

Although Chafic Abi Said, an energy consultant and former director of planning and studies at EDL, also disagrees that the plan was to break up distribution along sectarian lines, he says “it ought to be [this way] because people will stop stealing if they know, for instance, that Hezbollah in a certain area is responsible for the electricity.”

“In the Chouf during the war they were paying [the] Jumblatts’ civil ministry and it was running because Jumblatt was taking care of it,” he adds.

Need to regulate

Another concern is political interests vying for pieces of the generation portfolio that will be up for grabs. Currently there is little to stop influential politicians and their acolytes from using their favorable positions and economies of scale to offer bids that undercut regular market players.

For instance, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies already control the Sidon dump and garbage collection in the greater Beirut area, making them prime candidates to bid for the waste-to-energy project on offer.

Amal and Hezbollah’s influence in the south and the former’s history with the Litani River Project also put them in a good position for the plan’s private-sector hydropower offering. In fact, the former head of the Litani River Authority, Nasser Nasrallah, became an Amal MP in 2005 shortly after leaving the post, according to a source who spoke to Executive off the record.

“I don’t see a problem once we do a transparent tender for a company to win,” says Minister Bassil. “If it is politically backed or not, it is not my problem. My problem is to get the best price, and if we don’t get the best price I won’t accept to proceed with the IPP.”

Better than nothing

For all its potential faults, the plan to reform Lebanon’s most outdated sector can be seen as progress of some sort, considering that this is the first time since the Paris III reform initiatives that a real overhaul of the sector has received the official stamp.

The promise of that earlier reform plan has today faded away, with some $3.8 billion in pledges tied up because Lebanon’s policy makers are not on the same page.

The current electricity reform plan will also need the cabinet, parliament, the HCP and the energy ministry to work hand in hand to rid the Lebanese of what is perhaps the greatest impediment to becoming a modern state — a functioning power grid.

Before any investments can be made this year the national budget, which has eluded the government for the past 5 years, will have to be passed by parliament and continue to be passed for the next five years. In what may be a telling sign of things to come, the finance ministry has announced that they will be proposing the 2011 budget this month, even before the last budget has been passed.

“Success requires continuity of policy and working together, and the second one is more important,” says Hayek. “We will all, the minister included, succeed or fail by the measure of how well we work together.”

If they can’t find a way to do that, Lebanon’s electricity deficit will only increase, meaning in the years to come it will be ever more common for the Lebanese to be applying their make up by flashlight and cooking by candlelight. At least they will know who to blame, that is, of course, if they can find them in the dark.

First published in Executive Magazine’s August 2010 issue

The fall of Lebanon’s ceramics king

Nepotism and energy prices bring down Uniceramic

The cracks began to show when energy prices began to rise and the Lebanese government revoked safeguard measures

by Sami Halabi

Uniceramic once ruled on high in the Lebanese ceramics market. Established in 1973, the company’s fortunes began to fade as it entered its fourth decade of operations — a combination of subsidized imports, record high energy costs, the removal of safeguard measures and an inability to relocate operations outside Lebanon saw Uniceramic’s market position fade.

Today it no longer exists

According to Lebanon’s Ministry of Economy and Trade (MOET), by mid-2006 the company constituted 82 percent of local ceramics production. While this may be an impressive figure, when the total size of the industry is taken into account, it becomes less awe-inspiring. According to government figures, in 2003 local production of ceramics stood at 48 percent of total market share; by 2005 it had dropped to 31 percent.

“Prices fell even though production costs went up. This was reflected in Uniceramic’s decreased profits and with returns on investment registering losses for three consecutive years,” said an official from the Trade Remedies Investigative Authority (TRIA), who asked for anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The TRIA, overseen by the MOET, is the government body that investigates and makes recommendations as to whether measures should be taken to protect certain strategic industries.

With surging imports of ceramic tiles flooding the market and costs soaring for the energy necessary to fire the ovens used for ceramics manufacturing, Lebanon’s industry simply had no way to compete with countries such as Egypt and China, which enjoy cheaper labor and energy. As such, in March 2006, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI) put forward a petition to request safeguard measures be applied to the ceramic tile industry. The subsequent TRIA investigation, completed by May of the same year, found that between 2001 and 2005 imports of ceramic tiles had risen by 63 percent, which it classified as a “significant rise.”

A debate over how much and what kind of protection should be adopted promptly ensued. Lebanon is not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), mostly due to matters related to intellectual property and other compliance issues. The country does, however, apply many of the organization’s trading rules, as well as those of the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), that seek to eventually abolish tariffs between most Arab nations.

As a safeguard measure, Lebanon decided to adopt the WTO’s “most favored nation” policy that, basically, states that all countries must be treated equally. Accordingly, in September 2006 the MOET, then under Minister Sami Haddad, proposed to the Council of Ministers that an ad valorem safeguard measure of 20 percent, or a minimum of $2 per square meter (whichever was higher) be applied to ceramic imports for a period of three years, even when these were arriving from GAFTA countries. The Council of Ministers agreed to levy the tax but only for a period of one year, according to official documents obtained by Executive. Both Syria and Egypt promptly filed complaints with the Lebanese Government and the Arab League.

This was not the first time the Lebanese government had granted Uniceramic or the ceramics industry its protection.

They also enjoyed protection up until the post-war government headed by Salim el-Hoss “removed customs on everything, even whisky,” said Joseph Ghorra, chairman and largest shareholder of Uniceramic.

Ghorra explained that the political initiative to protect his industry in 2006 came largely from the late Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, who was also the main proponent of a bill aimed at protecting national industries from cheaper foreign imports.

“If [Gemayel] had not got into a huge political fight with [then Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora, nothing would have happened,” said George Gorayeb, general manager of Lecico, now Lebanon’s largest ceramics manufacturer, which also benefited from the safeguard measure. (Ghorra actually helped setup Lecico and still owns a stake). Gorayeb said Gemayel was able to get the protective measures instituted for one year, but “when he died, so did [the measures].”

Two months after protection was granted, gunmen assassinated Gemayel in his car.

A little more than two weeks later, on December 8, Lebanon replaced its aging anti-dumping legislation with the “Law on the Protection of National Production.” Under the new law Lebanese industries would be protected from dumping, subsidized imports and substantial increases in imports.

The law looked to be a boon for Lebanon’s industrial sector, long overlooked by policy makers as a potential driver of the country’s economy.

“As long as this was in place the company was making money,” said Fadi Abboud, president of the ALI and Lebanon’s current Minister of Tourism, in reference to the safeguard measure. However, even though the safeguard measure may have kept Uniceramic alive, the company wasn’t exactly kicking.

According to disclosure figures obtained from Zawya Dow Jones, the company had managed to accumulate $8.2 million in losses by the end of 2007, despite having enjoyed the safeguard measure until September of that year.

A large part of this loss was seen to be a result of the company’s cost structure, which relied heavily on the consumption of natural gas. The other culprit was Uniceramic’s loss of market share — resulting from cheaper import prices in lower-end ceramic tiles.

“Egypt is the biggest cause of the flood that started in Beirut on the lower-end of the market,” said Gorayeb, whose company also manufactures ceramics in Egypt.

During the period from 2004 to 2007, Egyptian ceramic tiles constituted a total of 37 percent of total imports, with the rest coming from China, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and Italy, according to the TRIA.

Egyptian ceramics producers are the recipients of longstanding government supplied gas subsidies, which rose from $2.6 billion in Egypt’s 2004 fiscal year, to $11.41 billion in the 2008 fiscal year. Gorayeb explains that as of 2009, his Egyptian factories paid 6 cents per cubic meter in costs, while in Lebanon he pays $1. This, he says, allowed Egyptian products to undercut prices and sell at around 50 cents per square meter below Uniceramic’s prices.

When the company did apply for safeguard renewal in August of 2007, one month before the measure was set to expire, the TRIA began a second investigation, covering the period from 2004 to 2007.

“The picture that emerged during this review was that imports continued to grow, though at a slower place, amounting to 32 percent for the entire investigation period — this is almost half the rate of increase under the initial review,” said the TRIA official.

By September of 2007, the safeguard had lapsed and industry leaders began to get jittery as energy prices continued to skyrocket.

“We asked [the MOET] why did you stop [the measures]? This company will go bankrupt,” said Abboud. “They said: ‘We did not stop. When we gave [protection] to Uniceramic, the implementation procedures had not been issued. In the beginning we did it to placate Pierre Gemayel. [Now] we are going to give it back according to the procedures.’”

The implementation procedures, which total 103 articles, were eventually issued detailing how an investigation would proceed. This time it seemed the investigation would not be a short and sweet affair for the ceramics industry.

“They did not implement [the decree]. They kept asking us to give them numbers…and they didn’t implement it,” said Ghorra.

Others were less forgiving

“We put in a million applications but the people at the ministry are liars, and you can write that and underline it three times,” said Gorayeb. “They are trying to impose their own form of neo-liberalism.”

As Executive went to print, the TRIA had not responded to requests for comment.

While the investigation continued into 2008, Uniceramic was trying to keep its head above water. One of the tenets of the safeguard measure was that those enjoying its protection, such as Uniceramic and Lecico, could not raise their prices.

Nevertheless, real estate executives who spoke to Executive on condition of anonymity complained of a “30 percent rise” in Uniceramic’s prices. Ghorra denied this claim, saying that the perceived rise was due to a new product mix focused on the high-end segment, which Uniceramic was attempting to adopt to adapt their model to the new market realities.

However, as Abboud noted: “A factory cannot survive only on the upper-end, you have to have the bread and butter with an olive.”

The price-fix also came at a time when the market price of ceramics was surging. According to TRIA, during the first three months of the safeguard’s application the average price of ceramics had increased by 50 to 70 percent. The measure has been decried by the industry as yet another reason local ceramics could not take advantage of the increased demand and reconstruction subsequent to the July 2006 war.

“For those families that were forced to rebuild their homes, it is part of the Ministry’s responsibility to ensure that they have access to building materials, such as ceramic tiles, at reasonable prices,” said the TRIA official.

Realizing that their model was unsustainable, Uniceramic attempted to move its operations away from Lebanon. Instead of diversifying its product-mix, as Lecico currently does with its Egyptian production, Uniceramic deemed the market oversaturated and the company attempted to set up shop in gas-rich Qatar.

“The Qatari [Energy and industry] Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah was generous enough to give us a license without a Qatari partner,” said Ghorra, though he added that, “When people saw that we did not have a Qatari partner they started to make things complicated.”

Ghorra said Uniceramic is still actively seeking out a Qatari partner to restart the company in the Gulf.

By April 2008, the company finally threw up its hands and closed its factories in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; it also had let go of the majority of its 450 workers. Media reports at the time stated that the company was losing $15,000 per day.

Uniceramic laid the blame squarely at the feet of the MOET.

“Sami Haddad made us empty promises. He kept promising us till he couldn’t any longer and then he told me to take the machines and work outside Lebanon,” said Ghorra.

Haddad, who is now chairman and general manager of Byblos Invest Bank, denies that he made any such suggestions.

Victim of a crisis

Uniceramic's board of directors tried to move its manufacturing plant out of Lebanon

“They know what is in their interest and they don’t need my advice. They can manufacture something else,” said Haddad. “It is not very logical for us to try to compete in producing stable commodities. We cannot decide to produce a good with a higher cost, impose it on the consumer and not face competition.

“Don’t forget we were faced with a very strong inflationary pressure at that time; people were clamoring about and everything was expensive.”

It’s worth noting that while the second investigation was ongoing, Lebanon’s government was in the middle of a full-blown political crisis that culminated in the events of May 7, 2008. Masked gunmen from opposing political parties fought battles in Beirut and in the Chouf region. The fighting stopped a few days later, with Lebanon’s political factions eventually signing the Doha agreement, which paved the way to the formation of a new interim government. In July of 2008, Mohamad Safadi became the Minister of Economics and Trade and extended the investigation period to 18 months until February 2009 — the maximum duration allowed by the implementation decree.

“First it was [Minister] Haddad then [Minister] Safadi who asked us to wait until the elections were over,” said Ghorra, referring to the June 2009 elections.

By February of last year it seemed the final nail in Uniceramic’s coffin had been hammered. The MOET adopted the TRIA’s decision to reject the safeguard petition.

“At that point in time, help for the ceramic tile industry was to be found outside the Law of Protection of National Production, given that the main issue in the Uniceramic case is the high energy costs rather than the increase in imports,” said the TRIA official. The official also stated that price hikes subsequent to the lifting of safeguard measures, and the demand for ceramics after the 2006 war, also contributed to the decision.

Almost instantly, industry leaders cried foul, stating that the subsidies foreign importers were receiving were not taken into consideration in the decision.

When Executive contacted the WTO, a spokesperson confirmed that the organization allows any country to “seek the withdrawal of the subsidy or the removal of its adverse effects, or the country can launch its own investigation and ultimately charge extra [countervailing] duties on subsidized imports that are found to be hurting domestic producers.”

When asked if Egypt’s gas subsidies were legal under WTO standing regulations, the organization declined to comment.

Upsetting Egypt by imposing safeguard duties on their exports may not be a wise choice, given that the same gas Cairo offers at subsidized rates to Egyptian industries is now being piped to Lebanon’s power plants, saving the country’s debt-ridden government around $240 million a year in fuel oil expenditure.

“No one, especially in the Arab world, wants to discuss subsidies. The Ministry of Economy is trying to use every trick in the book and find reasons why we should not give Uniceramic any safeguard measures,” said Abboud, who was chosen for the post of tourism minister by opposition leader Michel Aoun.

The Ministry of Economy and Trade is still headed by Mohamad Safadi, a long-time member of Parliament and part of the ruling March 14 coalition.

A less than level playing field

The more blatant and pressing issue with regard to safeguards in the Lebanese economy relates to which industries are receiving protection from imports. Currently, cement and electric cables both enjoy a ban on imports due to trade licensing agreements issued by the Ministry of Industry in 1992 and 1977 respectively. These industries do not have to go through the laborious process of investigations and petitions that other industries seeking protection must endure.

“They say cement is strategic but are electric cables also? When we look we find out there are a lot of companies that are enjoying safeguard measures,” said Abboud. “There is no economic logic; it looks like it very much depends on who owns what.”

The Ministry of Industry did not respond to requests for comment.

What is even more incredulous is that some of the owners in these industries are the most influential political figures in Lebanon. Walid Jumblat, an MP and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), is chairman and general manager of Ciment de Sibline, a company with a production capacity of 1 million tons of cement per year. The PSP also currently holds three seats in Lebanon’s Cabinet, including the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, which relies on cement to develop its projects.

Jumblat owns a 19.16 percent stake in the company along with GroupMed, owned by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his family, which has a 19.65 percent stake.

Holcim Liban, Lebanon’s largest cement producer, is partly owned by the Maronite church, which has a 4.13 percent stake. The company made $167 million of revenues in 2008.

Haddad called the banning of cement imports a “mistake” and agreed that protection was being applied selectively. “Uniceramic has been discriminated against unfavorably; other industries are being positively discriminated for. [In that] there is no doubt,” he said.

In September 2009, Uniceramic finally filed for bankruptcy with $12 million in liabilities. When capital losses are also taken into account, Ghorra says the company is down around $17 million. Uniceramic’s shares were delisted from the Beirut Stock Exchange in November of last year.

Nonetheless, Ghorra insists that since energy prices have now stabilized the company can be profitable once again, citing a study conducted by major international accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. Deloitte & Touche declined to provide the study due to  confidentiality constraints. Ghorra was not available for further comment on the issue.  Ghorra said that his company has sold Uniceramic’s name to Qatar for $1 million and is currently seeking both foreign and local investors to buy in.

“We are talking to two parties in order for them to buy the entire company, and we are willing to let them keep a part of the staff,” Ghorra said.

It seems the company is not just targeting the private sector for help.

“We did not knock on the prime minister’s door before, but we are knocking on it now,” he added.

As for Lebanon’s industrial sector, it continues to attract less investment and constitutes a decreasing portion of gross domestic product. It may well be the case that unless companies, let alone sectors, are treated equally then this trend will continue, and the fate of Uniceramic may well be replicated across other industries.

“Uniceramic was around for 30 years; in just a few years, energy prices increased, hit its budget and now it’s gone,” said Gorayeb. “We weren’t born just to close factories. We have to get to a point where we have logical solutions because what is happening is not logical.”

First published in Executive Magazine’s January 2010 issue