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Construction firms: Politics hurting business.

Summary: Exhibitors at the Project Lebanon construction trade exhibition voiced displeasure Tuesday over poor economic conditions.

BEIRUT: Exhibitors at the Project Lebanon construction trade exhibition voiced displeasure Tuesday over poor economic conditions, underlining the need to quell political turmoil both domestically and regionally to improve the business climate in the country.

The 17th annual trade exhibition, which kicked off Tuesday, is 13 percent larger in size and participation than the previous one which took place in 2011.

But bigger doesn't always mean better, as exhibitors seated behind luxurious and elegant displays nearly unanimously agree that Lebanon has faced a massive economic downturn over the past year, tied to ongoing tensions both domestically and regionally, particularly in Syria.

"It started about seven months ago," Knaider representative Nadim A. Knaider says. "The market in Lebanon is very, very bad. Even last year was exponentially better compared to the situation we are in now."

And all fingers point in the same direction when identifying the cause of suffering in the Lebanese market.

"Once the problems started in Syria, it went downhill," Maroun Massoud of Fortress Elevators and Escalators says with a solemn expression. "You could say that once the conflict started in Syria, the local economy put on the breaks."

"The situation in Lebanon was never great, but we saw a significant change for the worse linked with the problems of our neighbors," says Ayad Badra of Al Geco Engineering and Contracting Company.

Little optimism remains about Lebanon's short-run future in the market, as tensions are expected to escalate domestically, further pushing the Lebanese market on its downward path.

"It's going to get worse, much, much worse," Knaider says in regard to Lebanon's economic future.

Gebran Safi of Mecanix shops echoes Knaider's concerns, and notes that "it depends greatly on the political situation ... and in this case we will not be in a good position."

"It will get better eventually," says Massoud, "but not before it gets worse. And it won't get better until Lebanon has a democratic and non-corrupt regime."

But scattered among pessimistic old-timers, a few new international exhibitors joined Project Lebanon for the first time, characterizing the market as one with great potential.

"It's a developing market," says one European exhibitor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We expect more growth here than in Europe, for example. Development here is still possible in building, contracting and infrastructure."

"It's a regional hub for construction, and we expect growth," he continues with confidence.

A second company exhibiting for the first time from Greece shared similar sentiments. "We've been hearing that Lebanon is developing and it's an interesting market, and its close proximity is advantageous," says Effie Karras, Exports Manager of Aluminco.

Despite domestic instability, Karras remains optimistic and notes that "Lebanon has been accustomed to instability for many years, and this hasn't stopped great development, so why should it be different this year?"

"Our focus is on developing and thriving markets," echoes Raf Moors of Belgian Company Jaga. "Lebanon fits those criteria perfectly."

But exhibitors press on, attending exhibition after exhibition, in the hopes that their luck might change.

"You have to be ready," says Badra, "This is how the market works in Lebanon. It will be in a slump for a couple of years and then it suddenly picks up. If you aren't ready, you'll miss it."

"We always have to think positive, even with what's going on all around us," adds Walid A. Habre of AMH company. "We've been in business for 57 years, and at the end of the day it's tunnel vision."

"You just keep looking ahead and moving forward, that's the only way to make it in Lebanon."

Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jun 6, 2012
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