He pointed out that the 2018 budget will not include any new taxes but many incentives that would help the private sector.
Hariri's statements came during a dialogue held today with economists at the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agricultural in Beirut, in honor of the former President of the Economic and Social Council Roger Nasnas.
At the onset of the ceremony, Hariri said: "We meet today to honor a dear friend, Roger Nasnas who preserved the Economic and Social Council during the past period despite all the shocks, crises and paralysis in the public institutions. Today he is handing it over to people in whom we also have high hopes, so they follow the same path, the path of Lebanon's advancement.
Today we are at the beginning of a long workshop for the advancement of the country, and the Economic and Social Council should accompany us in the coming period. There is no doubt that the council is the ideal and natural place to hold all economic and social dialogues between all sectors of the Lebanese society represented in it, away from the streets, squares and the doors of politicians.
Today's priority in Lebanon is stability. Security, political, economic and social stability. We prepared a road map for stability, growth and job opportunities. All this started with the meeting of the International support group held in Paris on December 8, 2017. It will continue in Rome II conference that is expected to be held at the end of February to support the Lebanese Army and the military and security institutions. The Paris conference is expected to be held in France at the beginning of April to support economic stability in Lebanon."
He added: "We are going to the Paris conference with a clear program and specific objectives. We have a significant investment program in infrastructure, a $16 billion program that includes more than 250 projects in transportation, water, electricity and sewage system, in addition to projects related to communications, public health, education and the cultural heritage of Lebanon. This program, which is expected to bring the growth rates back to 6 and 7% and create tens of thousands of job opportunities for the Lebanese youth, includes vital projects that we need in order to have a modern infrastructure that would meet your ambitions and aspirations and allow you to increase your investments.
We presented this program to the World Bank, which reviewed and evaluated it, stressing the importance of the targeted sectors in this program and the importance of the projects included to improve the Lebanese economy. Our aim at the Paris conference is to secure the necessary financing for these projects through soft loans from the international funds, financial institutions and from friendly countries."
Hariri continued: "Around 40% of the projects in the investment program can be implemented through the partnership between the public and private sectors with an estimated value of $7 billion dollars out of the total $16 billion. The legal mechanism is here after Parliament approved a law that organizes the partnership between the public and private sectors, so you can start implementing today. We and Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal Group are preparing a joint conference to be held on February 22 to present these projects and discuss them with the local and foreign private sectors to stimulate private sector financing.
In parallel with finalizing the investment program, we have begun work on defining Lebanon's economic identity by preparing a detailed study of the productive sectors in order to delineate the promising traditional and new sectors. These sectors will be a source of growth and job opportunities in the coming years, in addition to specifying the steps that should be taken to improve these sectors.
But this alone is not enough. We have to start the necessary sectoral and structural reforms to ensure the full success of the upcoming Paris conference. I know that you are waiting for these reforms. You want security and stability, and not chaos; you want a modern infrastructure and not a shabby one; you want public institutions that facilitate your work and not hinder it; you want a legal framework that protects your rights to increase your investments and develop your work and you want financial and monetary stability. All this is a priority on our agenda today."
He concluded: "I know that the project we are carrying to the Paris Conference is a big project, but we as Lebanese think big. Rafic Hariri always thought of ways to allow Lebanon, this small country, to emerge in the big world. This is why our objective is to develop the infrastructure and we should work day and night to achieve it because it is our duty as government, as Economic and Social Council, as chamber of commerce and as businessmen to work together for the advancement of the country. This needs dialogue. Today we have all this and we should all start a dialogue to implement the projects and develop the country.
I am sure we are capable of doing this and that the Lebanese youth want to stay in the country. We do not want their only hope to be to leave the country. The Paris conference is just the beginning. It is true that it is a big project but not an impossible one because the private sector has a big part in it and I am certain that this conference will be successful.
I want to thank all the efforts exerted by Roger Nasnas, which were personal efforts. He was able to preserve the council despite the difficult situation in the country and the political situation, and he used to spend from his own money because he believed in the council and its work.
Today, Charles Arbid also has a difficult mission because the economic situation is very difficult and we have to work together for the advancement of the country and I hope we can achieve this."
For his part, the president of Beirut Municipality Jamal Itani announced that a committee chaired by Premier Hariri, that includes economists, media figures and intellectuals, would work to revive Beirut Central District. The plan, that includes activities, also involves dialogue with the owners and investors to provide the necessary incentives that would lead them to bring their investments back to Beirut Central district.
After that, a dialogue took place between Prime Minister Hariri and the economists. Asked if he considers it important to reduce taxes and end disputes between politicians for economists to work, he replied that no one in the state wants to target any sector.
"We are witnessing a very severe economic crisis and the past vacuum and divisions affected Lebanon a lot. You all know the growth rates in 2016 and 2017, add to it the presence of 1.5 million displaced Syrians and the export of Lebanese goods by sea only. All these issues had a very negative effect on the country and I agree with you that the taxes were harsh. But the 2018 budget will not see any new taxes but many incentives that will help the private sector because it is the primary employer. The problem we are experiencing today is the economic inertia and this is why we prepared an ambitious program for the Paris conference because it ensures thousands of job opportunities. We on our part have to change our commercial laws because it is not normal that in 2018 we are still subject to laws put in 1950 and even before.
On the other hand, there are economic ideas that I do not approve, especially that some in the government want to increase the taxes on the private sector. There will be no tax this year on the private sector but lots of incentives. Also, my primary role in the country is to bring all the Lebanese together on one agenda and ease the political differences. No political dispute should affect the ministerial and economic work."
Question: Tripoli and the North need investments, and we hope to keep the economic file away from the tensions in the region.
Hariri: When we will present the investment program in the infrastructure, all areas will have big shares but the biggest share will be for the North because it has been forgotten and we should invest in its infrastructure. This will open new horizons to the private sector to invest in the airport, port, railway as well as the FSRU and the power plants. When we conducted tests on wind power generation, we noticed that Akkar is the most productive area in this. There is also an idea to build a port in Akkar in conjunction with the development of the Tripoli port. Also, President Mouawad Airport is part of the investment project that we prepared for Paris conference.
Question: We hope that you will promote the industrial sector and take measures that would increase exports?
Hariri: We have to protect our factories within the framework of the agreements signed with several countries and which should be fully implemented. We must also help with the issue of transportation which was greatly affected by the crisis in Syria. Also, our economy should remain a free economy and we must free it more and more and keep the hand of the state away from it.
Asked about the steps that will be taken to enhance the role of the banking sector, he answered: "The banking sector is Lebanon's back bone. Lebanon never failed to pay any loan due to the effective role of the Central Bank and the banking sector. The focus of some on the banking sector is abusive because it is the only sector that is achieving success in this period because the other sectors are affected by the harsh political disputes. Tourism for example should be the most important sector in the country, and when tourism is fine, agriculture, industry, airport, infrastructure and other sectors would be fine.
There are many sectors that benefit from tourism, but the political problems and the use of platforms to attack some countries and instill fear in the people who want to come to Beirut, have negatively affected these sectors and showed that the banking sector is the only one that is working. If all the sectors were working well, they would all be balanced. Maybe you are talking about the crisis that happened two months ago, but this crisis also happened 14 months and if it were not for the banking sector, the country would not have been able to overcome the severe crisis it experienced in the presidential issue. Many criticized the solutions of the Central bank at the time, but the fact is that without these solutions the pound would not have survived. We should preserve the banking sector with all our energy."
In response to a question about women's rights and the steps that he plans to take to implement his promises towards women, Hariri said: "In fact Lebanon is one of the countries that adopted the laws of women rights. We, as political blocs, should start working on this. For me, in the Prime Minister's office and in my private office, 60% of those working with me are women. Thus, I say that we achieved the quota and more."
Question: How can we protect agriculture in Lebanon?
Hariri: On the subject of industry and agriculture, protection is necessary, taking into account the agreements we have signed with all countries, otherwise Lebanon will become isolated and incapable of exporting or importing. In the same context, I support having a detailed study on agriculture and industry. I am with an industry supported by the state on condition that it will have its return after few years and can depend on itself.