Economy and Trade Minister Marwan Hamada said on Tuesday, at the opening of a three-day conference aimed at encouraging business between Lebanon and its expatriate community that a government committee had prepared a plan to boost investment.

The plan, to be put before the Lebanese cabinet next Tuesday, includes a recommendation for an "emigrant card" giving those who do not have Lebanese nationality some basic rights and privileges mainly related to property ownership and tax breaks.

"Emigrants have allowed Lebanon to overcome its economic crisis at its most difficult times," Hamada told the Planet Lebanon conference.

President Emile Lahud, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Barri joined a host of top officials and leading business people and bankers from Lebanon and the diaspora at the Beirut conference.

"Annual emigrants remittances have increased by about 24% every year in the last decade... and make up about 15% of the gross domestic product," said Hamada.

"This is the secret. This is the key. This is the secret of our escape from collapse," he said.

Lebanon's economy, which has been suffering a crisis and spiralling debt of more than $34bn, has tried to boost links with the diaspora, believed to have an estimated wealth of at least $40bn.

The country has seen several large waves of emigration, mainly at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century and throughout the 1975-1990 civil war.

"Lebanon is not just the four million people living on its territory, there are also about 20 million people of Lebanese descent around the globe," said Nasib Fawaz, president of the Lebanese International Business Council which organised the conference.

"The emigrants have not forgotten their homeland... and the annual amount of money from emigrants flowing into Lebanon is about four billion dollars which amounts to $1000 per capita for the residing population," he said.

"Lebanon is not just
the four million people living on its territory, there are also about 20 million people of Lebanese descent around the globe" 

Nasib Fawaz,
Lebanese International Business Council president

But Fawaz, a US-based businessman, said expats could invest more if there were better legal guarantees and transparency as well as fewer bureaucratic hurdles and expenses for basic utilities.

Fawaz also dismissed fears of a drain-brain, saying "Lebanon is the country of education in the Middle East with an annual number of graduates exceeding 15,000."

Elie Yashuhi, chairman of the Luwayzeh University business school, said at a recent seminar that "without the emigrants, hunger would have struck the Lebanese."

Samih Barbir, head of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon, a state promotional agency, told reporters "we want to tell the diaspora that Lebanon is an oasis for investments in this troubled region."

"Our agency has worked on four projects worth $300m, has 17 other projects under study worth one billion dollars and is looking into the prospects for three more projects worth $900m," he said.

"The Arabs remain the largest investors. We want the emigrants to see the benefits of investing in Lebanon," he said.

Nasir Saaydi, a former minister of economy and second deputy governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon during the past few years, said efforts were underway to introduce laws to ease investments through financial instruments which emigrants would find easier than direct investments.

Mario Jamhouri, deputy general manager of the Geneva branch of leading Lebanese bank Banque Audi, said most Lebanese banks have teams of experts trying to convince expatriate communities to put their money back into their homeland.

"Our bank has secured about $500m of deposits from South America alone in the last few years. There is huge potential," he said.