Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced in late December the formation of the Mashreq (Levant) Business Forum, which includes Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. The forum's goal is to promote free trade in the region.
Fourteen sectors were identified as being a priority including industry, agriculture, science, finance, tourism and oil. The forum will represent the private sector in the four countries, which have agreed to tighten economic ties between representatives of their private sectors.
The volume of trade between the four countries amounts to $12 trillion.
"We, as governments, cannot work in isolation from the aspirations and ambitions of the private sector in our countries. For any initiative among our governments to succeed it must meet these aspirations and ambitions," Hariri said.
Hariri said integration, trade liberalisation and expansion of markets, if adopted in a sound manner, would accelerate economic growth and create new job opportunities, thereby improving the standard of living for all.
Lebanon signed a free trade agreement with Syria and Jordan in 1998 that was implemented in 2002. Another agreement was reached with Turkey in November 2010.
In November, during a conference in Beirut titled "Toward the Schengen Bloc Banking System in the Middle East, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon" participants discussed banking co-operation between the three countries, the risks of cross-border banking and the future of investment banks.
Economic studies released during the conference revealed that establishment of free trade areas between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey would enhance the investment climate in these countries.
Jacques Sarraf, head of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists and vice president of the Lebanese - Turkish Business Council, called for "the establishment of mixed companies between these countries working in the region, because integration requires a partnership joining companies from different countries".
Sarraf told Al-Shorfa, "These countries, especially Turkey with its capacity, could benefit from the sophisticated services sector in Lebanon."
Sarraf said Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and countries such as Egypt and Iraq would like to enter the Turkish market because it is one of the largest consumer societies in the region. "It is important to provide completely free exchange between individuals, institutions and businesses to create an integrated region, because today it is difficult to close the border," he said.
Sarraf added, "The economic and trade partnership with Turkey is paving the way for establishment of political and security interests along with it."
"The modern economy is no longer likely to be a closed economy isolated from the outside world, and all economies around the world are opening up in a way that is very well thought out, not through an absolute opening of borders," Elie Yashui, a Lebanese economist, told Al-Shorfa.
As to whether Lebanon is ready for such openness, Yashui said Lebanon is opening up with trepidation. He urged Lebanon to "implement financial and monetary policies that encourage investment, avoid contraction and provide job opportunities."
He said, "This would lead us to open up without fear," stressing that, "Monetary stability is a product of investment economy, not high interest [rates]."