FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri arrives with Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (L) at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri arrives with Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (L) at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naqoura, near the LebanesShow more

Saad Hariri in Washington to make case for continued US support for Lebanon

Caught between an escalation in Congress against Lebanon-based Hizbollah and a border offensive led by the Shiite group and Syrian army against militants, the Lebanese prime minister's visit to Washington comes at a curious time.

Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with US president Donald Trump for the first time in the White House during a five-day visit, which officially started on Monday.

Mr Hariri, who is heading a delegation that includes foreign minister Gebran Bassil, will also meet with US secretary of defence James Mattis, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security advisor HR McMaster, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, and members of the Lebanese community.

Slashing aid to the Lebanese army? 

A lot has changed since Mr Hariri’s last visit to Washington in 2015. Neither he nor Mr Trump were in office at the time and, while the Obama administration received its share of criticism over its handling of the Syrian conflict, US support was for the last eight years steadily flowing to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

According to the State Department, security assistance had exceeded $1 billion (Dh36bn) since 2006, which includes an average of $80 million in foreign military financing in annual support for the Lebanese military and security forces.

However, with the Trump administration seeking to slash the State Department budget on foreign spending and military aid, there are concerns that the funding for Lebanon's military will be completely cut in 2018.

Adding to Lebanon’s problem is the political pressure in Washington urging Congress to cut aid or put earmarks and conditions on its delivery and spending due to claims the Lebanese army is serving as a tool for Iran-backed Hizbollah — a US-designated terrorist organisation.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, saw it as premature to try and define the Trump policy on Lebanon.

“This administration is still in the process of filling many open positions across the government inter-agency … some that would nominally be focused on understanding and dealing with a country like Lebanon,” he said.

While acknowledging that the Trump national security team is “far more hawkish” than that of Barack Obama, “much of the focus on Lebanon is tied to an almost obsessive focus on Hizbollah”, said Mr Nerguizian.

Generally, with the Trump team “there is little nuance when it comes to how to fundamentally differentiate between Hizbollah and the LAF, let alone have an appreciation for how far the LAF and Lebanon as a whole have come in a time of deep regional crisis”.

Still, the silver lining exists in how the Department of Defence remains to be a critical point of policy continuity when it comes to Lebanon and its army, according to Mr Nerguizian, who studies Lebanon’s military dynamics.

“Today, there are no greater advocates for the positive role Lebanon and the LAF can play than at the Pentagon,” he said.

The recently appointed commander of the military, Gen Joseph Aoun, completed a successful first visit to Washington last April, making the case for stronger co-operation and continuation of US support.

Since then, however, the armed forces have been embroiled in controversies involving the death of Syrian detainees in custody and being a bystander in the operation by Hizbollah and Syrian forces on the Lebanese border.

Hariri’s mission

For Mr Hariri, continuing US support for the Lebanese military and maintaining his governing coalition — which includes members of Hizbollah's Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc — will define the success of the visit.

“The best case scenario [for the Lebanese prime minister] is Mr Trump acknowledging that this is a Lebanon that isn’t defined narrowly by Hizbollah and that is worth saving,” said Mr Nerguizian.

Such a statement, he added, would give a green light to Mr Mattis to sustain the case for continued military assistance to the Lebanese military.

Mr Nerguizian said that Mr Hariri will make the case for a narrative that “Lebanon is not defined by Hizbollah and that the LAF is not subordinated to the party”.

In the long term, this means “if one is truly hawkish about Lebanon, then one must support the LAF [in spite] of Hizbollah”, the expert said.

During the campaign, Mr Trump reportedly bragged to influential guests about how many successful Lebanese friends he had.

Lebanese-American businessman Thomas Barrack, who spoke at the Republican convention, is one.

It is this image of Lebanon that Mr Hariri will hope to enforce in his White House meeting on Tuesday and not solely the one of increased Hizbollah prowess and latitude.


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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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