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This hotbed for talent is looking to lure investment bankers home

Downtown Beirut

Lebanon and Goldman Sachs don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. Nor does the country and the likes of Bank of America, HSBC, Morgan Stanley or UBS, and yet, relative to its size, it’s a huge exporter of investment bankers to major financial centres. Now, Lebanon is trying to convince its financial services talent to stick closer to home.

The Lebanese diaspora occupy the senior ranks across Wall Street, the City of London, Canada and, increasingly, the major Gulf financial centres like Dubai. Samir Assaf, CEO of HSBC’s global banking and markets division, hails from the country, as does Walid Chammah, former chairman of Morgan Stanley; Anwar Zakkour, the newly installed head co-head of TMT at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Wissam Kairouz, a managing director at Morgan Stanley’s leveraged & acquisition finance group; George Bitar, managing director at BlackRock Global Private Equity; and Philippe Jabre, founder and CIO of hedge fund Jabre Capital Partners. The list could go on.

A solid base

“We have no natural resources, and the country has had all sorts of troubles for hundreds of years, which means that Lebanese people have long-emigrated to other countries,” said Ziad Awad, a former Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch managing director who now runs consultancy Boardroom Metrics in Dubai. “However, we have a great educational system and a business-orientated and entrepreneurial society, which has meant a disproportionate number of Lebanese people have become traders in investment banks, or worked on the advisory side.”

It’s not as though investment banks are simply busting to hire people from Lebanon, but that the education system is a good seeding ground to get into top universities in Western locations, which then serves as an attractive base to enter the industry, believes Camille Moussa, a former investment banker at Morgan Stanley and UBS, who now works for the Central Bank of Lebanon’s educational arm, partnering with the CISI to train the bankers of the future.

“The Lebanese school system is incredibly tough – you have to work in three languages (French, English and Arabic) and I was learning calculus in school before US institutions taught it in their high schools,” he said. “Lebanese place a huge emphasis on education – most going into the financial sector have Masters degrees from top universities. I went to university in the U.S. at 16 and, after the Lebanese school system, it was a breeze.”

Moussa believes that there’s an “innate” quality in the Lebanese psyche that makes them well suited to working in financial services, and succeeding. Awad agrees: “You could argue that there’s a trading and mercantile culture stretching back to Phoenician times, so it’s in the genes. This, combined with the sort of grit, determination and entrepreneurship of immigrants makes Lebanese ideally suited to banking.”

Coming home

While there’s an inherent pride in the long-tradition of Lebanese making it in bulge bracket investment banks in Western locations, the benefits haven’t really been felt in the country. Most Lebanese expat bankers still have little ambition to move back home, due to the lack of similar job opportunities locally, and the ongoing troubles that make it a dangerous place to live. “If it wasn’t for the political situation, I have no doubt that Lebanon, not Dubai, would be the major financial centre in the region,” said Moussa.

As it is, few international financial services organisations have any sort of significant presence in the country, and its capital markets are severely under-developed. The Beirut Stock Exchange’s market capitalisation is around $10bn, and this has barely budged in the past four years. There are currently 69 registered banks and 53 brokerage firms in the country.

“It’s still difficult to justify returning to Lebanon, despite the fact that many bankers would dearly love to. It’s hard to find a job that is of similar stature and pays as much. But the quality of life is great and people like being home, so the market is quite saturated with talent despite the recurring geopolitical concerns,” said Awad.

Moussa moved home because of a family crisis, but also because he felt the need to give something back to his country. He now runs the ESA Financial Markets Program and has trained over 2,000 people looking to enter the financial sector.

“We want to give people the chance to succeed in financial services without leaving the country,” he said. “We’ve already seen senior Lebanese bankers returning home to help develop the industry here. They can walk into general management roles, and we really need these people.”

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