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Middle East: War gives Lebanon’s banks an edge

Local firms are using the experience of doing business in acute political volatility for the next stage of their international expansion. Braving coups, corruption and violence, banks are expanding into some hair-raising countries.

It is a truism of Middle East finance that the region’s banks can handle political volatility. But of all Arab markets, perhaps the one with the most irrepressible banks is Lebanon – seen as the Switzerland of the Middle East, before its devastating civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.

Riad Salameh

 Lebanon has shown resilience in very stressful situations, through wars, street fights, assassinations and political turbulence

Riad Salamé, central bank governor

While terrorism, refugees and war stretch from its borders with Syria and Israel often to the heart of government in Beirut, Lebanon’s banks are in aggregate more than four times bigger than its economy. “Lebanon has shown resilience in very stressful situations, through wars, street fights, assassinations and political turbulence,” says Riad Salamé, the world’s longest-serving central bank governor.

Now Lebanese banks are beginning to make more use of their outsized balance sheets and experience of handling geopolitical turmoil in the next stage of their international expansion – often in countries with similar problems, and where banks used to more staid environments are afraid to venture.

Lebanon itself looks unpromising.

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