PM Saad Hariri announced his cabinet lineup on January 31, after nearly nine months of intense negotiations over ministerial shares and portfolios. On paper, this cabinet’s lifespan could extend until the end of President Michel Aoun’s mandate, barring a major crisis.
Security and economic stability will once again be the government’s utmost priorities over the coming period. Structural reforms are necessary to release more than $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE conference in Paris last April to rehabilitate Lebanon’s aging infrastructure and bolster a reeling economy. About 20% of the funds pledged at the CEDRE conference will be allocated to the electricity sector. The overhauling of the electricity sector is a priority that can no longer be deferred, as the sector is one of the prime culprits behind wasteful spending and budget deficits. This year for example, the $1.3 billion allocated to Electricité du Liban (EDL) expired by October 20. As such, the Ministry of Energy and Water will have a tremendous responsibility over the coming period, carrying out reforms and implementing the government’s strategy for the sector.
Nada Boustani is the new Minister of Energy and Water (MOEW). Boustani, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), joined the Ministry in 2010 – at the time headed by Gebran Bassil. As a long-time advisor on the power sector within the Ministry, her appointment is a clear indication that the Ministry’s priority over the coming period is the electricity sector, with oil and gas exploration – FPM’s pride and soft spot – a close second. Like her predecessor Cesar Abi Khalil, she is a close aide of FPM leader Gebran Bassil and has been involved in elaborating the strategies and policies devised by the Ministry over the past years. This will ensure a smooth transition and continuity of operations.
Beyond the Ministry’s energy and water responsibilities, there is an important political dimension that should be kept in mind. As mentioned, this government could potentially extend until the end of President Aoun’s mandate in 2022. Since 2009, the Free Patriotic Movement – and Gebran Bassil in particular – has controlled the Ministry of Energy and Water and designed its major strategies and policies. Bassil, appointed once again as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, is also widely believed to be a major contender in the 2022 Presidential elections. By then, Bassil would have controlled the Ministry of Energy and Water for over a decade, either directly or through allies and close aides. This is a long enough period to implement reforms, and people now expect results. His party is blamed for the lack of progress on the electricity sector, while the FPM maintains that it is capable of moving forward with reforms and implement its own 2010 policy paper for the security sector, which was supposed to ensure 24-hour electricity by 2015 and has been repeatedly delayed since.
The Ministry’s record in the coming years, particularly in the electricity sector, will either boost or damage Bassil’s presidential bid. Bassil is looking for achievements in the MOEW and is determined to score points on this front. But his opponents are equally determined to undermine his chances whenever possible. This is the delicate balance that policymakers will have to navigate to carry on with reforms. These are also some of the stakes involved that foreign partners and investors will have to take into consideration.
The rest of this report – including a profile of the new Minister and an overview of the Ministry’s main energy projects in the coming period – is reserved for our clients.