An interview with Parliamentary Candidate: Hassan Sinno

Hassan Sinno received a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from Columbia University in New York and a Master in Business Administration from INSEAD in France, and returned to Lebanon in 2003 with a resolve to contribute to his country’s development.

Currently, he is the Managing Director of International Timber Company (شركة الأخشاب الدولية) and Vice President of Unitco in Lebanon. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Timber Company branch in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Chairman of the Romanel Group, a leading producer of timber and of clean energy.  He describes himself as “ibin-beirut,” a passionate Beiruty through and through whose family and community is in Beirut. Hassan is running for the Sunni seat in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections in the Beirut II district with Kelna Beirut.

What are the primary reasons as to why you decided to run for parliament?

I’m not running for parliament for the [sake of the] seat. I’m part of a team, and this team has been working for more than a year [on making changes in the country as] we see that the country is going to a place [the consequences of which we cannot bare], and our children will not be able to live [in]. There are many things we could do about [this issue]; we could go to the streets, fight corruption through NGOs, run for parliament, and vote.

So, after [strengthening our group and deliberating with a lot of people,] I decided that it was time for a real Beirut-y, who is not politicized or “تابع” as they say, to any party or any political group, to take on this challenge. I have done it in my own personal life and succeeded, so, why don’t I transfer this, what I got, to my country? If I really love this country, and I have to do something about its [current state].

This is why I’m running for this election.

What are the main pillars of that platform?

My platform is focused on job-creation, because this is what I know. I am not here to come up with new ideas; I’m here to apply what I have done and what needs to be done for the country. The other thing I know about is the environment. I have personally built a factory, for renewable energy, and that experience [allows] me to [assess] what is feasible in Lebanon and what is not. I have learned what we can do, in terms of renewable energy, and we have a lot of resources in Lebanon to use. So, while education, healthcare, and safety are extremely important, my main focuses for these coming 4 years, if I get elected, are in job-creation, economy, and environment.

I believe that [these three pillars] are interlinked; if we can solve the renewable energy [issue], we can solve the deficit of the country, the pollution of this country, which is affecting health-care, which is affecting the money that is being put into healthcare, and not into other important fields like education. So, these are my pillars.

According to a report, by the international labor association, World of Work Report, again, this is a question related to your pillars, the unemployment rate is Lebanon is 24 percent, and youth unemployment is reported to be 35 percent. How can you work to address this, and what steps should the government take to increase and to generate sustainable job creation?

I’m a strong believer in the private sector. I don’t believe that the government should sustain all these jobs, because not only is it financially unsustainable, it reinforces the dependence on political parties and political leaders. The more jobs, are in the hands of the government i.e. political parties and political leaders, the more people are forced to follow them. […] So, there are many examples around the world, and we can learn, without even coming up with new ideas, we can just look at where it has been successful and where it has not.

And we can privatize some of these places that actually would create more a competitive work environment for our people, and at the same time reduce the losses of this country. Of course, if you hear it in this current PPP, which is the Private Public Partnerships, the reality is, they are doing it on an individual basis and projects. We have to look at it on a holistic project. So, there are actually many places where we can create jobs, for people who are graduating from our own universities. How many people are graduating from [AUB], having paid over $100,000 for 3 or 4 years, to then be recruited for less than a $1000 a month? How many years, do they have to work, to pay off these loans? We need to start creating jobs, and not think how to protect jobs.

Another way to do this is [by encouraging] easier corporate laws. We have among the most difficult corporate laws in the country; it is the most discouraging economic set-up to start a company. We should have easier laws, to start a company, and we should have easier laws to fail. So, even bankruptcy laws, are extremely important in creating a sense of entrepreneurship. We all fail; we cannot succeed from day one. But, if we are so afraid to fail, many people will not even try. Then we have to talk about the infrastructure, and that is another issue, but at the end of the day, we need to build an environment where people are able to create and to try; only by trying we can succeed.

The waste crisis is looming again. What do you think is the next step parliament should take to tackle this issue?

The solution is so easy. We are stuck in a political fight. […] Waste in Lebanon is made of three main types of wastes; organic waste, plastic waste and fiber waste. This is the waste of everyone. Organic waste is best kind of waste to do compost, to basically help the agriculture industry, we can use it easily. Plastic, is the thing you should never burn. It should be recycled, because it is the only way to reduce the use of plastic in the future and reduce pollution. In terms of fiber, I mean paper, cardboards, and all these kinds of things, yes you could do a biomass power plant the same way as the one I have done in Europe. But in Lebanon, we have uses that are much more important than electricity and today we are importing more than 70 percent of our raw material to make paper towels, paper notebooks, and such. This is an extremely polluting industry.

So, instead of importing cellulose, which is the raw material of paper, and polluting the country to make things that we actually need, let’s take the fiber and recycle it. The positive thing about fiber is that you have local industries that would become more competitive if you were able to give them this. Today, they are importing it from abroad, and paying a lot of expenses. They shouldn’t. So, you have a customer for something you have an oversupply of. Our garbage in my opinion, should be sorted, and used, not for electricity. We have other sources for renewable energy in Lebanon that are much cleaner and cost nothing. We have sun 300 days a year, wind in some areas 365 days a year, and we have water from the sea. In some countries, they are selling today, water streams that have a 2-meter elevation. They are selling it for hundreds, thousands of dollars, because anyone who takes that stream, could create enough power to light AUB. We have streams everywhere. These streams are power. Clean power, that is available for free, but all you need is an investment.  What I’m saying is, the garbage crisis is definitely a crisis and it’s looming, and it’s not being solved the way it should be because it’s a political problem, and no one should push us towards wasteful energy because we have much better ways to do it.

Incineration is definitely not a viable option.

Nobody burns anymore in the world. We are the only country that is thinking of burning. Some countries have been burning and they are gradually getting away from that technology. We are the only ones that still think about it. It’s a shame.

This relates back to the idea of public and private. Do you think recycling is something that should be paved through the public or the private sector?

This is legislative powers. Why would a Lebanese citizen, who lives in Europe, recycle and sort properly? Because by law the government can check your garbage and check how you are dumping your garbage. If the Lebanese are doing it abroad, we need the same kind of framework to do it here. So, I believe it’s a law that should be passed.

In terms of real-estate, something you have experience in, and real-estate malpractices, do you think the economy development should trump the environmental conversation in Lebanon and what policies do you think parliament can develop to reduce these malpractices?

We have a big and painful past regarding urbanism in our country. We are at a point of almost no return and all what we can do is stop the damage. Repairing the damage today is something extremely difficult. We are [practically] a country of concrete now. Green Beirut, specifically, is what kills me. We have very little green spaces left, and we should do everything in our power to keep and protect whatever is left of them. At the same time, it is also through legislation that you run these green areas. [Take Sanaya for example], there was a very generous donation, by a company to replant it. I go to it with my own family. Yet, today it is almost dangerous to go there, because the municipality did not take care of it the way they should have. We need to instill a culture of green areas. [and…] So, once you create rules that people have to follow, slowly you develop a culture. We need to create this sense of responsibility in Sanaya and Horsh Beirut.

How will you work to promote environmental conservation and undertaking environmental impact reporting in the new oil drilling sector?

We are not creating anything new by going to the oil sector in Lebanon. This is something that has been done by many countries, and many places. In every country, there is oil production; we just have to look at what is the best practice and apply it. Oil drilling is not in itself damaging to the environment, it is the way we do it that could damage the environment. Especially since our oil is underwater, and our sea is [damaged]. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have this problem with the sea. Today, we have the garbage in the sea. We need to make sure that the fish and the plants in the sea are well-protected. There aren’t any regulations on this, so nothing forbids us from doing it.

What role do you think public spaces play in society? Do you think the increase in public spaces would play in the increase in public unity in Lebanon?

Definitely. There is a lot of work to be done in Lebanon in terms of getting people to cope and to sit together. Our concept of public spaces today are extremely limited, because no one has put it on their agenda. In my opinion, it’s beyond public parks. Public parks create a sense of community and relationships.

I think what we are lacking today is civic communication in our country. When was the last time we had open debates with our MPs? I’m not talking about coming to a wedding or a funeral. This is not the role of an MP. It is not even socializing. It is doing an obligation. We should [become] more transparent, and maybe one of the ways is through MP town halls. As an MP, you are forced once a month to have a full day town hall, where people can walk in and out, and this not only allows people to question their representative, but also to meet and talk with them. They can have specific open discussions; for instance, in the morning, they can answer any question, in the afternoon there would be program where people give suggestions.

Let’s talk about air pollution. Human Rights Watch released a report in January, on the alarming air pollution rates in Lebanon, because of burning wastes. So what policies do you the parliament should develop to prohibit these environmental malpractices and reduce air pollution?

Public transportation is definitely a big factor; we have three or four main sources for pollution in Lebanon. We have everything that has to do with cars, generators, burning garbage, and the industry. Cars we can regulate through public transportation, in addition to regulating the kind of fuel that is being imported, there are many things we can do to improve the environment while still keeping the same fleet of cars. What I’m saying, is that we can actually improve this fleet of cars, either by reducing its number through public transport or by giving incentives to greener cars. Today, we have a twenty-year-old car, using seven liters of fuel and emitting X amount of CO2 gas in the air. If you change your car to a newer car that’s more eco-friendly, why don’t we give free registration for those who buy hybrid cars?

The generators – the whole electricity plan which was stopped due to politics. If electricity was solved, the entire generators issue is solved. We don’t have generators in any country that has electricity. By solving one issue, you are getting two benefits.

The third is burning garbage – RECYCLE.  You are benefiting so much, and you are reducing pollution. The sad thing is all our problems, could be summed up into three or four issues, if solved everything would be solved. All of them are on a political level; the problem is with our politicians. They have to either change the way they rule or we have to change them, it’s not that complicated. We have to try. If we don’t try, we won’t succeed.

We talked about prioritizing Lebanon and the needs of the Lebanese and the importance of dealing with refugees. How do you describe the Lebanese government’s performance and actions in dealing with the Syrian refugee issue?

We are not only taking money for these refugees, and going around other countries to get money for these refugees, but we are not serving them well. A refugee is a responsibility. Let’s not forget that we, Lebanese, not long ago, were refugees. How would we like to be treated the way we are treating the refugees in our country? Have we forgotten where we were in the 70s and the 80s? Our performance has been dismal in terms of dealing with refugees. Not only are we overestimating them, to get more money for them but we aren’t even spending that money on them. If we are not able to, let’s give someone else the ability to deal with them. We need to create healthcare for them. We need to create education for them.

[The main concern regarding refugees is that] having all these refugees in our countries, and integrating them, would create an imbalance in the sectarian environment in our country. But we cannot be inhumane because of that fear. We cannot use the risks that are so farfetched; to stop from helping a dying mother or help a child get an education. We are in a country where everyone has [the right] to live, no matter what their religious background is. We are also a country that has been afflicted by a lot of wars and has relied on other countries to treat us well. It is our duty to make sure that these people live in a safe environment. And I can guarantee you as a Lebanese, as a refugee, myself, there is only one thing people long for when they live away from their home: to be back home. So, we should not be worried about having an extra million Muslims in our country. Let’s have a million people who praise Lebanon. So, one day when they go back to their country, and they will go back, the only ones who stay, are the ones who we actually beg to stay, because we need them. But, let’s create a safe, clean, educated environment for them, so that when they go back to their countries they are ambassadors, they will say “Lebanon treated us well when we needed them” – because we never know how the wheel turns. We might one day go back to their country.

In terms of a woman’s right to be able to naturalize and pass on the Lebanese nationality to her children, do you think the legislative should work to create a policy that naturalize every Lebanese woman’s children, or only allow women to pass on their nationality based on certain exceptions?

This is a personal matter for me. My sister is married to a non-Lebanese and my nephews and nieces are not Lebanese. And what’s the difference between them and my own children? Why would they be less Lebanese than my kids?

Our parliamentarians are men. If we had more women, I would guarantee you this law would not stand.

Our list is made of four women and four men. I believe that women are as good, if not better, than men. They are more thorough, more serious, more loyal, and they look at both sides of the problem much more than men do. I think this anomaly would be fixed only if we had women in parliament. Because, unfortunately our existing politicians, and we know them, they cannot hide, are the ones who are refusing this. This is to comment on what one certain politician recently said about which nationalities are OK and which are not. (If she marries a Syrian, she cannot give her nationality, but if she marries a French guy, that should be allowed.)  This is beyond a joke. It is a hypocrisy. It’s an insult. It’s sad.