ABU DHABI: As Lebanon starts its first ever oil and gas exploration this month, the UAE and the Arabian Gulf’s largest overseas Lebanese community in the country can play a major role in Lebanon’s transition towards a petroleum-based economy, according to a top Lebanese diplomat.

“Some recent developments have opened new possibilities to further strengthen bilateral relations between Lebanon and the UAE. Lebanon is seeking the UAE’s expertise in its budding oil and gas sector as the first offshore drilling will start within three weeks,” Fouad Chehab Dandan, the Lebanese Ambassador to the UAE, told the Emirates News Agency, WAM in an exclusive interview.

“More than 300,000 Lebanese expatriates in the UAE turned into the largest overseas Lebanese community in the Arabian Gulf in 2018. Given their immense contributions to the bilateral relations, this development will also have a positive influence,” he said.

Dandan made these comments on the occasion of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s official visit to the UAE early next week, seeking to improve political and economic relations between both countries.

Hariri will lead a delegation, including six ministers and other top officials, to attend the second UAE-Lebanon Investment Forum in Abu Dhabi on Monday. Held under the auspices of the UAE Ministry of Economy and Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the forum will have several sessions and workshops that bring UAE investors together with their Lebanese counterparts.

The UAE has been one of the top contributors of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Lebanon, the envoy said. Although the amount of investments was not readily available with him, he said the UAE investments were mostly in real estate and commercial sector.

The bilateral trade in 2018 stood at US$790 million, of which the exports from Lebanon to the UAE were to the tune of US$340 million and imports from the UAE were valued at US$450 million, Dandan said.

Talking about the community’s role in bilateral relations, the ambassador said, “Lebanese in the UAE, belonging to different religions and sects, have been leading a harmonious life for several decades, representing the true spirit of Lebanon. Most of them excel as entrepreneurs and professionals and their success has contributed to the development of the UAE, which is duly recognised here.”

More than 300,000 Lebanese expatriates are living in the UAE. Around 156,000 of them have registered with the Lebanese diplomatic missions in the UAE and an estimated same number of Lebanese nationals having dual citizenship are also living here, he said.

Almost same number of Lebanese nationals [around 300,000] have been living in Saudi Arabia. “However, we estimated last year that the UAE’s community could be the largest because the highest amount of foreign remittances from the Gulf to Lebanon came from the UAE in 2018, according to the Lebanese Central Bank,” Dandan explained.

Seventy per cent of the total remittances received by Lebanon in 2018 were from the Gulf, he added, although related figures were not readily available with him.

Citizens living overseas are very important for Lebanon. “Only 4 million citizens are living in Lebanon and 14 million people are abroad.”

The people-to-people relations have always been the pillar of Lebanon-UAE ties, the envoy said. The UAE supported the Lebanese Government and people during the Lebanese civil war [1975-1990]. “Since 1990s, they helped Lebanon’s reconstruction also after the civil war,” the ambassador recalled.