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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Scorched by misconduct charges, 'Lebanese Phoenix' Carlos Ghosn still popular at home

Auto executive's investment portfolio in Lebanon extends from banking to a winery

Carlos Ghosn, former chairman of Nissan. AFP
Carlos Ghosn, former chairman of Nissan. AFP

In Lebanon, where one of the biggest exports is its people, Carlos Ghosn is nothing short of a benchmark of success.

The auto-industry titan whose empire stretched from Paris to Tokyo has been touted as a shining example of an entrepreneurial Lebanese diaspora by local politicians, who say he has carried his country's name like a trademark.

“I am proud of people like Carlos Ghosn, who raised Lebanon’s name all over the world,” Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri told a Paris conference earlier this year.

Brazilian-born Frenchman of Lebanese descent, Mr Ghosn is widely hailed by colleagues in the auto industry as a turnaround artist for reviving the fortunes of carmakers Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi, which have forged an alliance under his management. His success earned him nicknames such as “Le Cost Killer”, “Mr Fix-It” and “The Machiavelli of the Motor Industry”.

In Lebanon, he was turned into a special postage stamp in 2017 and has most recently been nicknamed the "Lebanese Pheonix" by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk after Japanese authorities arrested him last Monday on charges of financial misconduct.

Mr Ghosn has since been dismissed as chairman of both Mitsubishi and Nissan and continues to languish in a small 4.8 sqm detention room in Tokyo, ahead of trial for reportedly understating his income in financial reports and misusing company assets.

His fall from grace, however, has done little to dim his celebrity in his country of origin, where he continues to be hailed as a near-mythical figure.

"Carlos Ghosn is a Lebanese Pheonix that won't be scorched by the Japanese sun," Mr Machnouk said in a televised speech on Monday, referring to reports that carmakers Nissan orchestrated a coup against Mr Ghosn because he was planning to increase French ownership of the Japanese company.

"Mr Ghosn is an expat who has an unbelievable success story. He is probably the second most successful man in the history of carmaking after Robert Ford," Mr Machnouk said.

Mr Ghosn, whose grandfather had immigrated to Brazil from Mount Lebanon decades ago to escape poverty, spent his childhood studying in Lebanon. He left to France for college but would return to his country of origin often, especially in the later years of his life.

His investment portfolio in the small Mediterranean country extends from banking to a winery and has earned him nationwide esteem. In 2012, he announced that one of his first investments in the country would be in the Lebanese winery IXSIR, where he would be a sleeping partner and help to take its product to markets in Japan and France.

In 2017 he announced investment in a luxury real estate project in the Cedar mountains. The project covers 130,000 square metres with 47 private chalets and 13 exclusive private plots in addition to public spaces, a luxury hotel and spa, a restaurant, an auberge and a retail area.

He was also a major stakeholder in the Near East Commercial Bank which merged with Banque de L’Industrie et du Travail in 2014 to form Saradar Bank, of which he is now a board member.

He is also believed to have made investments in dozens of other companies which have not been made public.

His support for Lebanon has earned him the respect of the country’s political and economic elite, especially among members of the Christian community, who mobilised in his defence after reports surfaced of his recent arrest.

“Ghosn is an expat Lebanese citizen and represents one of the Lebanese successes abroad,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said. “The Lebanese Foreign Ministry will stand by him in his crisis to ensure that he will get a fair trial.”

The foreign ministry said Mr Bassil had instructed the Lebanese ambassador to Japan, Nidal Yehya to follow up on Mr Ghosn’s case and to “meet him, inquire about his needs, verify the legality of the measures that have been taken against him, and ensure that he will be provided with legal assistance so that he can present the facts and evidence in his possession and have a real chance to defend his case”.

Michael Mouawad, a member of parliament, described Mr Ghosn as a “pioneering model of the successful Lebanese expat in the world”. “No one has achieved the same levels of success,” he said and called on the country to stand by Mr Ghosn until a verdict is reached.

Other officials have cast doubt over the validity of charges brought against Mr Ghosn.

“There is something stinky about the situation,” caretaker information minister Melhem Riachy tweeted, urging Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun to reach out to the Japanese government to verify the details of the charges.

Mr Ghosn’s arrest sparked both serious and colourful conspiracy theories in Lebanon, especially after France’s finance and economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, said Paris had no information on the charges against Mr Ghosn.

Al Mayadeen, a pro-Iran Lebanese newspaper, claimed that Mr Ghosn’s arrest was a ploy by the US to punish him for resisting sanctions on Iran.

Mr Ghosn said in June that Renault would continue to produce cars in Iran despite the US sanctions. “We will not abandon [Iran], even if we have to downsize very strongly," he told an annual shareholders' meeting in Paris. "When the market reopens, the fact of having stayed will certainly give us an advantage."

However, the following month the French carmaker said it was willing to comply with US sanctions. “We are looking to new business opportunities, particularly in Africa, with strong growth to offset the missed opportunities in Iran,” chief operating officer Thierry Bollore said. Last month, Renault announced a 6 per cent drop in third-quarter revenue in its first earnings report since pulling out of Iran.

Mr Ghosn was born in Porto Velho, Brazil to a family of Lebanese immigrants on March 9, 1954. He moved to Lebanon at a young age, where he studied at a Jesuit school. Later he moved to Paris where he studied at two of France's most elite schools, including the Polytechnique engineering university.