RPT-UPDATE 1-Lebanon public debt at $47 bln end-2008-minister

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BEIRUT, Jan 2 (Reuters) - Lebanon’s 2008 public debt is expected to have reached $47 billion, finance minister Mohammad Chatah was quoted as saying by Al-Hayat newspaper on Friday.

Lebanon’s gross public debt stood at around $45.65 billion at the end of September 2008. Chatah had said in September that debt would reach $49 billion if privatisation of two-state owned mobile phone companies did not go ahead.

Chatah did not provide an estimate for 2009 public debt.

The Lebanese government last month postponed the much-delayed privatisation because of global market conditions.

The proceeds were supposed to pay down some of Lebanon’s massive public debt, which is equivalent to some 170 percent of gross domestic product. Servicing the debt is a major strain on Lebanon’s public finances.

Chatah reiterated that Lebanon’s robust banking sector remained relatively unexposed to the financial crisis but said that Lebanon’s economy would be mostly affected by the adverse economic environment in the Gulf region.

Chatah said expectations for economic growth forecast in 2009 would be between 3-4 percent, revised down from 5 percent.

About a third of the Lebanese workforce are employed in Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia which have been strongly affected by the financial crisis and a steep drop in oil prices.

Some Lebanese have already started returning from the Gulf, laid off by employers who have been forced to slash jobs to deal with the financial crisis.

Chatah said he had “no accurate numbers” about how many Lebanese would lose their jobs, but “assumed that the number is limited”.

Lebanese working in the Gulf support the domestic economy through remittances, property purchases and regular trips home. (Writing by Yara Bayoumy)