Dr. Muhammad Baasiri: Building and Spreading Compliance Culture

ACAMS Today had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Muhammad Baasiri and learn more about his compliance work in Lebanon. Dr. Baasiri is the third vice-governor of the Banque du Liban, the Central Bank of Lebanon. He is currently a member of the Higher Banking Commission, the chairman of the National Committee for Coordinating AML policies and oversees the following departments and units: Legal, Real Estate, Financing, Corporate Governance and Translation section.

Previously, he held several executive positions. From June 1990 through June 2000, he chaired the Banking Control Commission, and received formal recognition from the Lebanese Government for his service. Later on, he worked for one year as the IMF resident advisor to the Central Bank of Oman. In 2001, he was chosen to be the first secretary of the Special Investigation Commission (SIC), Lebanon's newly established Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).

His tenure with the SIC witnessed numerous accomplishments, Lebanon was removed from FATF's NCCT list and the SIC joined the Egmont Group. His efforts were also instrumental in both the founding of the Middle East & North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF) in which he served in 2005 as its first year president, and the founding of the US-MENA Private Sector Dialogue which he currently chairs.

In the private sector, he has worked for a number of premier banking and investment institutions including-internationally renowned accounting firms. He is a member and co-founder of the Lebanese Association of CPAs and a member of the American Institute of CPAs.

In 1974, he earned the Saba & Co. accounting prize. In 2008, he was selected by ACAMS as Professional of the Year in the MENA region. In addition to his academic degree earned from the American University of Beirut, where he has also lectured, he is a certified public accountant (CPA) from the University of the State of New York.

ACAMS Today: Lebanon is the first country to officially endorse the CAMS certification. What was the process you went through to achieve this endorsement?

Muhammad Baasiri: CAMS is one of the most prestigious certification in the AML field and Lebanon's history with this certification goes back to 2004 when a Special Investigation Commission (SIC) staff member was one of the first in Lebanon and the MENA region to be certified. Currently, at least 30 percent of SIC experts are CAMS. Some of them are actively contributing to ACAMS activities as speakers and article writers in ACAMS Today. Since Lebanese banks and financial institutions always look for professionalism, a good number of compliance officers have passed the CAMS certification exam.

As for the endorsement of the CAMS certification, and since 2006, his Excellency the Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon has decided, in his capacity as SIC chairman and at my initiation, to exempt certified SIC Staff members from taking the required Banque du Liban (BDL) examination necessary for job promotion. Since training and awareness are key words in the AML field, the CAMS certification has been recently noted in several BDL Circulars as an example of one of the prerequisites for the designation of compliance officers.

AT: How has the compliance field changed since you first started 10 years ago?

MB: Authorities and private sectors around the world are currently much more aware of the negative impacts of money laundering. As a consequence, cooperation between authorities and the private sector on the national level, as well as cooperation among competent authorities on the international level, has largely improved in the last decade, owing to new channels of cooperation. Even the public has currently become more familiar with the AML requirements; for instance, it is much easier for a compliance officer at a bank to ask his customers about their occupation and source of funds than was the case 10 years ago.

AT: You have been instrumental in creating a strong compliance environment in Lebanon, as the former leader of Lebanon's FIU what steps and strategies did you implement to help create a strong, compliant country?

Authorities and private sectors
around the world are currently
much more aware of the negative impacts of money laundering

MB: Building and spreading compliance culture was mostly achieved by reaching out to the public financial sector to promote best practices and comply with international standards in combating money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism. As part of an intensive scheduled program, numerous meetings were held with CEOs of banks, representatives of the Lebanese banking association, representatives of the insurance association, representatives of the jewelry association and other figures of the financial sector. In the hope of creating further awareness, several seminars were also held in different universities, addressing the negative impacts of money laundering on the society and the economy at large.

AT: Has Lebanon's strong compliant culture influenced any of its surrounding neighbors?

MB: Definitely Lebanon's strong compliant culture has influenced its surrounding neighbors and that is on different levels. First of all, the SIC has been continuously providing technical assistance to the regions' authorities to improve their AML/CTF regimes. That is not all, SIC staff members participate as speakers in different regional seminars promoting private-sector professionals' AML/CTF expertise. Several Lebanese banks have branches in neighboring countries and they are required by law to implement in these branches, at a minimum, the Lebanese AML/CTF obligations. Last but not least, Lebanon has been behind the establishment of the MENAFATF, which I was privileged to be the first president in 2005, and since then, the SIC has been actively participating in its projects and activities that aim at improving compliance culture in the region.

AT: What other AML-related activities are you currently undertaking in addition to your role at Lebanon's Central Bank?

MB: On the national level, I am currently the chairman of the National AML Committee, which is mainly responsible for coordinating the efforts of the competent national authorities in better fighting ML activities. In my capacity as vice governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, I am also the alternate chairman of the SIC. On the international level, I am the chairman of the US-MENA Private Sector Dialogue that was created in 2006 and to forge a professional partnership, bridge cultural differences and enhance communication channels between MENA and U.S. financial sectors.

AT: What has been the key to your success in the compliance field?

MB: My success in the compliance field emanates from my conviction of the necessity of fighting financial crimes, especially money laundering, and my commitment toward achieving this. This was translated by means of fostering cooperation with the private sector and foreign counterparts, and building a team of professionals whose efforts and expertise have paid handsome dividends in the AML/CTF arena; both in Lebanon and the MENA region.

AT: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for compliance professionals in 2012?

MB: Each year, compliance professionals face new challenges from developing technologies; hence, new products are being created enabling wrongdoers to benefit from existing vulnerabilities, thus inventing and making use of new schemes in the laundering process. Adding to these challenges, I believe that in 2012, competent authorities and compliance professionals will face new obstacles related to the implementation of the anticipated amendments to the FATF recommendations. Other challenges relate to the weakening of many economies, which may bear negatively on private and public budgets.

A serious challenge rests in the fight against political and financial corruption, which may be compounded by the lack of adequate regulations and the absence of matured democracies.

Interviewed by: Karla Monterrosa-Yancey, CAMS, editor-in-chief, ACAMS, Miami, FL, USA, editor@acams.org

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