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The reconstruction of the port of Beirut arouses international envy

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Eight months after the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, major international companies are scrambling to win the reconstruction contract. At stake, billions of dollars, but also the struggle for regional influence between foreign powers.

“Everyone has their eyes riveted on the port: the Russians, the Chinese, the Turks, the French and now the Germans”, summarizes the acting director of the port of Beirut, Bassem al-Kaissi. “But for the moment these are only declarations of intent,” he told AFP.

Tens of billions

On April 9, a consortium of German shipping companies, including Hamburg Port Consulting, unveiled an ambitious $ 30 billion project in Beirut to rebuild the port and redevelop adjacent neighborhoods destroyed by the deadly August 4 explosion.

The project, supported by Berlin, provides for the construction, over twenty years, of social housing and the development of green spaces and beaches.

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In February, a German company had already taken care of the treatment of 52 containers of hazardous materials found at the port, where the explosion had occurred in a hangar containing large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored without precautionary measures.

Three-phase project

On the French side, the maritime giant CMA-CGM is also in the starting blocks. Last September, the Franco-Lebanese CEO of the group, Rodolphe Saadé, accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron on his second visit to Lebanon after the explosion.

The opportunity to submit to the Lebanese authorities “a complete project” in three phases, indicates to AFP the regional director of CMA-CGM, Joe Dakkak. Objective: to rebuild, expand and modernize the infrastructure to make it a “smart port”, he explains.

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The project aroused the interest of “around fifty companies and international organizations”, potential partners. Its cost, estimated between 400 and 600 million dollars for the first two phases, would be “half-financed with our own funds”, he indicates.

Access to offshore gas

Beyond the commercial issues, it is also a geopolitical struggle for influence which between regional and international powers.

“The exploration of offshore gas in the Mediterranean basin” but also “the future economic collaboration between Israel and Arab countries” or even “Russian expansionism” in the Middle East are “catalysts” of these desires, explains the political scientist. Imad Salamey. A seizure of the port of Beirut allows a “significant influence” on offshore gas, underlines this professor from the Lebanese American University (LAU).

In 2018, Lebanon signed its first exploration contract with a consortium led by the French group Total including the Italian Eni and the Russian Novotek. However, Russia “is already exploring Syrian offshore gas”, recalls Imad Salamey.

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As for China, a possible anchoring in Lebanon “would strengthen its alliance with the Iranians […] and curb Western influence, ”adds the researcher, referring to the preponderant role of Iran and its ally the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon.

A recent note from the Washington Institute also insisted on the need for the United States to “work in close collaboration” with Berlin and Paris on the port issue, in order to hamper Chinese ambitions. The competition is also inter-European, the German announcement of last week having “annoyed France, which also aspires to rebuild the port”, underlines the note.

Politicians haggling

A central question remains nonetheless: how could such projects materialize while the Lebanese state remains totally paralyzed, entangled for more than a year in a deep political and economic crisis?

No major decision has yet been taken on the fate of the port, such as the official launch of a call for tenders. But the port authorities are working on an action plan which “will be submitted to the Council of Ministers”, assures Bassem al-Kaissi, without giving a date.

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In any case, no progress is expected before the formation of a government, which has been stalling since August against the backdrop of endless political bargaining. Another obstacle: the German and French projects are conditioned on transparency and reform requirements, in a country where the political class is accused of corruption.

National consultation mentioned

The runaway of foreign companies also arouses the distrust of civil society, which fears repeating the scenario of the reconstruction of downtown Beirut after the civil war (1975-1990).

The downtown district where craftsmen, traders, various religious and social communities coexisted, had not escaped privatization and gentrification, under the leadership of the Solidere company of the Hariri clan.

“We will not accept a new Solidere with a foreign sauce. We will not accept to be deprived of our memory ”, criticized the NGO“ Nahnoo ”. Such a project requires “a national consultation on strategic choices – economic, urban and social”, adds economist Jad Chaaban.

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