Eight months after the catastrophic eruption at the port of Beirut, large international companies are scrambling to win a reconstruction deal. Billions of dollars, but the struggle for regional influence among foreign powers.
“Everyone has their eyes on the port: the Russians, the Chinese, the Turks, the French and now the Germans,” said Bassem al-Qaisi, executive director of the port of Beirut.
“But for now these are just intentional announcements,” he told AFP.
On April 9, a consortium of German shipping companies, including Hamburg Port Consulting, unveiled a $ 30 billion plan to rebuild the port in Beirut and redevelop nearby neighborhoods devastated by the August 4 bombings.
With the support of Berlin, the project has, for more than 20 years, contributed to the development of community housing and green spaces and beaches.
In February, a German company oversaw the treatment of 52 hazardous materials already found in port, where an explosion occurred in a hangar containing large amounts of ammonium nitrate stored without precautionary measures.
– Power struggles –
On the French side, the maritime company CMA-CGM is also in the initial modules.
Last September, the group’s Franco-Lebanese chief executive, Rodolf Sade, made his second visit to Lebanon with French President Emmanuel Macron following the explosion.
The opportunity to submit a “complete plan” to the Lebanese authorities in three phases was given to CMA-CGM Regional Director Joe Takak by the AFP.
Objective: To rebuild, expand and modernize the infrastructure to make it a “smart port”, he explains.
The project “Fifty Companies and International Companies” aroused the interest of potential partners. Its cost, estimated at $ 400 to $ 600 million for the first two phases, is “half funded out of our own funds,” he notes.
Beyond trade issues, it is a geopolitical struggle for influence between regional and international powers.
Political scientist Imad Salemi explains that “sea gas exploration in the Mediterranean” but “future economic cooperation between Israel and the Arab world” or even “Russian expansion” in the Middle East are “catalysts” of these desires.
The capture of the port of Beirut allows for “significant influence” on seawater, underlining this professor at the American University of Lebanon (LAU).
In 2018, Lebanon signed its first study agreement with a consortium led by the French team Total, including the Italian Eni and the Russian Novotech.
But Mr Salameh recalled that Russia was “already exploring Syrian sea gas.”
As for China, the anchor in Lebanon “strengthens its alliance with Iran (and prevents Western influence”, says the researcher, citing Iran and its ally Syria and its leading role in Lebanon.
Washington’s recent note also underscored the need for the United States to work “closely with Berlin and Paris” on the port issue in order to thwart Chinese aspirations.
The rivalry is between European nations, underscoring last week’s German announcement that “France is annoyed, it wants to rebuild the port”.
– Recession and Fears –
However, a central question remains: how can such plans work when the Lebanese government is completely paralyzed and mired in a deep political and economic crisis for more than a year?
No major decision has yet been made on the fate of the port, such as the official start of the call for tenders.
But the port authorities are working on an action plan, which will be “submitted to the Council of Ministers”, without giving a date, assures Passem al-Qaisi.
However, in the context of endless political bargaining, no progress is expected before the formation of a government that has been stagnant since August.
Another hurdle: In a country where the political class is accused of corruption, German and French plans are conditional on transparency and reform requirements.
The eruption of foreign companies also provokes distrust of civil society, which fears to repeat the scene of the reconstruction of Beirut after the Civil War (1975-1990).
Led by the Solidarity of the Hariri clan, the city district where artisans, merchants, and various religious and social communities lived together did not escape privatization and strengthening.
“We will not accept a new solitaire with a foreign sauce. We will not accept the loss of our memory,” he criticized the voluntary organization “Nahnu”.
Such a plan requires national consultation on “strategic choices – economic, urban and social,” says economist Jat Chapman.