Syria’s reconstruction offers opportunities for Lebanon

Sunday 18/09/2016
Workers at a construction site in the area of Dbayeh, north of Beirut.

Beirut - Having experienced a long, destructive war and a difficult, yet in­complete process to rebuild their country, Lebanese have the will and skills to assist their Syrian neighbours in their reconstruction drive. They know well that, sooner or later, the guns will fall silent, a political set­tlement will be put in place and Syria’s battlefields will be turned into huge reconstruction sites. They need to be ready when this moment comes.
Lost in their own never-ending political disputes, Lebanese offi­cials are simply not preparing to benefit from Syria’s reconstruction. The private sector, which has main­tained a good flow of business be­tween the two countries despite the war, needs government and public-sector support.
“May I beg for Lebanon not to wait,” said Abdullah Dardari, dep­uty executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
Dardari cautioned that for Leba­non to benefit from rebuilding Syr­ia, it would need to fix its domestic infrastructure, including highways, railways, ports and airports, as well as its business environment with dramatic reforms.
“Massive investment is needed… That’s easy and the money is avail­able by the international communi­ty. It takes a political decision by the government of Lebanon,” he said.
With no president elected since May 2014, a dormant parliament and an almost paralysed cabinet, Lebanon is becoming dysfunc­tional and risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in international loans for key development projects. The parliament, considered an elec­toral body and not a legislative as­sembly, should meet only to elect a president, something it has failed to do despite calling 44 sessions to elect a successor of Michel Sulei­man, whose term ended in May 2014.
The legislature had a single ses­sion last November to pass banking and financial reforms and approve needed credits by international and foreign donors. Other reforms are on hold.
Dardari’s concerns are shared by Lebanese businessmen and for­mer officials, who say they fear the country would waste another op­portunity to revive its economy and make up for the losses incurred be­cause of the Syria war and the bur­den of hosting 1.5 million refugees.
Wajih Bizri, the president of the International Chamber of Com­merce Lebanon, urged the public sector to act, detailing the need for a good infrastructure to channel com­modities and supplies to Syria and for having better roads and ports.
“The chain needs to be complete. If the Lebanese do not do their homework, whether the private or public sectors, they will not be able to benefit from the reconstruction in Syria,” Bizri said, complaining that no one in Lebanon is conscious about what’s going on and what should be done. He said the prob­lems were the political disputes and quotas.
Rebuilding Syria is expected to attract much international interest. Lebanon, however, could become a starting point due to its potential and strategic advantages: Proximity to Syria, the historic ties between the two countries and the many complementary aspects of their economies, in addition to Lebanon’s human resource specialisations and banking sector.
“But we have to begin preparing from today… to determine what kind of services will be needed and start positioning ourselves,” said Raya el-Hassan, chairman-general manager of Tripoli Special Econom­ic Zone and former Finance minis­ter.
The 550,000-sq.-metre special economic zone, which was con­ceived in 2008 and formally estab­lished in 2015 to mainly address the socio-economic problems in long-neglected Tripoli in northern Leba­non, was designed to attract local and foreign investments but can also act as a platform for companies wishing to participate in the recon­struction of Syria.
“When we started, this special economic zone was not on the radar screen of any donor,” Hassan said. “The donor community is now see­ing it as a vital project.”
Referring to the Tripoli Interna­tional Fair — a 1 million-sq.-metre exhibition area — the Tripoli port and refineries as well as the nearby Kleyate Airport, she said if all these neglected or “dormant” installa­tions and mega projects are put to­gether, “they could potentially cre­ate a huge impact”.
With the Tripoli port set to be further expanded to accommodate an expected surge in export-import and transit activities, a $60 million pledge by the Islamic Development Bank and the World Bank to help construct a railway linking Tripoli to the Syrian border, and the private sector showing interest in operating the Tripoli International Fair, prepa­rations are picking up.
“If everything goes according to schedule, I see a huge potential,” Hassan said.
Industrial zones are set to be cre­ated, starting in Baalbek, Terbol and Hermel — three eastern Lebanon areas close to the border with Syria — as part of a project by the UN In­dustrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and funded by Italy.
With or without government sup­port, Lebanese businessmen are set to grasp the Syria reconstruction opportunity.
“Syria needs everything today from food supplies to construction materials, so having a source (of supplies) next door is the first op­tion for Syrians to deal with,” said Bizri. “As long as you offer qual­ity and price, you have the priority. Then, there is the flexibility of de­livering the goods immediately and by land, in addition to many advan­tages we have over the others.”
With the immigration of large number of middle-class, educated Syrians, there will be a greater need for educated and skilled Lebanese in post-war Syria, especially in the banking sector, he said.
Bizri argued that peace in Syria would not be achieved overnight but rather “will be gradual in cer­tain regions where security will im­prove and become more peaceful than other areas. And this is better for the Lebanese who would adopt an easier way to increase the vol­ume of business between Lebanon and Syria.”
To Dardari, the most advanta­geous things about having Lebanon engaged in rebuilding Syria are the Lebanese themselves: the intellec­tuals, bankers, information technol­ogy experts and creative people.
“Lebanon suffered from destruc­tion but it was very limited. A com­pany managed to rebuild Beirut,” the UN official, a Syrian, concluded.