Syria’s reconstruction offers opportunities for Lebanon
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.