The long-mooted revival of the railway between Tripoli and the Lebanese-Syrian border may have finally found an investor, with profound implications not only for the economy of north Lebanon but for the balance of power in the wider Middle East.
“We have a proverb saying, “If you want to get rich, build a road,” said Eliana Ibrahim, president of the China Arab Association for Promoting Cultural and Commercial Exchange. Ibrahim told The Daily Star that a Chinese company is ready to submit a proposal to finance the reconstruction of a much-discussed railway from Tripoli to the Lebanese-Syrian border, although she said the bid was “not at the stage” where she could name the company.
The railway, one of the transport projects listed in the government’s Capital Investment Plan presented at the recent CEDRE investment conference, would provide China with a means to transport materials from Tripoli into Syria, where Beijing could not only take advantage of the politically contentious issue of reconstruction in the country, but also set itself up long-term as a regional power.
According to Dr. Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London and an expert in Syria and the Middle East, reconstruction in Syria is “a springboard for investment in the region.” China, he said, “is looking for typically a 20-to-25 year trend where it’s going to be putting money into infrastructure but with a long-term plan of slowly but surely replacing the U.S. … in the region as a major player.”
The cost of the devastating civil war to Syria’s economy and infrastructure has been estimated by the World Bank at $226 billion. China recently made some major announcements to further position itself as one of the key actors, not just in Syria’s reconstruction, but in the region. At this week’s China – Arab States Cooperation Forum, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged over $23 billion in credit, loans and humanitarian assistance to various Arab countries. Some $91 million was earmarked for Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Jordan in humanitarian assistance.
Lebanon’s Economy Minister Raed Khoury attended the forum and returned very positive about the prospect of further Chinese investment in the country. Having met with China’s foreign minister, Khoury told The Daily Star that China doesn’t “look at Lebanon as a small country of 4 million citizens but as a country with huge potential given its geographical location … They see Lebanon as a platform for the whole region and for reconstruction as well of Syria and Iraq.”
The Syrian regime’s recent assault on southwest Syria and the massive resultant flight of refugees to the closed Jordanian border demonstrated that the war is far from over. Nevertheless, Quilliam said that China will not wait for a political resolution to the conflict before making its next move. “The debate on Syria is what comes first, political settlement or reconstruction, and China … has made it very clear that reconstruction comes first.”