The dream of reconstructing Syria is beginning to materialize in Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon. The city is only 28 kilometers from the Syrian-Lebanese border, and local authorities want Tripoli to become the number-one hub between Syria and the rest of the world.
To achieve that goal, local authorities tripled the size of the Port of Tripoli (PoT) by raising its storage capacity from 400,000 containers to 1.3 million. The PoT is looking to attract foreign investors and encouraging public-private partnerships to finance the full cost of expansion—estimated to run $350-$400 million. Brand new Chinese gantry cranes stretch 46 meters high and 63 meters out over the Mediterranean’s deep waters, ready to unload incoming cargo.
“We expect commercial transit to boom as soon as Syrian reconstruction starts. We will have a competitive advantage because the ports nearby are too small for container ships,” says Ibrahim Hermes, CEO of Gulftainer Lebanon, the container terminal’s operator. The company signed a 25-year lease contract in 2013 and is investing around $100 million in PoT expansion.
In 2016, the world’s third-largest shipping group, French CMA-CGM, bought a 20% stake in Gulftainer Lebanon; and the following year, the Saudi Arabia–based Islamic Development Bank approved an $86 million loan to continue the port’s expansion. The next development phase includes the backfilling of a 160,000-square-meter container-stacking area and creating a 550,000-square-meter free-trade zone, according to PoT officials.
“We are receiving a lot of foreign delegations—Chinese, Russian—who are interested in settling in the Free Zone,” says Ahmad Tamer, PoT’s director, referencing the port’s special fenced-in section legally defined as outside the customs region.
The port is Tripoli’s flagship, but local authorities have greater ambitions. “Our goal is to make Tripoli the economic capital of Lebanon,” says Toufic Dabboussi, president of Tripoli’s Chamber of Commerce, which summarized the city’s assets in a multilingual video for investors: a train station connected to Homs in west-central Syria, an airport, oil and gas refineries—even an international fairground designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s. All of this infrastructure—abandoned during the 1975–1990 civil war—is in dire need of investment and could be valuable to Syrian reconstruction efforts.
Lebanon hopes that Syrian reconstruction will uplift its own struggling economy. The country has the third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world and the highest concentration of refugees per capita. Unlike most Middle Eastern and North African countries, Lebanon remained officially neutral vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict since 2011 and could, therefore, be easily welcomed back in Damascus.
Lebanon has other competitive advantages: physical proximity, a shared language, intimate knowledge of Syrian markets, an educated labor force and construction-related enterprises such as cement factories. “We have been preparing ourselves for the past six years,” explains Fouad Zmokhol, president of the Association of Lebanese Business People in the World (RDCL World).
“Lebanese entrepreneurs have unique know-how, as they already rebuilt postwar Lebanon and Iraq. When it comes to Syria, transportation and logistics will have to transit through Lebanon—but not only that, banking, insurance and consulting services too,” he adds.
Ideally, Syrian reconstruction would benefit Lebanon in two ways: Syria would be a market for Lebanese goods and direct investments, and Syria’s post-conflict instability would make neighboring Lebanon the safer of the two countries for reconstruction-related investment.