Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Port of Beirut: The City’s Wilted Flower

Port of Beirut
A general view shows the damaged grain silos at the port on August 4, 2021, as Lebanon marks a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged the capital Beirut. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Ali Noureddeen

When reading about the history of the coastal cities along the Mediterranean’s eastern basin, it becomes hard to separate the rise and prosperity of these cities from the active role they played over centuries as commercial and cultural links between East and West. 

Furthermore, when discussing this role, which harkens back to the days of the Phoenicians, we are specifically referring to the aspect pertaining to the movement of ports and ships, and in particular the professionalism of the people of these cities in maritime trade, with all that this type of trade requires from sailing skills and communication with different civilizations across the world. 

It is perhaps for this reason the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf chose the phrase “ Stairs of the East ” as the title of one of his famous novels, in reference to these cities and their ports, as well as the political and cultural roles they played related to their initial historical function as a crossing from west to east. 

Beirut has never deviated from this rule. It can in fact be said that Beirut in particular constituted a marked example of how the periods of prosperity and decline of a city were related to the state and activity of its port over centuries. There are those who have studied the history of the city and concluded that the port was what made Beirut, and that without the port, the city today would have been just a small town on the Lebanese coast like all other towns from the country’s south to its north. 

Historically over the course of 35 centuries, the struggle over the city by successive empires has always been linked to the status of this port, as well as the political, military and commercial role it plays as a very important point and influential maritime position on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. This port’s role shaped political decisions that affected the city’s identity, culture, demographic composition and military status.

In short, there is sufficient historical evidence to indicate the strategic importance of the port, both for the city of Beirut itself, and for the forces of foreign influence contending over it. In the wake of the infamous explosion of Aug. 4, 2020, and because the Lebanese state lacks the financial capacity to rebuild such a massive public facility, it was natural to move in the direction of ​​rebuilding according to models of partnership between the public and private sectors that are based on entrusting the reconstruction process to major international companies, provided that the companies recoup the cost of reconstruction and profits through operating and investing in the port, and benefiting from its returns over the coming decades.

Exactly for this reason, and in light of the international race for maritime influence in the eastern Mediterranean region, the issue of reconstruction, operation and investment in the port has turned into a contest among many nations that seek to benefit from the strategic location of the port. Furthermore, for the same reason Lebanese authorities have been reluctant to issue tenders for the reconstruction process, or even to remove the rubble from the explosion, in a bid to angle this file as one of the doors to deals with foreign states in the future, by obtaining cover or international political support from the parties that would benefit from the port investment contracts. 

It should be noted that the authorities are in desperate need of this international cover at this particular time in history, as they are on the verge of starting official negotiations with the International Monetary Fund in an effort to go into a loan program that would allow the political class to refloat itself. 

Perhaps the French initiative right in the wake of the explosion that sought to give the rulers this international cover was just a model for this kind of bargaining, especially since this initiative was accompanied by a significant French interest in the port’s investment file.

Consequently, discussions about the destroyed Beirut Port, which has been left untouched since Aug. 4, 2020, are today of particular significance, firstly in regards to this port’s lost role after being left in ruins for around a year and four months, and secondly in regards to the magnitude of the international race to seize this port. Finally, there is something to be said about the manner in which the Lebanese state deals with this file, by looking for opportunities to make bargains and deals rather than searching for the role that Lebanon wants for this port, the type of services that it is supposed to provide, and how to integrate them into the structure of the economy that the state aims to build during the stage of financial recovery.

Historical role

Port of Beirut
A timeline showing the role of the port from the 15th century until the present date. Illustrations by Fanack

It’s not possible to grasp the port’s strategic importance without looking back at its history and understanding the roles that it has played throughout this history. The oldest evidence that indicates the age of the port dates back to the 15th century B.C., as attested by letters exchanged between the Phoenicians and the pharaohs in which the northern shore of Beirut – the Gulf of Saint George today – represented an ideal spot to establish a port that kept clear of the harsh waves and was located in the heart of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, which witnessed the Phoenicians’ most active trade traffic. 

Subsequently, the Romans grew interested in the port’s location and strategic role, therefore they expanded it to the west to transform it into the nucleus of the port as we know it today. They then increased the volume of operations at the facility so that Beirut in that era became one of the most prominent and strategically important colonies of the Roman Empire after the city – thanks to its port – became a commercial and economic centre of the empire. It can be said that the major and prominent roles that Beirut played in that era, as the centre of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean region, was due to the development of the port and not the other way around. 

Following the destruction of the Roman colony as a result of the earthquake in A.D. 551, the Muslims entered it in A.D. 635 and chose Beirut Port as the base of the first Arab fleet once they discovered facility was characterized by specifications not available in other ports in the region, such as the depth of its waters and its position in the middle the eastern Mediterranean shore which allowed the fleets stationed there to assert their dominance along the coast. Thus, the Umayyads restored the port and the city regained its historical lustre, transforming into a centre for the construction of new ships and benefiting from the expertise in this field of the people in the surrounding areas.

Port of Beirut
A timeline showing the role of the port from the 15th century until the present date. Illustrations by Fanack

Beirut Port has since remained a point of interest for all the successive Muslim caliphs in all the ensuing eras of the city, whether in terms of its expansion to develop its commercial roles, or in terms of fortifying in order to play a military role commensurate with the strategic ambitions of the caliphs. Similarly, the Crusaders took care of Beirut Port during their dominion over the region, and gave it a leading role in terms of linking maritime trade between East and West. 

The role of the port – and with it the role of the city – continued to expand in most of the subsequent eras, including the Ottoman era and the period of Ibrahim Pasha al-Masry’s control of Beirut. The city gradually swelled alongside the expansion of its port’s roles, which made it a destination for foreign consuls and foreign companies, and injected great diversity and richness into its cultural life. The common factor in all those historical periods was the port’s contribution to the city’s growth and recovery, and the interest in Beirut of successive empires and Islamic countries based on their interest in its port.


French interests

Port of Beirut
A photo showing French sailors leaving their ships docked at Beirut port. RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP

The first venture to organize Beirut Port’s investment model took place in 1894, when the Ottoman Sultanate granted the concession to operate and invest in the port to a company owned by the French, under the name “Beirut Port, Quays and Harbors Company.” After the country came under the French Mandate phase, the company was officially granted French citizenship, and it continued to control the port’s operations even after Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Over the years, the work of French companies expanded in the field of shipping, import and trade, taking advantage of the French influence resulting from the dominance of the French company over the port’s operations, noting that the investment contract was not limited to regulating the exit and entry of commercial ships, but also included all storage, shipping and cargo clearance activities that usually accompany port operations.

France thus retained control of the concession to operate the port until 1960, when the Lebanese state decided to recover the concession and grant it to a local company established for this purpose. This company was supposed to contribute to reorganizing the port as a public facility owned by the Lebanese state, to be developed and transformed into a major port on the regional level, but the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 put an end to all these ambitions, leaving the port and all its operations under the control of the warring militias.

An aimless administration awaiting a deal

With the end of the Civil War in 1990, the state decided to establish a temporary committee to manage the port pending the development of the necessary legislation and statutes to regulate its operations. However, political and sectarian differences since that time have thwarted any attempt to put these legislations and statutes in place, and the temporary committee has been running the port’s business for more than 31 years with minimal transparency and controls, and with broad powers that are not governed by any legal controls in terms of oversight over the port’s finances or the manner in which it is managed. 

Over those years, a decision on the investment model remained a deferred matter pending a comprehensive political deal to be agreed upon by the leaders of the regime according to which a new model would be devised that governs the port’s investment method and mandates its operations.

However, the explosion at the port in 2020 opened the file of awarding the port’s investment and operation, along with the task of its reconstruction, according to comprehensive contracts that cover the combined processes of reconstruction, operation, and investment. Furthermore, these are based on the public-private partnership models that give private companies contracts to build the port and then operate it to cover the cost. 

Perhaps Lebanon’s need for foreign investments in order to obtain hard currency, as part of the comprehensive financial recovery plan that the government is currently preparing in order to get out of the economic crisis, came to reinforce the Lebanese state’s orientation toward this type of port investment models. In addition, the authorities’ need for international support prior to starting negotiations with the IMF also pushed in this direction, especially as this type of contract represents an attractive opportunity for major countries looking for investment opportunities as large as the investment in Beirut Port.

The international race for the Beirut Port file

Port of Beirut
Managing Director at Colliers Germany and Head of Architecture and Workplace Consulting Hermann Schnell speaks at a press conference at Beirut port on April 9, 2021. The delegation unveiled a spectacular multi-billion-dollar project to rebuild Beirut port and its surroundings but admitted it was contingent on far-reaching government reforms. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

The eastern Mediterranean basin is in a state of competition over spheres of influence between many countries, ranging from the rivalry of the Russians and the Iranians in seizing the ports of Syria, to the polarization between Turkey and France linked to the offshore gas fields and gas pipelines, to the contracts that China was able to obtain in order to invest in the ports of Haifa and Ashdod. In the midst of all these events, Beirut Port comes as a very important point of influence in which many parties are eager to invest in an effort to benefit from its location in the midst of this competitive arena.

The most prominent among the parties that sought to obtain the reconstruction cake was France, whose largest company, CMA CGM, presented comprehensive plans to rebuild and invest in the port in the coming years, even as French diplomacy entered the business of marketing its companies to Lebanese authorities. Perhaps France’s historical influence in Lebanon, and its historical relationship with Beirut Port in particular, represented a primary motive to gain control of the port’s investment file, especially as it is engaged in a relentless confrontation with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean region. 

It was clearly for this reason that French diplomacy has since the explosion been actively involved in the Lebanese crisis, whose details were followed up on by the French president who eagerly accompanied the Chairman of CMA CGM’s Board of Directors on his two visits to Beirut Port. 

However, France has not been alone in the race for the port’s reconstruction and investment file. Turkey, France’s main rival in all Mediterranean issues, was quick to submit its counter-offer for the port’s reconstruction and investment, presenting its competitive advantages in this field. 

Germany has also presented an ambitious plan for the same purpose, expanding the scope of the proposed investments to include real estate and tourism projects adjacent to the port after its reconstruction and operation by German companies. 

Even Russia, which for years has been keen to expand its economic presence in the ports of Syria neighbouring Lebanon, presented its own offers in this regard.

No vision for reconstruction

For all practical purposes, Lebanese authorities to this day have no vision for the reconstruction of Beirut Port. Moreover, the process of redesigning the port and determining the quality of services and infrastructure it will provide in the future remain issues that hinge on the type of economy Lebanon wants to build after it recovers from its current economic collapse, in addition to the nature of the economic sectors on which its development will be based. 

Meanwhile, the Lebanese state’s attitude today is limited to waiting for this process to be assigned to foreign companies as a tool to obtain hard currency, which is pivotal in the recovery plan being prepared by the government to exit the financial collapse as one of the mechanisms to obtain foreign support. 

In the meantime, as it awaits the delayed reconstruction deal, Beirut lives with a port where the effects of the explosion linger, including the wreckage of the destroyed wheat silos. The city’s port, which has always been its flower and one of the reasons for its ascent, has become its open wound. Bereft of a harbour, the city today appears to have lost its most prominent historical role after the financial collapse cost it many of its other economic capacities.

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