Tripoli, Lebanon (PortSEurope) August 8, 2020 – The second busiest Lebanese port of Tripoli is to take over the functions of Beirut port, obliterated by a colossal explosion, in order for the country of seven million people, which is highly dependent on imports, to continue functioning.
The port of Beirut, Lebanon’s largest port, is not going to be able to service ships at least until the end of the year after what is believed to be the largest ever explosion of conventional explosives in a warehouse at the port on August 4. The entire infrastructure of the port was damaged in the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port since 2014.
Two blasts on August 4 flattened the harbour front and surrounding buildings. Seismologists measured the event, which blew out windows at the city’s international airport 9 km away, as the equivalent of a magnitude 3.3 earthquake. Rebuilding the port might take years in the financially-strapped Lebanon.
More than 150 died and over 5,000 were injured in the explosion. Some 300,000 people cannot live in their damaged homes and many of those killed and injured were port and custom employees, and people working in the area or driving through during rush hour.
The northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, which is receiving international attention recently as a potential key location in the reconstruction of Syria, is believed to be operating currently at under 40% of its capacity and should be able to receive Beirut-bound ships.
In January 2019, Russian energy company Rosneft signed a 20-year agreement with the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water for the operational management of the oil products storage terminal in the port. In November 2019, the Chinese shipping company, COSCO, started a shipping service between the port and China.
China was the first to offer investments for the rebuilding of the port immediately after the blast. This is consistent with Chinese policy of investing in ports that can help it export its huge amount of manufactured goods.
The new Silk Road (part of the Belt and Road initiative also known as One Belt, One Road, or OBOR) or the 21st century new maritime Silk Road is a Chinese economic strategy to seek better access for Chinese-made products in European markets, which includes acquiring stakes in ports and other transport facilities, and cooperation agreements with countries along the Silk Road routes. This initiative covers more than 60 countries and regions from Asia, through Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Africa.
The port of Beirut handles 60% of all Lebanon imports. The country, suffering from a prolonged economic crisis, the massive spread of the coronavirus, rampant corruption and an unstable government, relies heavily on imports, especially for food supplies. The grain silos and the entire grain terminal of the Beirut port were destroyed in the explosion.
The port of Tripoli can offer reasonable infrastructure (according to the latest available statistics): four warehouses for dry drainage goods, with an area of 11,000 m²; 10 warehouses for dry drainage goods and wood, with an area of 17,500 m²; five yards to store vehicles, with an area of over 10,000 m²; container yard, with an area of 10,000 m²; a general-purpose yard, with an area of 15,000 m²; two yards, with an area of 3,000 m² to store fir tree wood.
The port has: six mobile cranes with capacity of 125–165 tons; seven mobile cranes with capacity of 100–120 tons; 10 mobile cranes with capacity of 70–90 tons; 20 mobile cranes with capacity of 40–65 tons; 11 mobile cranes with capacity of 25–38 tons; 24 forklifts; 8 bulldozers; and 30 trucks.
Plans to develop the Port of Tripoli have been announced recently by the Ministry of Transport and included expansion of the port by 1.2 km², construction of refrigerated warehouses, new buildings for the light and assembly industries and big size warehouses.
The plan also aims at enlarging the quay length up to 2,200 metres and increasing its draft up to 12 metres of depth. The Tripoli Port Authority has prepared a master plan in an alliance with the French company Sogreah (part of Artelia holding), to enlarge and rehabilitate the Tripoli port and its free zone.
The China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) has been working to develop Tripoli port since 2012, for it to be ready to receive big vessels. Tripoli port has expanded its terminal to receive the largest types of vessels in addition to creating a terminal to receive Chinese cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day.
The Israeli Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Ashdod should also get additional cargo that was to be sailing to Beirut, but for them competing with Tripoli is highly unlikely due to the ongoing tension between the two countries.
The story behind this huge amount of explosive material rotting in the badly secured and maintained warehouse in the port of Beirut is like one coming from a bad movie: The material was on board a Moldova-flagged ship, owned by a Russian believed to be living in Cyprus, which was travelling from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia to Mozambique, but the ship was abandoned in Beirut in 2013.
Another back-up solution to Beirut’s port is the nearby Syrian port of Tartus. Russia has announced in December 2019 that it is going to invest $500 million over four years in the port that it controls via a 49-year lease contract, signed in April 2019.
The construction of a grain hub for the Middle East in the port is expected to start by the end of 2020. In recent years, Russia supplied Syria with grain and is expected to start the shipment of additional 100,000 tonnes by the end of 2019. Russia (together with Ukraine) are the main suppliers of grain to Lebanon as well
The use of the port gives Russia influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. It also allows the Russian navy to expand its technical support and logistics base, located on the northern edge of the port of Tartus.
The port of Tartus was managed by the Philippine’s International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI) until 2011, when due to the civil war in Syria, they were classified as dangerous areas.
Other potential investors in the port of Beirut are Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States. After securing a lease in Syria’s Eastern Mediterranean Sea port of Latakia, Iran is keen to expand its presence in the region. It is widely believed that Tehran is the primary financial backer of the Hezbollah group, a Lebanon-based militant political party which has representation in the Lebanese government and is considered a terrorist group by the USA and other countries. Beirut’s port could become a key element in the Islamic Republic strategy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expansionist strategy in the region and his involvement in Syria makes his country another potential player in the rebuilding of Beirut’s strategic port. Russia is very keen to solidify its position in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it seems unlikely for it to make big investments while it suffers from the global low oil and gas prices.
The United States was among the first to offer help to make the port of Beirut operational again. For Washington, this is going to be mostly ann effort to limit the influences of China, Turkey, Iran and Russia in Lebanon. The upcoming presidential elections make it highly unlikely to see a fast American move and the dedication of large financial resources.
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