Better Late Than Never for the Port of Tripoli
For the Arabic version, click here.
The catastrophic explosion that shook the city of Beirut has left dozens dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, billions of dollars worth of damage, and decimated the marine port. This horrific incident comes at a time where hyper-inflation has ravaged Lebanon’s economy while the spread of COVID-19 continues unabated. Beirut’s marine port is an important lifeline, not only to Lebanon, but to the entire region where dozens of Arab cities rely on goods and services to flow through this channel.
The Port of Beirut
Beirut’s port is one of the most important logistical hubs in the Eastern Mediterranean and links important African, European, and Asian trading routes. Nearly 82% of Lebanon’s import and export business flows through Beirut. In addition, it is an important source of revenue for the cash-strapped Lebanese economy where 250 million dollars is generated yearly. 300 global marine ports are connected to Beirut with the ability to host 1.5 million containers per year - that’s over 90% of all containers in Lebanon. Beirut’s port has 4 basins and 15 piers and reports indicate that there was a 5th basin under construction. The total area of the Port is 1,200,000 m², with a water basin total area of 1,202,000 m². Furthermore, the silos in Beirut’s port has the ability to store nearly 120,000 tons of agricultural produce. Despite the lack of long term thinking by Lebanon’s political elite in relying on a single channel for Lebanon’s trade, the fact of the matter is that Lebanon has numerous coastal cities that have played a historic trading role.
The Port of Tripoli to the Rescue
With the temporary paralysis of Beirut’s port, suitable alternatives must be found in order to alleviate the growing problems facing Lebanon. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is that alternative.
Tripoli’s marine port is one of the oldest, continuously used ports in the country and wider Levant region. From its prominent role as a Crusader outpost to a major Ottoman port, Tripoli has been a major gateway equipped with appropriate infrastructure required to become a regional hub.
Currently, the Port of Tripoli (PoT) is the second largest port in Lebanon after the Port of Beirut. Tripoli’s port has an approximate area of 3,000,000 m² with a water area exceeding 1,500,000 m², a land area of 950,000 m² with an adjacent dump area greater than 400,000 m². The port has an impressive history of delivery of goods ranging from iron, wood, construction materials, vehicles, and many more with no major recordables. The PoT is an independent entity, both administratively and financially, and is under the auspices of the General Code for Public Institutions according to decree no 4513. Tripoli’s port is managed by a Board of Directors consisting of 5 members with 3-year term limits.
Tripoli’s geographic location and presence as a warm-water port on a coast mired with instability (Syria) and paralysis (Beirut) makes it extra suitable for further enhancement and development. The aid flowing into Lebanon after the Beirut port incident has been extremely commendable and inspiring however with estimates of total damage in the billions of dollars, a more near and longer term solution can be proposed with expanding Tripoli’s port to its potential. The unfortunate reality is that Beirut’s reconstruction will not happen as rapidly as many are hoping for, given the rampant corruption and power dynamics associated with the port. As a result, funneling funds to Tripoli’s port under a more neutral and apolitical management may solve many of the issues Lebanon is currently facing.
"The aid flowing into Lebanon after the Beirut port incident has been extremely commendable and inspiring however with estimates of total damage in the billions of dollars, a more near and longer term solution can be proposed with expanding Tripoli’s port to its potential."
Tripoli’s port has many characteristics that truly adds to its uniqueness on the Levantine coast. The port has a rear zone that is about 1,200,000 m² in area. There are readily available storage areas that can be utilized inside the port and adjacent Free Zone. The Free Zone has an area of 150,000 m² eclipsing Beirut’s Free Zone more than ten-fold. There are still wide, unused areas that provide the opportunity for easy port expansion to create more entry channels. The port is only 30 km away from the border of Syria and less than 100 km away from the port of Beirut making it extremely suitable for regional trading. The relatively lower labor costs in Tripoli also provides added incentive to the utilization of this port. The Port of Tripoli’s numerous advantageous characteristics, summarized in the table below, is a testament to its ability to rise to the occasion and alleviate Lebanon’s current unfortunate predicament.
* The Special Economic Zone is part of the total area.
Under-utilization of the PoT
In a recent interview with CNBC, the director of the PoT, Ahmad Tamer stated that Tripoli can handle a much higher trade volume and capacity. Furthermore, he stressed on the need to have a well-studied logistical plan in order to facilitate the smooth transition of accepting the bulk of Lebanon’s imports through Tripoli rather than Beirut during these difficult times. In another interview with BusinessNews, Ahmad Tamer stressed on Tripoli’s readiness to “meet the existing deficit”. Looking at the numbers, Tamer goes on to mention that as of now, Tripoli is only handling around 2 millions tons when at full capacity it can handle up to 5 million tons with the 70,000 containers the PoT has. The PoT is only being used at a 40% capacity, which means the port has the capacity to increase its operation substantially.
In July 2014, BankMed released an important report showing the breakdown of the utilization of Lebanon’s various ports. The data shows that 91% of all total seaborne imports in 2013 went through Beirut while Tripoli’s port received only 6%. The numbers are equally grim in terms of the over-reliance of the Lebanese State on a singular port when it comes to the export data. Looking at 2013, 84% of seaborne exports has went through Beirut compared to 10% from Tripoli. In Leila Sawaya’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) exhaustive publication on Lebanon’s ports, she concludes that expanding Tripoli’s port would be “beneficial” to the future of Lebanon.
Ultimately, the PoT has a huge role to play when it comes to Lebanon’s economic prosperity. Its enhancement will allow for growth to occur in areas historically marginalized by the central government while Beirut’s port is rebuilt. Having the option of more than one capable port to take in large volumes of goods will eliminate the disproportionate burden on one particular area, namely Beirut. Tripoli’s economic potential is unparalleled. CMA CMG, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, has already started establishing a logistics hub in Tripoli.
"Having the option of more than one capable port to take in large volumes of goods will eliminate the disproportionate burden on one particular area, namely Beirut."
In an interview with Tripolicy, Tamer mentioned that there are plans to expand Tripoli’s port and related infrastructure in September of 2020. These plans need to be expedited and efficiently executed. Among the plans, the issue of the gain silos must be addressed. Interestingly, at one point in Lebanon's history, there used to be grain silos in both Beirut and Tripoli. Unfortunately, the silos in Tripoli were destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War. The PoT directors conducted a study regarding building new silos with a 100,000 ton capacity. The estimated cost for such a project was about 25 million dollars. It is imperative that the Lebanese State and meaningful parties realize that consolidation of grain silos in one geographic locality is a national security risk especially in the event of a catastrophic event.
Furthermore, it is important to have local labor employed in the port with proper credentials in dealing with the heavy machinery, like operating a forklift or crane. This responsibility falls on the parties who deal with heavy machinery certifications and training. This will lead to a more skilled labor force in the city, proper safety standards being implemented, and consequently compound the benefits to the local population.
If other major infrastructure projects currently paralyzed, like Beddawi’s Oil Refinery, Train Station, Maarad Exhibition Center, and Akkar’s Kleiat Airport are restarted, then Tripoli’s Port will grow even more in relevance. This growth will reduce unemployment, poverty, and lead to new sources of income for the Lebanese State. Although long overdue, it is not too late to start. Lebanon, with all its great potential, can still be saved.
For more information about the Port of Tripoli, see General Guide here.
About the Authors:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Houston, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.
Dana Monzer is a civil and environmental engineer currently pursuing a masters degree in Transportation Systems. Originally from Reshaya District in the Bekaa, she is a blog writer at Zephyr Foundation and The Chain Effect Organization.