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Beirut explosion: Germany to propose port reconstruction with 'strings attached'

Multi-billion-dollar proposal aimed at enticing Lebanese politicians to form a government capable of warding off financial collapse
Eight months after the port disaster, many Lebanese who lost family, homes or businesses are still awaiting the results of an investigation into the causes of the blast (MEE/Chloe Domat)

Germany will next week present a multi-billion-dollar proposal to Lebanese authorities to rebuild the Port of Beirut, as part of efforts to entice the country's politicians to form a government capable of warding off financial collapse, two sources have told Reuters.

A chemical explosion at the port last August killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed entire neighbourhoods in Lebanon's capital, plunging the country deeper into its worst political and economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

According to two diplomatic sources with knowledge of the plans, Germany and France are vying to lead reconstruction efforts. 

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Berlin will on 7 April outline its proposal, which the diplomats said would in principle include support from the European Investment Bank (EIB), to help fund the clearing of the area and reconstruction facilities.

An EIB spokesman said it was aware of the proposal put forward by the port of Hamburg and its consultancy team for the reconstruction of the port of Beirut and surrounding areas.

"However, there currently is no financing offer by the EIB. Any EIB financing would be subject to due diligence and have to follow the Bank’s usual processes for such operations," he said.

It would also need to comply with the EIB’s procurement guidelines, environmental and social standards, he said.

"The Bank stands ready to support the Lebanese people and reconstruction efforts as part of Team Europe and alongside its partners, the international community and all stakeholders."

One of the sources estimated EIB funding to be in the range of $2.36bn to $3.54bn.

A senior Lebanese official confirmed that Germany was due to present a comprehensive port reconstruction proposal.

Germany's ambassador to Lebanon, Andreas Kindl, confirmed a proposal would be made next week to redevelop Beirut port and nearby areas. The plan had been drawn up by several private companies who would hold talks in Beirut to present it, he said.

Consultancy firm Roland Berger, which the diplomatic sources said put the plan together, didn't immediately responded to requests for comment from Reuters.

'Good for Lebanon'

The two diplomatic sources said Lebanon's political elite first need to agree on the makeup of a new government to fix public finances and root out corruption, a condition on which donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are also insisting before they will unlock billions of dollars in aid.

"This plan is not going to come without strings attached," said one of the sources. "Germany and France want first to see a government in place committed to implementing reforms. 

"There is no other way around it, and this is good for Lebanon."

Eight months after the port disaster, many Lebanese who lost family, homes and businesses are still waiting for the results of an investigation into the causes of the blast. 

Lebanon is collapsing, amid a lack of goods, protesters blocking roads and businesses shuttered. Foreign donors have said the new government must have a firm mandate to implement economic reforms including a central bank audit and an overhaul of the wasteful power sector.

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun have been unable to agree on a ministerial line-up, however. The outgoing cabinet, which quit after the explosion, has stayed on in a caretaker capacity.

The IMF has said there have been no programme discussions with Lebanese officials, only technical assistance from the Ministry of Finance and some state-owned enterprises.

French interest

In addition to the port itself, Germany's proposal would look to redevelop more than 100 hectares in the surrounding area, in a project that the two diplomatic sources said would be along the lines of the postwar reconstruction of central Beirut.

As in that redevelopment, the plan would involve the creation of a publicly listed company similar to Solidere, which was set up by former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in the 1990s and remains on the Lebanon stock exchange.

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The sources put the project cost at anywhere between $5bn–$15bn, and said it could create as many as 50,000 jobs.

The Lebanese official said France, French ports, and container shipping group CMA CGM were also interested in the reconstruction project.

One of the diplomatic sources noted that France had sent several missions, including one in March that included CMA CGM, that showed an interest in playing a role in the reconstruction. 

That mission focused on specific clear-up operations rather than a broader redevelopment, however, the source said.

France's foreign ministry declined to comment immediately to Reuters. CMA CGM also declined to comment.

'The vultures are still circling'

The Lebanese official put the onus for getting the project under way on the Europeans, and their agreeing who would be the lead.

"This is a European decision at the end of the day, because they have to decide on it among themselves," the official said. "Then, when it comes to it, the Lebanese government can go ahead." 

The diplomatic sources said Germany wanted to work closely with France on the issue, but that Paris was pursuing its own initiatives for now.

"The irony of all this is that on the one hand the Europeans are talking about putting pressure on the political class, while on the other fighting each other over these potential contracts when the vultures are still circling," one said.