Transport has played a vital role in maintaining Lebanon’s role as an active international trading center. However, years of underinvestment and physical damage have taken a toll on the country’s transport infrastructure. The situation is now recovering as a relatively more stable climate defines the Lebanese political and business atmosphere.
Having somewhat fallen by the wayside during the civil war, the Lebanese rail network has long been targeted for rebirth. Access corridors for the former rail network are still on the books, making a relaying of track easier. Of the lines formerly in operation, the coastal line, as the longest, extends 224 kilometers and connects Abboudieh in the north and Naqoura in the south. This line also extended in previous times to the Syrian city of Homs in the north. Another stretch, the 102 kilometer-long Riyak-Koussair line, once ran through the heart of the Bekaa Valley to the Syrian-Lebanese border and onwards to Homs, but is currently not operational. While both of these lines are standard gauge, Riyak, which is also located on the Beirut Port-Riyak-Damascus line, used a narrow gauge track along a scenic 82-kilometer stretch. Several initiatives have been launched over the years to rejuvenate the country’s network. One such project is the rehabilitation of the Tripoli-Abboudieh line. This line will connect the port of Tripoli with el-Mina on the Syrian border, from where the railroad will be connected to the Asian and European networks via Homs. The cost has initially been estimated at $33 million, excluding railroad terminals and signalling. Another project aims to connect the Port of Tripoli with Chekka in Northern Lebanon via a 20-kilometer long new railway, which will also connect the Lebanese network with Syria and beyond. The project is currently estimated to cost €700 million. In an exclusive interview with TBY, Mohammad Safadi, the Minister of Finance, confirmed the government’s interest in reviving the northern route, especially between the cities of Beirut and Tripoli, to relieve pressure on the road network.
There are seven airports in Lebanon, five of which have paved runways. Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport (RHIA) is the largest and only operational commercial airport in Lebanon. It is also the main port of entry into Lebanon alongside the Port of Beirut. As well as the national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA), charter carriers Med Airways and Wings of Lebanon and the Lebanese cargo carrier Trans Mediterranean Airways use the airport as their base. A total of 49 airlines fly to almost 90 destinations around the world from the airport. This number is increasing as international airlines such as Air France-KLM open up new destinations from their Lebanese operations. “Through our Marseille base we will be offering a direct flight to Beirut—this represents a significant increase in seats offered between France and Lebanon,” Frederic Gossot, Regional Director Air France-KLM Near East, told TBY. In recent years the airport has enjoyed increasing volumes of cargo and passenger traffic. Expansion of the airport is on the Ministry of Transport’s agenda for better management of air traffic during peak seasons. While 3.9 million passengers used RHIA in 2005, this number increased more than 25% and exceeded 5 million passengers by 2010.
The road network is king, and Lebanon has approximately 7,000 kilometers of road, including 170 kilometers of expressways. The Beirut-Damascus and Tripoli-Aleppo routes are the busiest corridors. Over the past five years the government has prioritized the reconstruction and extension of the country’s road network. One prime example is the Sayyad road project, which aims to alleviate traffic load on the RHIA-Bekaa-Damascus axis. Once completed, the new road will increase the Hazmieh-Baabda section of the Damascus highway to eight lanes, which will decrease to six lanes for the road beyond. The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) is in charge of the project, which received a long-term loan of $42 million from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.
Lebanon’s two operational seaports, the ports of Beirut and Tripoli, are also the country’s biggest centers of commercial activity, admitting more than 90% of the goods imported into the country. Lebanon also enjoys a merchant marine fleet of 29 carriers in addition to three foreign-owned carriers and 40 registered abroad. Lebanon is a party to the EU’s Mediterranean Sea Highway Project, run by EuroMed Transport. The project aims to improve the existing port services, developing new markets and new routes in the participating countries. EuroMed Transport chose the maritime route between the Port of Beirut and Castellon—on the east coast of Spain. This route extends over 3,200 kilometers and represents the longest route in the project. The ports of Beirut and Tripoli are also undergoing extensive expansion programs. Additionally, another EuroMed Transport project intends to upgrade the port of Jounieh, located about 14 kilometers north of Beirut, to receive cruise ships up to 250 meters in length. The €90 million project encompasses the construction of a new breakwater and passenger terminal.
Logistics services play an important role in Lebanon’s transport sector, and the country’s logistics base has been improving steadily for the past five years. According to the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI) for 2010, the country ranked 33rd globally among 155 nations, and third among 17 Arab countries. Lebanon also ranked in fourth place among 34 upper-middle income countries (UMICs), up from 21st place in 2008.
The country came in first place in the Arab region and among UMICs on the Logistics Competence sub-index. The country also ranked first among its Arab peers and second among UMICs on the timeliness sub-index, which assesses the timeliness of shipments in reaching their destination. As far as the efficiency and effectiveness of Lebanese customs are concerned, Lebanon ranked third in the Arab region and first among UMICs. Lebanon has more room to grow as a logistics hub in the region. “We sell Lebanon as an alternative to Dubai, and it is a real alternative: it is faster, it can be cheaper, it’s organic, and you have local knowledge and local people,” John Chedid, General Manager of DHL, told TBY.
© The Business Year