THE TRIPOLI TRANSFORMATION

Lebanon 2016 | ECONOMY | FOCUS: TRIPOLI ECONOMIC FREE ZONE

The Tripoli Special Economic Zone (TSEZ) is one of most ambitious projects in Lebanon at the moment. With an initial cost of USD27 million, it is meant to provide an alternative to the heavily centralized economic activity in Beirut, a new gateway for investments and trade to settle in northern Lebanon, and will transform the image of a long-neglected region.

In 2008, a draft law to create a special economic zone in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest and most populous city, was passed after three stagnant years in parliament. The move implied significant consequences as historically the north of Lebanon has been the most deprived area in the country with the highest rates of poverty and the lowest rates of development and employment. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the north of Lebanon accounts for 46% of the total population living in extreme poverty. Its disparities with other regions are notorious, amounting to twice the poverty rate of the southern region and 19 times that of Beirut.

The idea to create a new special economic zone in northern Lebanon was not only a strategy to diversify the country's trade poles but also to bring prosperity to the most economically stressed part of the country. After a comprehensive feasibility plan that involved an investment of USD1.5 billion from USAID, the adjacent zone of the Port of Tripoli was determined to be the best place to set what would become a 50ha site for the promotion of investment and trade in a thus far underexplored area of the country.

The objective of the TSEZ is straightforward: to provide a streamlined and transparent business environment with state-of-the-art infrastructure services and qualified human capacities to bolster SME capabilities and attract foreign and local investors to the region. The TSEZ also promises to offer 100% foreign ownership of companies, up to 50% of foreign labor, and the possibility of combining investment incentives of both the TSEZ and the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL).

The TSEZ will also be near the planned railroad network that will link Tripoli with southern Syria. One of the major bets of Tripoli's business community is eventual reconstruction in Syria and the opportunities it will bring for Tripoli to become the epicenter of that process, since the city is just 22km away from Lebanon's troubled neighbor. As the TSEZ President told TBY, “The international community is preparing for the post-conflict period in Syria, and Tripoli is the closet city to the border, so we want to make the TSEZ an incubator for the reconstruction process.”

Most importantly, the TSEZ has been armed with the most lucrative tax incentives for a project of its kind in Lebanon's history: a 100% customs exemption on imported raw materials; duty-free exports on finished goods; duty-free imports of construction materials, equipment, machinery, and spare parts; 100% exemption on VAT and excise tax for goods and services; 100% exemption on corporate profit tax when the capital is higher than USD300,000; 100% exemption on withheld tax on salaries for employees and on social security contributions; 100% exemption on building permit fees and built property tax; and 100% exemption on shares and bonds issued by companies established within the TSEZ.

Perhaps the greatest asset of the TSEZ is the area it will share with the Port of Tripoli, which will drive the region's economic future. With a length of 600m and a 15.5m-deep quay, the Port of Tripoli is the second-largest port in Lebanon with a capacity of 750,000 TEUs. In the past year, the port witnessed a more than 300% increase in activities, going from 79,000 tons in January 2015 to over 245,000 in January 2016. On top of that, UAE-based company Gulftainer was recently awarded a concession to operate a new container terminal to handle 400,000 containers by the end of 2016 and 800,000 by the time the project meets its deadline in two years.

Due for completion in mid-2017, there is little doubt the expectations raised by this project will take some time to come to fruition. What is not in doubt is the extent to which this project will improve trade capacities for northern Lebanon and put Tripoli back on the map.