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French Version

Trade slow at Beirut Port as container terminal stays idle (Daily Star)

Trade slow at Beirut Port as container terminal stays idle
1 year on from drafting tender, bidding has yet to start

Delays in hiring an operator for the Port of Beirut’s only container terminal is unlikely to affect activity at the country’s main port of call, particularly if insecurity in Iraq and high costs continue to stem an increase in transit cargo, maritime officials said Tuesday.

Nearly a year since Beirut’s port authorities hired consultants to draft a tender to bring in an operator, bidding has yet to start on who will run and manage the $150 million container terminal.

The terminal, which has been standing empty since late 2000, is needed to attract transit and trans-shipment cargo, as well as increase capacity at the port, which currently only caters to a stagnant domestic market.

The terminal will have a container capacity of up to 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) once the port is installed with gantry cranes in the first quarter of next year to haul containers off ships.

After the terminal is fully functional, the Port of Beirut will try to market itself next year as a trans-shipment hub to boost traffic beyond the 300,000 TEU it currently handles each year.
“I don’t think the delay in (hiring an operator) will affect traffic because I doubt whether Beirut can offer trans-shipment services,” said Fouad Bawarchi, manager of the maritime company Gezairi Transport.

Harriet Joly, manager of Henry Heald & Co., also agreed that the delay in hiring an operator would not affect activity at the port because although the available equipment is “antiquated,” it has still been “getting the job done.” Bawarchi added that the “terminal will only facilitate the operation of ship owners and ship agents … and will also reduce the stay of vessels at the port.”

Bawarchi and other maritime officials said that attracting transit traffic by land or trans-shipment traffic by sea depended on a number of factors, which were not associated with delays in hiring an operator.

Transit cargo, which used to be the main source of income for the port before the 1975-1990 civil war, dwindled over the past decade due to increased costs and lower transit traffic to Lebanon’s former No. 1 trade partner, Iraq.

Over a decade of sanctions imposed on Iraq brought transit traffic at the port to a near standstill, which was further exacerbated by increased transport costs in Lebanon and at border points with Syria, Lebanon’s gateway to the Iraqi market.

The US-led war against Iraq fueled fears that cargo would completely stop flowing to Lebanon due to its opposition to the war, but when major hostilities stopped in May of this year, the Port of Beirut once again began to receive transit traffic to Iraq. “It all depends on the situation in Iraq,” said Bawarchi. “If security improves, more and more transit cargo will come.”

However, attracting trans-shipment traffic is a different matter. “The port is hoping it will be able to market itself to attract trans-shipment traffic, but it is 24 hours away from other hubs,” said Joly.

Bawarchi said ships would have to make expensive deviations from their courses to stop at the Port of Beirut, which is particularly difficult since attracting trans-shipment cargo is all about cutting costs to shipping lines.

The country’s maritime position is often said to be strategic, but with a number of countries eager to become trans-shipment hubs, Lebanon will have to strive to offer exceptional services and low costs to attract trans-shipment cargo. “Even if the operation is very fast and efficient, there will still be the issue of cost,” said Joly.

Bawarchi said that the Port of Beirut is more geared toward becoming a secondary hub for traffic that is heading to the Black Sea and East Mediterranean.

Beirut 24-11-2003
Dania Saadi
The Daily Star

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