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French Version

New management team upbeat about future of Beirut Port (Daily Star)

Anglo-U.S. consortium has hopes for regional hub
$18 million investment plan set to revive stagnant facility and boost traffic

After years of failed promises, the Beirut Port finally expects to revive its potential as the primary entry point to the Middle East with an influx of cash, a new management team and fresh interest from international shipping firms.

Major changes should materialize by January, when an Anglo-U.S. consortium will take over container operations and embark on an $18 million investment plan.

"I wouldn't be surprised if traffic jumps 50 percent," said a source near the bidding process that awarded a 10-year management contract in July.

Port authorities are now in talks with Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) to transform Beirut into a hub for its Eastern Mediterranean operations, port sources say. The move could add up to 100,000 TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units) of transshipment cargo per year, and be followed by similar deals in light of new infrastructure that has made the port more attractive for regional markets.

"I think we can provide a better gateway to the Arab world," said Ammar Kanaan, chairman of the newly formed Beirut Container Terminal Consortium, led by Washington-based International Maritime Associates and British firm Mercy Docks.

Kanaan said Gulf-bound ships will be lured to Beirut to benefit from massive savings on fuel, and other costs associated with using the Suez Canal.

In March, the port received a $27 million shipment of Chinese gantry cranes, long after completing a $150 million container terminal that was inaugurated in 2000. The facility has been vacant for much of the last four years, with an ambiguous political feud involving previous operators playing a major role.

Critics say the statement has cost the government millions of dollars in interest fees alone. Brushing the past aside, however, Kanaan said he has other concerns.

"The issue is more about what we're going to do with the inbound traffic," he said. "Every major port in the world is connected to a railway system."

But expressing confidence in the "very good roadway system," Kanaan said there were plans to revive the wartorn railway network.

"I think that the Transport Ministry will probably reactivate it in a couple of years," he said, adding that a fourth gantry crane would be purchased by the end of next year.

He said he was encouraged by a spike in domestic demand, which has contributed to 30 percent average annual growth rates in recent years. Negotiations with MSC could also boost Beirut's role as a hub for other Mediterranean liners that frequent Italy, Malta and less technically advanced ports in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

"The fact that this service is now being offered has created a demand for it," said a source close to port authorities. But controversy still surrounds previous operators, who took control of the port after the civil war ended in 1990, collecting a majority of handling fees for more than 13 years. The informal agreement has now spawned indemnity payments that could net the operators tens of millions of dollars, according to a recently passed Cabinet decree.

"It's a small price to pay," the source said, "even though those guys are not legally entitled to any compensation."

Beirut 29-11-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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