The Beirut sea-port explosion

Ghassan Kadi’s initial thoughts about the Beirut Port explosions

The Fall and the Fall of Hariri(August 5) – I have mourned Beirut time and time again, but with all the cities I have lived in, Beirut will always be my favourite. After all, how can I ever forget its hustle and bustle before the infamous fifteen year long civil war that started on Sunday the 13th of April 1975? I was a student back then, with very limited financial resources, but back then, you didn’t have to be rich to enjoy the rich lifestyle of Beirut.

One didn’t have to go to the fancy and exclusive Casino Du Liban to see a show. With many movie theatres showing the best and latest of Hollywood, Bollywood and the Arab World; not to mention French and Italian movies among others, the cost of watching the big screen started from a Lebanese Lira, fifty US cents to be exact, with three daily sessions playing seven days a week. One didn’t have to be able to afford five-star hotels and restaurants when one could walk out and get a falafel roll at 2 am. This is not to mention the ease of transport from the coast and its beaches to the snow-capped hills, within a day, using public and cheap shared private transport, affordable by all.

1960s postcards of Beirut

Artist: Walid Zbib, 1990


But incrementally, as Lebanon lost its ‘Switzerland of the East’ stature, it began to shed the features of its former glory one at a time. It was no longer the centre of commerce or entertainment, but the Lebanese people always felt that there were some foundational icons that the country would not lose.

Then as the civil war started, Beirut began to shed some of its glory bit by bit. Its sea port, The Port of Beirut, was one of the first victims. The Arab World that relied on the transit trade because it didn’t have its own infrastructure and ports, imported all its goods via that port, the Port of Beirut.

One of the them was the Lebanese Lira and the Lebanese Banking system. Those financial entities were so robust that they managed to remain solid and functional after literally decades of strife; despite a major devaluation of the Lira in the 1980’s.

As the repercussions of the civil war and what followed it continued to chip away at the backbone of Lebanon, not only financially but also as an entity, the events of last year have incrementally accelerated the collapse of not only the Lira, but also the entire Lebanese banking system.

As the pieces of the domino continued to tumble and fall, one corner stone was put at high risk, and still faces the spectre of collapse, and this is the American University of Beirut (AUB), my alma mater. Formerly known as the Syrian Protestant College, the university was founded in 1866 and has been an elite centre of higher education for the whole region for one and a half centuries.

When I heard the news about the demise of the AUB I was shattered. What more could Lebanon lose I wondered. The last thing that came to my mind was the Port of Beirut. After all, how can a city lose a port? With a major mega explosion, it can.

A general view shows the damage following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 6, 2020

A general view shows the damage following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 6, 2020 | © REUTERS / BADER HELAL

Much speculation abounds as to who is behind the explosion. I am not a military and explosive expert, but the evidence I have seen points at one thing and one thing only; utter negligence.

The port did not have one explosion, but two. Literally thousands of people heard the first explosion, started to take videos of it with their smart phones, unbeknown to them that another huge one was to follow. The massive second explosion was caught on countless videos from many different angles, clearly showing it was the one that caused most of the devastation; not the first one.

This begs the question. If this was all premeditated, why would the ‘perpetrator’ deliberately create a chain reaction instead of hitting the main target directly? And, if the ‘perpetrator’ planned it this way, what was its guarantee that the first explosion would eventually lead to triggering the major one? Why execute this in such a convoluted manner and then conceal the identity of the actor? Israel would surely have boasted such a feat in harming Hezbollah’s influence and standing in Lebanon, despite what some local political enemies of Hezbollah might claim.

Some are reporting having heard Israeli jets in Lebanese airspace just prior to the attack, but such an occurrence is quite common in Lebanon. Some videos even allege finding shrapnel of Israeli missiles at the scene, but there is no evidence to corroborate those videos with the explosion.

If Israel was the culprit, why did their jets not attack that main target? Israel, unabashedly, has inflicted much devastation upon Lebanon. In the most self-righteous and open manner, it has made countless threats to Lebanon over the decades for allowing the PLO to operate from its territory, all the way to allowing Hezbollah to exist and be armed. I would be the last to defend it, but I cannot see how Israel could be behind this calamity.

Even President Trump called it an ‘attack’.

With all the divisions in Lebanon, past and present, it doesn’t take much for the blame game to get a jump-start. There are already many voices blaming Hezbollah directly or indirectly.

There are reports about a ship named ‘mv RHOSUS’ which was loaded with ammonium nitrate bound from Georgia and its cargo held in Beirut Port in 2014. Allegedly, it is the 2750 tons of the highly explosive fertilizer from that ship that exploded in Beirut. If there is indeed a culprit, did he use this volatile cargo to execute his act now or was the cargo sent to Lebanon as a time bomb six years ago? Both possibilities do not make much strategic sense for any calculating enemy of Lebanon.

Other numerous theories abound as to what material actually exploded? The reports that name the fuel as ammonium nitrate seems plausible. After all, there are records of such a stash in the port as mentioned above, the material is explosive, and this would not be a world’s first. Such disasters occurred earlier in history in many parts of the globe.

The losses of Beirut seem to have come full circle. Its sea port was one of the first to lose its stature when the gradual demise of Lebanon commenced, and now it is here no more.

In my analysis, and as my friend Abu Omar puts it, this tragic calamity is the result of ‘cumulative neglect and carelessness’.

The loss of Beirut Sea Port will have devastating consequences on the people of Lebanon. Even in a country that is fully functional, the rebuilding will require a significant amount of time and enormous funds. But for a country that is ankle-tapped and brought down to its knees by corruption and economic collapse, such rebuilding will not happen; not in the near future.

To make the situation even more dire, Lebanon is an import-reliant country. It even relies on imported foods. With its port-based wheat silos now totally destroyed, many would be imports destroyed at the docks, and already soaring food prices, famine is not an unrealistic outcome.

The cities of Tripoli and Sidon have sea ports, but they are not capable of dealing with the volumes and cannot replace the capacity of Beirut’s port.

In the face of this all, I look at Lebanon and ponder what is left to lose that already has not been lost.

Perhaps the only assets Lebanon has not lost are its coastline, its mountains and its people. They continue to be taken for granted, but who knows what is down the track?

Graphics courtesy of the Kadis. Ghassan and Intibah Kadi are analyst of Middle East affairs for our blog. Ghassan, a native of Beirut, is the author of An Epic of Integrity: The Chronicles of the War on Syria (June 2016). Visit Intibah and Ghassan Kadi’s website. His article has been slightly edited.

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