The economic analysis of a country cannot be strictly limited to the study of its material and tangible factors. That is, factors that can be quantified and are related to the natural resources, geographical situation, political structures, industries and infrastructures.
In some cases, the most relevant factors that help us to understand the economic prosperity or decadence of a certain country or city have to do with more ethereal elements, especially the social, anthropological and religious ones. That is, human factors. This is the case with Lebanon, subjected to immense internal and external pressure because of the complex relations between the several religious communities that shape its society.
In this article we will portray the case of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, which perfectly illustrates the link and interdependence between the economy and ethnic conflict. We will also see how the influence of the sectarian confrontations grows exponentially in Tripoli’s economy because of the threatening shadow of its Syrian neighbour. Especially because of the recent demographic shift suffered by the city of Homs, with which Tripoli has maintained a historical relation of trade and exchange.
Hopes of progress
Tripoli impatiently awaits the end of the war and the beginning of the reconstruction in Syria. The city believes that the revitalization of the neighbouring country will bring great profits. The Port of Tripoli is in a process of expansion. This will enable the port from managing 4 to 6 million tons of merchandise in two years.
Traditionally, Tripoli has been the entry point for goods for the Syrian city of Homs, one of the most affected cities in the seven years of conflict. With this background, the local authorities believe that it should be one of the main ports for the building materials that will arrive to Syria in the coming years.
Some sources point out that the margin of growth could be even bigger. It is estimated that the reconstruction will generate an annual demand of 30 million tons of merchandise. The Lebanese port of Tripoli and the Syria’s port city of Latakia, which supply the north of the country, can only assume half of this amount.
Because of this, the people of Tripoli have high hopes that the end of the war will bring them prosperity. Even the small workshops of Lebanon foresee a great business opportunity because everything in Syria has been destroyed. Across a lot of the neighbouring country, no buildings, or factories, or workshops remain. The UN calculates that the reconstruction of Syria will exceed 250,000 million dollars. This is an important amount of money and, therefore, there are many possibilities that the work orders will reach many companies.
Many believe that the benefits for the reconstruction will turn the city into a big regional economic and commercial hub, even though people have now been thrust into poverty. As a matter of fact, this has been its role throughout history. Since the construction of the port by the Phoenicians, in 9th century BC, through the Middle Ages and until the Ottoman Empire, Tripoli has been one of the main ports that connected the oriental shore of the Mediterranean with Europe and northern Africa. The mediaeval citadel, its old mosques and its elegant baths of the time of the Mamelukes are witnesses to it. The port became the source of important industrial flourishment over time.
A city in decadence
But the 20th century has pushed the city into a spiral of poverty. In the last decades, Tripoli has been a city left out by the authorities of Beirut because of the eminently Sunnite Muslim character of its population. Maronite Christian and Shiite Muslim groups and parties have traditionally lead the country.
The civil war that punished the country between 1975 and 1990 marked a point of inflection towards the decadence. The city was a stronghold for several groups that opposed to the winners of that war, and the posterior efforts of reconstruction deviated mainly towards Beirut. As a consequence of this, and despitebeing the second largest port in Lebanon, 90 percent of the maritime transport of the country is absorbed by Beirut’s port. Moreover, 51 percent of the population of Tripoli live below the poverty line and the unemployment is approaching 35 per cent.
Paradoxically, some of the richest families in the country are from Tripoli and have poured a lot of money into the city. But they have not invested in its economic fabric. The money has been used in buying loyalty from local gangs and leaders, or in funding basic services for the poorest population. On the other hand, the informal economy in Lebanon exceeds 30 percent. According to some sources, this figure climbs up to 70 percent in Tripoli.
The human element
Tripoli is near Syria and has traditionally supplied every kind of product to the northwestern cities of Syria. Especially to the city of Homs. As a matter of fact, Tripoli is more narrowly tied by history, geography and society to Homs and the neighbouring Hama than to the capital of Lebanon itself.
In this sense, Tripoli has everything that it takes to be a reference hub and to benefit from the reconstruction of Syria. However, it will most probably be out of the distribution of the Syrian cake because it meets with the human element. The Lebanese port is one of the main urban areas of the Muslim Arab Sunnite population of Lebanon. It is also one of the cities that has given more support to the Syrian rebels.
Because of that, if we want to analyze the possibilities of success of the business fabric of Tripoli in the postwar Syria, we have to learn about the situation and the future expectations of its sister on the other side of the border, the city of Homs.
The battle of Homs
From the beginning of the revolts against Bashar al-Assad regime in 2011, Homs was one of the neuralgic centers of the rebels. The offensive launched by the Syrian army to regain the third largest city in the country was one of the most gruesome chapters of the war. The battle for Homs is set in an intercommunity fight derived from a series of economic and demographic changes that had altered the face of the city in the last few years.
Homs had always been a city with a clear Muslim Sunnite majority, but for the last decades it has received an important flow of rural population formed by Alawite farmers, who make up the majority in Homs’s rural zones of influence. President Bashar al-Assad and a large proportion of the Syrian regime’s leadership belongs to the Alawite community.
The arrival of poor Alawites from the rural zones raised the percentage of this religious group to a third of the total population of Homs in just a few years before the war. This increased the social tension, since the Sunnite sensed the Alawite landing in their neighbourhoods as a Trojan horse at the service of the regime.
Even though the emigration has been a need for many families, the suspicions of the Sunnite of Homs are evidence-based. It is necessary to keep in mind that, at certain times, the movements of population have been planned by the regime leadership to provoke demographic turns in big cities in favour of a particular religious community. In the case of Homs, the general Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the current president, in the eighties fostered and directed a plan to favour the penetration of Alawite population in the urban area.
The current war has culminated this old plan. The combats that started in the year 2011 have concentrated in the Sunnite neighbourhoods. And the population that has abandoned the city basically belongs to this community.
Homs had already been a stage of sectarian violence between Sunnite and Alawite in other points in history. In 1964, the year after the Baath party took control of the country, in which there was a very significant Alawite presence, combats between the two communities took place.
Alawites have counted on the support of some rich Sunnite families in Homs. This fact increases the feeling of injustice among the popular classes, who have seen how their living conditions deteriorate for the benefit of some Sunnite brothers who have sold themselves to the enemy.
For example, the president Bashar’s wife belongs to a Sunnite family from Homs, but the first lady has never been welcomed in the city. To the extent that, in 2010, before the beginning of the revolt, it was rumoured that for safety reasons, Asma al-Assad couldn’t visit her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death.
The contracts are for the allies
Over the past few weeks, the Syrian army has managed to control a good part of the region of Eastern Ghouta, the last big bastion of the rebels in the outskirts of Damascus. With this victory, the government is culminating the recapture of the more populated areas and has just convinced governments and analysts abroad that the victory will fall sooner or later on its side.
Once world diplomacy has assumed this evidence, the international community has started to discuss the questions related to the reconstruction of the country. This regarding the investment required as well as the companies that will be benefit from it.
Yet it is not clear where all the necessary funds will come from; The government of Syria has already stated that it will not hire companies belonging to countries that have given support to the revolt that brought the country to civil war. At a global level, this decision affects the companies from countries that have openly funded the revolt and have declared their opposition to the president Bashar al-Assad. This essentially applies to the United States, the European countries and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
While at a regional and national level, the rainfall of millions that eventually will allow the reconstruction of Syria will turn its back on the businessmen, families and cities that have stood up against the Damascus regime since 2011. This will harm the Sunnite families that have lost the control of the city of Homs at the hands of the Alawites. And, incidentally, will hurt the Sunnite region in Lebanon and its capital, Tripoli.
Jordi Llaonart is an Arabist and an expert journalist on Islam and the Middle East. He has studied at the Universities of Tunis and Damascus. He has covered electoral processes in Iran, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and has interviewed the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents influenced by Saddam Hussein.