Airport expansion in Lebanon sparks transparency concerns

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Civil society organizations and lawmakers in crisis-hit Lebanon have raised concerns over the awarding of a multi-million dollar contract to build and operate a second terminal at Beirut’s international airport.

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Cash-strapped Lebanon announced last week that private company Lebanese Air Transport and Irish firm daa International would partner for the revamp.

Public Works and Transportation Minister Ali Hamieh said the private sector would fund the $122 million project, which would “create around 2,500 jobs.”

The firms would operate the terminal for a 25-year period, he added.

But civil society groups and some lawmakers have decried opacity in the tender process and a lack of involvement of the Public Procurement Authority.

“Marginalizing or disregarding” the role of the authority undermines the effectiveness of Lebanon’s 2021 public procurement law, 10 civil society groups said in a statement Tuesday.

Last week the groups, including Transparency International Lebanon, warned in a statement of “serious abuses” in the procurement law's application which “open the door to corruption and nepotism.”

Jean Ellieh, head of the authority, confirmed to AFP on Wednesday that “the contract did not pass through” the regulatory body as it should have according to the 2021 law.

Some have also questioned how a caretaker government with limited powers could announce such a major infrastructure project, in a country where entrenched political barons are accused of systemic corruption.

Lawmaker Mark Daou argued on Twitter that awarding the contract went beyond the caretaker government’s prerogatives. Other MPs have also raised concerns.

The Court of Audit is expected to rule on the contract’s legality following the outcry.

In late 2019, Lebanon plunged into an economic crisis that the World Bank has dubbed one of the planet's worst in modern times.

Amid persistent political deadlock, the country has been without a president for almost five months, while the government has operated in a caretaker capacity since May last year.

The economic meltdown has pushed most of the population into poverty while the political elite, widely blamed for the country’s financial collapse, has failed to take action.

A visiting International Monetary Fund delegation said last week that Lebanon was “at a very dangerous moment,” criticizing slow progress on reforms needed to unlock billions in emergency loans.

In a statement, the IMF noted that Lebanon’s 2021 procurement law “should be implemented promptly.”

The new airport terminal, set to cater to low-cost carriers and charter flights, is expected to be able to receive around 3.5 million passengers a year, according to public works minister Hamieh.

Work is expected to start next year, with the terminal set to become operational by March 2027, according to daa International.

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