Friday, April 17, 1998

LebEnv # 52


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

(Some of the information for this article was culled from The Daily Star Online at

For years, even before the war started, there has been talk of a new highway that would be built between Beirut and the Syrian border, to connect with Damascus. Its proposed route was never clear, although it was rumored to go through the vicinity of Souk el-Gharb and the back side of the mountain of Aley; it would bypass snowbound Dahr el-Baidar by means of a long tunnel. After the end of the war, and especially in the last two years, plans intensified. The Arab Boulevard or Highway would be built as a toll road, starting in Hadeth, would be 56 kilometers long, and would cost a whopping $1 billion. It would be a toll road for 35 years and trips would cost $6.25. Studies for this project cost $7 million.

News came out of Lebanon a few weeks ago that the Arab Highway had been canceled due to rising costs, especially the cost of acquiring land for the right-of-way.

While many people may look at this as bad news, it really is unbelievably good news. This highway would have been in addition to the existing Beirut- Damascus highway and much of it would have been built in areas away from the existing road. Thus it would have impacted new areas of the Aley and Ba'abda cazas. Assuming a width if 20 meters, over a million square meters of forest, meadow and orchard would have been put under pavement, not to mention areas on either side disrupted by construction. Countless houses, old and new, would have been destroyed, necessitating new construction elsewhere just to house the displaced people. Important summer resort areas now enjoying relative peace and quiet away from major roads would suddenly have been subjected to the noise and fumes of thousands of big trucks and cars. It would have encouraged an ugly construction boom in areas that are now relatively rural. The road would have sliced Lebanon in half. In short, it would have been an environmental disaster in a part of the country that is already congested with buildings and all kinds of major and minor roads.

Fares Saad, head of the Industrial Marketing company in Beirut, was quoted by The Daily Star as saying, "The Arab Highway should be a priority. Its cost- benefit should not be measured in direct toll revenue it can generate. A road such as this would encourage people to live outside Beirut and develop the rural areas."

That's exactly what we DON'T need more of. It is unlikely that Mr. Sa'ad was referring to the Lebanese going back to the rural areas of their ancestors to revive agriculture and other traditional industries. He was more likely thinking of real-estate development: more condos, subdivisions, multi-story "luxury- apartments-for-sale" buildings, and more shopping malls. More unregulated urban sprawl of the kind that has devastated the mountains of the lower Meten and the Keserwan.

There are better (and perhaps cheaper) alternatives to the canceled highway:

  • The existing road can be upgraded, and some parts that go through towns (such as Kahaleh and Aley) can be rerouted; this had already been done around Bhamdoun before the war. While there would be some environmental damage, it would pale compared to the damage that the new highway would have wrought on more distant areas. The tunnel under Dahr el-Baidar could still be built, and the old road above could become a narrow local road. Overall, fewer square meters of land would be paved.
  • Better yet would be to upgrade the railroad that conveniently begins at the port of Beirut and roughly parallels the existing highway. Shipping freight by train would reduce the need for major renovations to the highway. There would be far fewer of those smelly, overloaded, dangerous trucks crawling up the mountain at a snail's pace and clogging traffic. The railroad could also carry passengers between Beirut and the popular destinations of Aley, Shtoura and Damascus (with another train running north to Ba'alback), thus eliminating the horrendous weekend traffic jams at Sofar. What can be more pleasant than having a train ride as part of your weekend outing? Before the war, the train used to run and I had the fortune of riding it to Aley; it remains one of my most memorable childhood experiences.

Hopefully, this "setback" will become an opportunity to stand back for a while, think again, and do things right. In the meantime, the cancellation will allow the government to concentrate on more urgently needed highways around Beirut.

Fareed Abou-Haidar

Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at



Created 980419/bl