Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut

By Stewart, Dona J. | The Geographical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview
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Economic Recovery and Reconstruction in Postwar Beirut

Stewart, Dona J., The Geographical Review

For many westerners the dominant image of Beirut, its buildings reduced to bombed-out shells riddled with bullet holes, freezes the city in time. Although the memory of Lebanon's civil-war landscape looms large in the collective consciousness, the nation has moved forward and seeks a revived economic role in the Middle East. And Beirut is being rebuilt. The society and government confront the dual tasks of reconstructing the physical infrastructure of the city while attempting to create interreligious societal harmony to ensure peace.

In light of the major demographic and political shifts that initiated and sustained intersocietal hostilities, it is imperative to place reconstruction plans for Beirut within Lebanon's social and political context. Although armed conflict has ended, many of the issues that aggravated relationships among the country's various confessional groups remain unresolved.(1) The physical and economic reconstruction of Beirut thus holds enormous implications for the future of Lebanon. The greatest challenge is to use the reconstruction process to weld the divergent sectors of the multireligious society and to create, along with economic prosperity, a stronger sense of national unity. Yet reconstruction also has the potential to aggravate old tensions between groups and to renew internal strife.

Although the case of Beirut has unique aspects, the problem of joining divergent sectors of society while repairing the built environment is not limited to Lebanon. The apportionment of representative space for ethnic or religious groups will surely be raised during the reconstruction of Sarajevo and throughout the republics of the former Yugoslavia as well. Issues of economic and cultural integration face East European cities as they try to attract investment and create a regional economic presence. A unified Berlin, specifically, faces the challenge of integrating "Ossies" and "Wessies" economically and culturally. Admittedly, though, the stakes may be higher in Lebanon, where reconstruction is assumed to be the foundation for future stability and where the propensity for violence is certainly great.


Though not as monumental an Arab city as Cairo or Damascus, Beirut has held an important and occasionally central role in the Levant for 2,000 years. Much of its historical prominence derived from a favorable maritime location that allowed creation of a trade-based economy. Its important role as a broker for trade between Europe and the Middle East expanded in the fifteenth century with the return of Europeans (they had twice seized the city during the Crusades but were lastingly repelled in 1291) (Boulanger 1965).

Beirut's central role in the economy of Greater Lebanon was solidified during the last stage of Ottoman rule (1840-1920).(2) In a period marked by rapid growth, the city's population increased from 6,000 in 1820 to 120,000 by the close of the nineteenth century (Reed and Ajami 1988, 16). Newly created infrastructure, including a major addition to the port of Beirut, facilitated economic growth and drew additional immigrants. The city expanded beyond its old walls as immigrants and refugees arrived, fleeing a civil war between the country's Maronite Christians and Druze sectarians. Members of each religion tended to live among their own, creating Beiruti suburbs that were distinctly homogeneous (Reed and Ajami 1988).

Following the defeat of Ottoman troops in 1918 by British and Arab troops, control of Lebanon and Syria was given to France under the newly established League of Nations mandate system. During French control, which lasted from 1920 to 1943, economic and cultural links were forged between Lebanon and Europe that would persist long after French rule ended. Economic and educational opportunities further facilitated the growth of Beirut, the center of French administration, and its population.

In the twentieth century Beirut absorbed waves of immigrants, ranging from Armenians to Kurds, who increased both the size and the diversity of its population (Khalaf and Khoury 1993).

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