The Rachid Karami International Fair stands tall in the heart of Tripoli, Lebanon, and should be an iconic symbol for this aspiring city. Yet very few people seem to know much about this architectural masterpiece, designed by the world famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The fair was part of an ambitious plan to modernize Lebanon at large, to focus on the areas outside of Beirut in the 1960s. The master planners nearly achieved their ambition but were foiled by the Lebanese Civil War. Fifty years later, the fair stands as a poignant reminder of what could have been and how stagnant the modernization process of Lebanon remains, with its dilapidated concrete structures holding firm but desperately in need of investment.
Brazilian curves in Tripoli
Oscar Niemeyer, who turned 102 last year, is renowned for his work in his home country Brazil and its capital city, Brasilia. Niemeyer was appointed the master architect for Brasilia — a city built from scratch in the 1950s. The architecture he created was exquisite and won accolades around the world. Dubbed the “King of Curves” for his famous domes, curves and arches, Niemeyer said his distinct style was inspired by “the body of the Brazilian woman.”
President Fouad Chehab commissioned a report from the Institut de Recherche et de Formation en Vue du Developpement (IRFED) in 1961 to appraise Lebanon’s human, economic and social needs. The report highlighted the need to create an economic center away from Beirut, which was sucking up most of Lebanon’s available capital and creating large income disparities with the rest of the country.
Following the IRFED report, the idea arose for the Rachid Karami International Fair, to turn Tripoli into a more desirable place to live.
“The upgrading project will provide Tripoli with a trendy area filled with housing, commerce, sports, recreation and tourism,” states the profile of the project on Neimeyer’s website. “The International Fair of Lebanon is to be the central attraction in Tripoli: a center of culture, art and recreation; of major importance in its theaters, museums, local sports and entertainment.”
The project was commissioned in 1963 and work gradually commenced, but just shy of its completion in 1975, work halted with the onset of the civil war. A dilapidated structure is largely what remains today but one that still maintains a high potential for renovation.
The buildings of the International Fair are listed on the World Monument Fund Watch List. Although sections of the fair were reopened in 1995 and exhibitions are held in parts of the grounds, the vast majority of the structures have been neglected.
Since 1994 there have been various proposals to redevelop this massive site, many of which have fallen through, overcome by the fair’s expansive 1 million square meter grounds.
“There are a total of 20,000 square meters for exhibitions, of which only half are currently used,” said Antonie Abou Rida, director general of the Rachid Karami International Fair. “Further to this, there is another potential area of 40,000 square meters that could be used as exhibition space if redeveloped.”
One investor interested in the International Fair is the Chinese government-owned firm Chinamex, which offers Chinese companies a platform to sell goods to retailers and suppliers.
Lebanese industrialist Jacque Sarraf, chairman of the multifaceted Malia Group, is leading the ambitious joint project with Chinamex to redevelop the International Fair. They have already set up successful hubs around the world in Atlanta, Dubai, Amsterdam and Manchester.
“This is part of a global plan for Chinamex, they need somewhere in the Levant — everywhere else is covered,” said Abou Rida.
Both the Lebanese and the Chinese stress they are keen to protect the architectural heritage of the site. “The design has to be approved by the government and nothing will be changed,” Sarraf said. “No new construction will be added.”
The scale of the project is such that two phases have been laid out. “The first phase plans to bring 1,200 Chinese companies [in] and then the second phase will bring that number up to 3,000,” Sarraf told Executive. The total cost of both phases will be some $29 million. If this project goes through, Tripoli could see dramatic changes as, according to Abou Rida, the project would bring some 3,600 Chinese to Tripoli with their companies, and would provide some 3,000 jobs for locals.
However, trying to convince the Chinese government that the security conditions are good enough in Lebanon is not easy. The government has already given Chinamex an exemption on work visas and import tax. The project, planned to start in 2005, was first delayed by the 2006 war and then indefinitely after the Nahr el-Bared crisis in 2007.
“This situation was made even worse with the financial crisis. The international market is now not the same as it was in 2005,” Sarraf said. It is evident, however, that the Chinese government remains interested.
“Just last week the ambassador of China came to Tripoli to look at the site and see if the project was possible,” said Abou Rida. But Sarraf is cautious as to the prospects, “We just don’t know if it will go ahead or not.”
The IRFED legacy
The Lebanese government is keen not to give up on the project and appears to realize the continued importance of the IRFED report. Tripoli is desperately in need of major investment. There will be many skeptics regarding whether a Chinese company bringing in a significant number of its own labor is the right way to go about this investment. But the government and the Minister for Economy and Trade Mohammed Safadi, in particular, seem convinced and are actively trying to reactivate the project with the Chinese.
“The new government of (Prime Minister Saad) Hariri and (President Michel) Sleiman have a new strategy for foreign investment that should also make it easier for the Chinese to invest, and Safadi will also go to the Shanghai Fair in May,” Sarraf stated.
President Chehab left a lasting legacy that is yet to be completed, with his plans for Lebanon still relevant today. The need to develop an economic center outside Beirut is still as vital in 2010 as it was in 1961, as modernization of the country’s institutions remains as stagnant as ever.