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Q&A – Ghazi Aridi

The minister explains his positions on MEA and protectionism

by Zak Brophy

The Minister of Public Works and Transportation Ghazi Aridi is in charge of everything from the road networks to the aviation sector. What is more, he is one of three ministers representing the man who is tentatively holding the ruling coalition together: Walid Joumblatt. Executive met with the minister on August 13 for a sit down to talk beaches, busses, planes and politics. 

E  You recently submitted a draft law regulating the fees for private use of the public coastal lands, but the law was rejected. Why? 

No, everything is okay. Only today I met some people and we discussed the levels of the taxes and they have some comments, which I have taken on board and will present to the ministry. There are some legal and illegal projects on the coast and these fees will apply to all of them.

E  If they are illegal then why will you allow them to stay?

They are a fact.

E  But why will they remain?

They will pay but they don’t have any right [sic].

E  If they don’t have the right why won’t the law be enforced?

Unfortunately until now I have not been able to enforce the law due to resistance on the ground. In all the regions these projects have behind them parties or certain powerful people.

I tried to implement the law but this has been a question for more than 35 years. What can I do personally? I discussed it at the cabinet but I did not succeed in bringing about a final decision, but I cannot leave the situation as it is now, not receiving money from them. So I proposed this new project, which is not a change in the law but a change in the fees charged, or taxes if you like, and it will be implemented.

E  Can you give me details of the fees that will be applied? 

I can’t remember the levels.

E  Back in May you announced you had launched a tender for 250 public buses. Where are we with that project now?

Two days ago we finished with the tender and we have a meeting planned with the prime minister to decide on it in the coming days and we will invite the companies to participate in the tender. We have a master plan, which is finished, and when the tender is finished and we have chosen the companies we will be able to distribute [the busses] to all of the areas of Lebanon.

E  Do you have an idea of when we can expect to see them on the ground?

No, I cannot say anything now but I know there are so many companies that are interested. There will be many offers from China, Poland, Romania, Germany and elsewhere but I cannot say what will happen in the end.   

E  Lebanon is a signatory to the Open Skies agreement, which is intended to liberalize Lebanon’s aviation sector and increase competition. Is this a policy you support?

We don’t have any problems. Everything is organized. Middle East Airlines [MEA] is the priority for me and I am doing my best to protect them and I think they are doing very well.

E  MEA has been accused of resisting competition and you personally of supporting them in this pursuit, which stymies the sector and tourism within Lebanon. What is your response?

We are not resisting competition. I am protecting MEA and I am proud of this.

E  But by protecting them are you not decreasing competition?

This is not true, there are so many companies that are coming to Beirut and we don’t have any problem, but the priority is for MEA. If MEA requests slots here and there, they are always refused. ‘We don’t have places or slots’, they say. I discuss with the ministers abroad and explain we have our rights also. After discussing they accept, so in this way I protect them. 

E  The 2002 law for the aviation sector stipulates the creation of a Lebanese Civil Aviation Authority to regulate the sector.  This has not happened. Why?

We are preparing the nominations now.  

E  The law was passed more than 10 years ago…. 

I was not the minister all of this time. By the time you go to print we will have nominated the board and created this structure.  [The board had not been nominated by the time Executive went to print.]

E  Will it have independence from your ministry?

They will have their prerogatives that they can work within and they will be funded from the government’s general budget.

E  Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud has been calling for opening up the airport to more budget airlines and says there is resistance from MEA and your ministry. What is your response?

No, we resolved this 10 days ago with Fadi Abboud and Mohammad Hout, chairman of MEA, and the chairman of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA); we drew up a master plan that everybody is happy with.

E  Who has the authority to decide who gets which routes at which times?

The Civil Aviation Authority and MEA.

E  So MEA helps decide who flies which routes to and from Lebanon?

Yes and we do feasibility studies as well.

E  Imperial Jet is an executive jet carrier that is based in Lebanon and was bringing good business to the country, but has had its Air Operation Certificate (AOC) revoked and been refused to fly even on its German AOC. The Shura Council (Lebanon’s highest court) has overruled this decision. Why have you ignored the Shura Council on this issue? 

There is nothing to say on this issue. They have had so many problems with the DGCA so two or three years ago I took this decision and I insist I will stick to it.

E  On what basis? At least twice the Shura Council ruled that they have the right to fly from Lebanon.

I don’t think it did.

E  I have the documents. It did.

I have the right to reject their decisions as I know very well what happened with [the company’s case]. 

E  Were they not punished because thy refused to “make friends” and help important people make money from their business here?

Who? Me?

E  Not you necessarily, but…

[Interjects] This is not true. I know the file very well, and I have taken the decision and I am insisting on keeping on the same way. This is my decision. [Slams table].

E  The Council for Development and Reconstruction is currently implementing an urban transport development project for the greater development area. What purview does your ministry have over this?

This is under our authority and if there is something to discuss with them then we are ready to discuss it. There is a cooperation between us. This is under our responsibility including the issuing of contracts and tenders and so on.

E  During your time in office what tangible results can you point to?

I can’t answer all of them now but we have done so many projects concerning the roads and the rights of the drivers and the master plan. But I am not alone and our ministry is not the only one responsible for these projects. 

E  Will the electoral reform law pass?

I don’t think it will pass. This is a game, from the other parties that is, but not the President [Michel Sleiman]. The President said “I told the people we would finish the law and send it to the Parliament.” What will happen in the Parliament he cannot know so we respect this decision. As for the other people, they have this project and they know we won’t accept it and they are preparing a law to protect their interests. We cannot accept this, but they insisted. 

E  Is Walid Joumblatt considering a break from the governing coalition?

Concerning the election we are awaiting the law. We can’t say anything before the law.  But electorally speaking everything is possible.

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Zak Brophy

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.

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