Last month, the UAE Program to Support and Rebuild Lebanon handed over the keys of 168 repaired schools to the Lebanese government. Executive talked to the program’s director, Mohammed al-Rumaithy, about the logistical aspects and political overtones of reconstruction in Lebanon.
E When exactly did the program begin and what are the main projects you have been working on in Lebanon?
It started right at the beginning of the war, but at that time it was only focusing on humanitarian aspects like food and medicine. This continued until the end of the war, when the UAE decided to participate in rebuilding—and in particular, rebuilding schools—because they believed that this was a very important project. The other major aspect of our work is de-mining and bomb removal. The UAE finished its first de-mining project here two years ago, so it was natural for us to resume this kind of work—although this time the problem of bombs is greater than mines, which is a new situation for Lebanon.
E What stage are you at in terms of achieving your objectives?
On October 18 we handed over the keys for 168 schools to the Lebanese government. Another 37 will be ready by November 18 and a further 11 by December 11. These were all schools which weren’t actually hit by rockets, but which were used for other purposes during the war and needed repairs and other work. There are two schools which were destroyed by missiles, and we estimate that we will have rebuilt these completely by December 2007. We’re satisfied with the result, the government is satisfied and so are the people in the south.
E How closely are you working with the Lebanese government on these projects, and how did you organize to rebuild the schools in the first instance?
We first went specifically to the Ministry of Education, met the minister and were given all the information on the situation. But from then on it was all on us to decide how we would work and deal with contractors, and so on. The government had nothing to do with the project field-wise, although they were helping us with statistics and logistics whenever we needed them. They asked us to go away, do the project and then give them the keys to the schools.
E How is the project funded?
It is all funded by the UAE government, except for humanitarian aid which is funded by donations from the people of the UAE.
E Is there a budget?
No, there is no specific budget, but the government is always prepared to support us if we require extra funds. At the start it was extremely difficult to budget because we didn’t know how many schools had been hit, and in the chaos immediately after the war there were no reliable statistics for us to budget from. The same was true for the de-mining and bomb removal: it was difficult to know how many cluster bombs or mines needed to be dealt with.
E How much has been spent on the program so far, whether from the UAE government or from fund-raising?
It’s a significant amount.
E What are the major logistical problems you’ve encountered when working in South Lebanon?
There have been no significant problems, although of course access was difficult at the start because of the destroyed bridges. We were also very squeezed for time as we knew that the government had told parents that the kids would be going back to school on October 16, so we only had 30 days. When we heard what the Lebanese government had promised, we had to run around even more and cover as much ground as possible every day. I think what we did so far has been appreciated by the minister and the government.
E Do you use private Lebanese contractors to rebuild the schools or do you ship in any staff from the UAE?
Only the engineers are from the UAE, the rest are Lebanese. We went directly to local contractors in the South, which is easier for logistical purposes and they know the area well already.
E Did you initially want to do more reconstruction projects in Lebanon, but were limited only to the schools?
The government of the UAE is ready to help in any way, but, of course, we don’t want to take over other people’s work. When we first came, many countries and NGOs were on the ground, and to do the job properly you have to focus on one thing. You cannot come and say “I want to do everything.” So when we made it clear that the UAE would rebuild the schools, everyone knew that. I think what we’ve done so far, and are still doing, has touched the Lebanese people. If it’s rebuilding schools, then it affects kids; if it’s removing mines and bombs, then it affects farmers. In the south, these bombs are preventing everyone from moving around—farmers, children, everyone. Even moving from house to house becomes impossible. So our projects really touch the daily life of the people. There may be more on the way, as now we get requests from the ministry about other work to do. We are tackling each request at a time, and we may increase the number of projects, but it will not be by much.
E How does de-mining actually work on the ground in the South? With so many NGOs and other organizations down there, are you given a specific section to clear up?
The main two players are the UN and the Lebanese Army. They are coordinating all the de-mining and bomb removal efforts and trying to solve this problem as quickly as possible. You tell them what your capacity and budget is and they will nominate a specific piece of land for you. The same goes for other countries that come to help. There are a lot of countries participating.
E How much work is there left to do in terms of de-mining and bomb removal?
Lots. We will not be finished until September 2007. I think there are more than 2,000 mines in Area Six, which is north of the Litani. And regarding the bombs, we’re talking about millions. But it’s a good opportunity to train our officers and [non-commissioned officers], as these conditions produce the best results from training.
E Since the end of the war, the issue of reconstruction has naturally taken on some political overtones. Many people think the various groups are trying to win the support of local people through rebuilding projects. Do you feel as if you are involved in this political aspect of things?
Not at all. We’re not politicians and my country has never in its history mixed politics with help. We have been working in many countries—in South America, in Africa, everywhere—and when we come to help our brothers in Lebanon it’s for help and nothing else. The program works along specific principles and applies to the whole of Lebanon. It does not leave anybody to one side because of their religion, ethnicity or beliefs. Because the people here know that, they welcome us and try to help us. The UAE has nothing to do with politics and this project is solely for the Lebanese people.
E What has been the feedback from people in the south towards the program? Has there been any antagonism?
It’s been positive. We get support and positive comments, and we know that we are giving from the heart and they are receiving from the heart. We’ve given to everybody and without having to particularly plan it, especially in the first few weeks when we went everywhere to help. We never encountered any negative reactions or rejections.
E How do you ensure that this reconstruction aid money is going to the right place in the South, and not being channeled off along the way?
Well, if I understood you correctly, I’m not a security agency to check up on the contractors I employ. I send in my engineers, they do the estimate of how much something will cost, and I go around the contractors and nominate the one who offers the best price. I don’t check up on contractors and if I did we would never ever finish this project.
E Apart from the schools and the mines, what other projects do you still have to complete?
The program is building a brand-new hospital close to Shebaa, which a consultant is working on now in cooperation with the Lebanese Ministry of Health. A tender will be open soon. We’re also repairing two existing hospitals in Marjeyoun and Bint Jbeil. The latter needs a lot of equipment but luckily it wasn’t touched during the war, so we will simply furnish it. The hospital in Marjeyoun is working but needs a few improvements.
E And what about Beirut?
As I said, the program applies to the whole of Lebanon, and in Beirut in particular we’ve been helping at Ouzai harbor, which was damaged by bombs during the war. About a month ago [in September] we distributed checks to 91 fishermen and 315 boat owners in the harbor, to help them get back on their feet. A few buildings in the harbor were destroyed too, and we’re coordinating with the local people to rebuild them. There are only four or five buildings, but they’re important for the people who work in the area. This should take no longer than two months to finish.
E Will the program keep a permanent presence here?
I think we’ll be finished by December 2007. The people working on the program won’t remain in Lebanon that long, so once we make sure that the remaining schools are contracted it will be a matter of follow-ups and payments that can be done through the embassy.