The Beirut Port, the site of a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion on August 4, following the blast that killed at least 150 and injured thousands more across the Lebanese city. (Photo: Marylin Chahine)
The Beirut Port, the site of a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion on August 4, following the blast that killed at least 150 and injured thousands more across the Lebanese city. (Photo: Marylin Chahine)

Beirut Explosion: A crisis of Lebanese (and global) capitalism

A week after the horrific explosion that claimed the lives of at least 150 people and wounded thousands more, the Lebanese people still appear to have more questions than answers. The rampant corruption and negligence of the Lebanese government sparked fierce protests in the wake of the explosion, and the entire Lebanese cabinet has been forced to resign.

While the government is surely largely responsible for such an explosion and lack of oversight, the exact chain of events which led to this tragedy is not yet known. At a minimum, the explosion was the result of a massive stockpile (as much as 2,750 tonnes) of ammonium nitrate sitting in Beirut’s port.

Although the ammonium caused the explosion and shockwave, it is not entirely clear what detonated the ammonium itself. What is clear, however, is that this ammonium was sitting in Beirut’s port for over six years.

Al Jazeera offered an excellent breakdown of the strange route via which this ammonium found its way into Beirut’s harbor.

After suffering mechanical failures at sea, The Rhosus, a Russian-owned cargo vessel, docked in Beirut, interrupting its journey from Georgia to Mozambique. It carried 2,750 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate, with both military and agricultural uses.

As the ship was not sea-worthy, it remained stranded in Beirut, although the Lebanese state long prevented the crew from coming ashore.

After the crew ran out of provisions (after nearly a year trapped on the ship), it was abandoned, and Lebanon relented, allowing both the ship’s crew and deadly cargo to enter the country. The cargo was shuttled into Hanger 12 of the Beirut port, where (at least portions of) it remained until the explosion.

Origins of the Rhosus: The Shadowy World of International Shipping

How did this ship come to be in Lebanon? As it paused in the Beirut port, Lebanese officials impounded the ship for violating International Maritime Organization standards. Igor Grechushkin, the ship’s owner, decided that dealing with the impounded Rhosus would be expensive, and fully abandoned the ship.

“He told us that he went bankrupt and while I don’t believe him, the most important thing is that he gave up on both the people and the cargo,” wrote Boris Prokoshev, captain of the Rhosus, in 2014. Even the chemical company in Mozambique, the would-be recipients of the cargo, abandoned the dangerous ammonium nitrate outright.

The MV Rhosus set sail from Georgia in 2013. The vessel was Russian owned (Igor being Russian) with a largely Ukranian crew, registered to a company in Bulgaria and flying the Moldovan flag. At first glance, this appears to be a strange and almost random assemblage of nationalities. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Rhosus was what is known as a “flag of convenience” ship. This means it was flying the flag of a country (Moldova) other than that of its country of ownership (Russia).

Flying a flag of convenience means a ship can take advantage of minimal regulation, cheap registration fees, low taxes, and an ability to abuse the crew, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

In an ironic twist, the same federation lists Lebanon as a “flag of convenience” country, meaning it has almost no shipping or trading regulations as well.

Lebanon at the Mercy of the Market 

The ITF was more than justified in including Lebanon as a “flag of convenience country.” After untold decades of neoliberal reform, privatization efforts, and deregulation, Lebanon’s ability to restrain the interests of capital, even in the name of safety and the public good, is virtually nonexistent. The Century Foundation summarizes this dynamic quite well:

“In the 1990s, after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the country pursued a reconstruction effort that was ultimately unsuccessful but which privatized many public functions in a manner that enriched the political elite. A privately held company took control of rebuilding Beirut’s heavily damaged downtown district.

An unaccountable government agency was given responsibility for infrastructure reconstruction projects, answering only to the prime minister with no oversight from other ministries.

As these for-profit ventures advanced, there was a complete absence of viable state services and institutions, laying the foundation for Lebanon’s chronic overreliance on the private sector.”

As the private sector advances, so the state retreats. The state must be too weak to interfere in these private business practices, too weak to impede attempts to privatize Middle East Airlines, or Electricity du Liban.

It must be too weak to monitor Hariri’s infliction of neoliberal urbanism on downtown Beirut, or Hezbollah’s infliction of the same on Haret Hreik.

Most importantly, it must be too weak to tax the wealthy who benefit the most from these policies.

As is now savagely apparent, rendering down the state to such a pathetic entity also makes it too weak to properly defend its own borders, too weak to keep the lights on, and too weak to even deal with the fact that half an atomic bomb was sitting in its capital city for more than half a decade.

Neoliberal reform and privatization have certainly done their job here. The wealthy have carved out the heart of Lebanon, almost literally.

Foreign “Aid” and Deregulation

Lebanon has now undergone numerous rounds of foreign investment and “aid,” both through international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and also the larger “Paris Accords,” of which there have been three.

In each case, the “aid” was in the form of “loans contingent on social and economic policies inclined towards integration in the global economy, through trade and investment liberalization, borrowing, expansion of privatization deals, and overall economic deregulation.”

The President of the World Bank, during the Paris III Conference of 2007, explained the goal of the conference: “1. Structural reforms to stimulate growth; 2. Fiscal adjustments to raise revenue and promote the efficient use of public resources.”

Structural reforms and fiscal adjustments are, of course, euphemisms. Adding insult to injury, the President of the World Bank at the time was Paul Wolfowitz, George Bush’s Defense Secretary and architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Read also: What happens when the IMF comes to town?

Some of these “reforms” may have contributed to the negligence at the Beirut port. Lebanon is currently in the process of attempting to join the World Trade Organization, and, much like the International Monetary Fund, would require Lebanon to submit to various “reforms” before engaging with the organization.

Lebanon has actually already implemented some of these reforms. Shockingly, in an attempt to bend to the WTO’s will, in 2002, 2006, and 2007, Lebanon deregulated its requirements for imports, trade, and import/export licenses.

For maximum efficiency, the WTO mandated that Lebanon make the port as accessible, and as unguarded (from a legal standpoint) as possible. It’s difficult to think of a worse combination than an already deregulated international shipping industry overlapping with the lawless playground for capital that is Lebanon.

Lebanon is not alone in improperly storing ammonium nitrate, although very few can compare to the amount involved in the explosion. As recently as 2013, much of the town of West in Texas was destroyed by an ammonium nitrate explosion emanating from a fertilizer company.

Ammonium Nitrate: Killer for the Negligent

Kansas City Star - This April 18, 2013 aerial file photo, shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Kansas City Star – This April 18, 2013 aerial file photo, shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Although it was much smaller than the blast that shook Beirut, there is a dark similarity between these two stories.

The US government was slow to adopt any additional rules following the tragedy. And shockingly, the regulations that President Obama then did pass, were quickly undone by his successor President Donald Trump. After Trump’s election and deregulation, since 2019 alone, Houston, Texas has had 6 chemical explosions.

“We’ve gone backwards instead of forward in terms of addressing some of the underlying risks that exist with the storage of this kind of material,” explains Elena Craft, the senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. “I think the bottom line is these incidents are preventable and we’re not doing enough to prevent them.”

China had a horrifying ammonium nitrate explosion as well. 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Chinese port of Tianjan in August of 2015. The blast radius was massive, and 173 people died, with almost 800 wounded.

Much like in the Beirut port, there were two explosions: A smaller one triggered by a fire, and then a much larger one once the ammonium nitrate ignited.

Chinese regulations require ammonium nitrate be stored a minimum of 1 kilometer away from all populated areas. Obviously, these regulations were entirely ignored. Stunningly, the company housing the ammonium nitrate, Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics, did not even have the proper permit to handle dangerous materials.

Who is Responsible? All of Them

In each of these cases, much like in Beirut, the search for the responsible party is ongoing. The Lebanese have almost too many choices. On every level –international, national, and local– there was horrific, unforgivable failings and negligence.

The depth of this criminality is awe inspiring. Not only should all serving members of the current Lebanese government pay for this crime, but those of previous governments as well.

A system such as the one described above does not evolve naturally, or overnight. It requires careful construction over decades.

While there are certainly specific people responsible for allowing the explosion at the port, on a greater level, half a century of deregulation carried out by the Lebanese government, and imposed by foreign bodies (namely, the World Bank, IMF, and Paris Accord ‘Donors’) made such a catastrophe inevitable. Such a crime of negligence, at its heart, stems from crises endemic to the capitalist system.

The choice was clear: Protect profits over the people.

This choice was made repeatedly. It was made by the Lebanese ruling class, which needs maximum ability to extract wealth. It was made by the international community, who want to see Lebanon remain a free market nightmare. It was made by the owner of the Rhosus, who allowed his crew to remain stranded, and explosives to be unloaded into an unprepared port. And finally, and most egregiously, it was made by the Lebanese government and political parties, whose sheer incompetence and drive for profit rendered them utterly incapable of fulfilling their responsibility to their people.