Ammonium nitrate explosion, which took place at the port of the city of Beirut on 4 August 2020, caused significant damage to the surrounding areas and resulted in over 200 deaths. The tragic accident once again brought into the focus problems Lebanon is experiencing. Strange as it may seem, but the Russian higher school may have solutions to help deal with the explosion's consequences.
So what is happening in the country now? The opposition is leading multifold protests demanding a change of power, unemployment rates have reached 25 to 30%, and domestic public debt has surpassed $1 bln. Lebanese nationals suffering from despair are even willing to return back to the French mandate…
Political controversy will be, however, resolved at some point, whether with the help from outside or not. Then the country that was once called the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' will need specialists to restore the economy, starting with the high-potential industry sectors. Lebanon will have to invest in reopening businesses, reinventing enterprises, rebuilding the port and apartment buildings.
According to Mohammed Abud, Professor at the Lebanese International University, "Everything within the area of 10 km away from the explosion site was either destroyed or somewhat damaged. Three hospitals, a medical supplies depot, several museums and a grain silo collapsed. Embassy and consulate residences of many countries were affected. About 300,000 people became homeless as a result of the disaster. Following the explosion, a giant blast crater formed in the port. Yet 60% of our imports were distributed through this transport hub. Suppose we want to reconstruct it all back. In that case, we will need to engage an enormous amount of engineers - architects, constructors, mechanics - whose work should go hand in hand with surveying activities. Surveyors are needed to ensure the precision and safety of future buildings. They are responsible for mapping and compiling geodetic data at the initial stage of construction, as well as for laying out and controlling the building installation and vertical coordination in spatial planning. Finally, they check newly built constructions for signs of deformation. And here is a problem - a serious shortage of highly-qualified surveyors in Lebanon."
Prof Abud is one of the only four geodetic engineers in Lebanon who have academic credentials in the corresponding field in addition to experience in fundamental and applied research. Three of them, by the way, completed higher education at universities of Russia or the Soviet Union.
Mohammed Abud was born in the family of the Chief Accountant of the Ministry of Agriculture. They lived not far from Beirut, and after graduating from school, Mohammed entered the Faculty of Advanced Mathematics at one of the local universities. But having studied for a couple of years, he realised he would have neither financial success nor career opportunities if proceeding with studies in this field. Perhaps, there was a way to have both if only Mohammed was not from Lebanon but from some European country or America. As that was not the case, he decided to choose some other discipline - the one linked to hard sciences but at the same time highly-demanded. Geodesy was thus his choice.
"In the early 90s, in Beirut, like in many other cities affected by the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, wide-area reconstruction works started. And although there were plenty of builders in the country, geodesists were almost non-existent. Can you imagine that no higher education institution in the country provided training in surveying? And so I decided to explore international study opportunities. By that time, my brother had already returned home from the Soviet Union upon completing his degree studies. He was actually quite fond of the quality of education and suggested I set off to Russia too. Another reason was that many European universities were not ready to accept foreign students in the field of my interest. My speciality involves working directly with maps and thereby requires access to the precise location data, which was restricted back then. Luckily for me, Russia was one of the first countries in the world to have declassified that information. And the only Russian university offering geodetic education was St. Petersburg Mining University. I was admitted to it on a fee basis in 1994 and thereupon left Lebanon," recalls Professor Abud.
Higher education in Russia, both then and now, is a lot cheaper than in Lebanon. There are various universities, vocational education institutions, institutes, and colleges functioning in the Lebanese Republic. But with that said, there is only one state university for the whole country. Studying at the university has always been affordable for ordinary Lebanese (an annual fee currently equals about $400). One university cannot nonetheless provide as much study places as the country requires. Therefore youngsters are forced into applying to private universities wherein one year of study may cost as much as $7000-8000.
Lebanese students who have been granted a study quota by Rossotrudnichestvo, an organisation responsible for promoting Russian education services abroad, do not need to pay for their studies in Russia. Their only expenses are accommodation and transportation costs. These equal altogether $625-1250 per year, with total sum depending on the comfortability of dorm rooms. Fee-based education is not pricey either and still cheaper than that received at a private university in Lebanon. For instance, a study fee for one academic year is equivalent to less than $3,400.
As the Lebanese Professor notes, "I was lucky to commence studies in the 90s because the education system was being modernised at the time. The University changed a lot throughout those years: modern laboratory facilities, computers, industry-specific software were purchased, academic books and scientific journals of international authors were added to the library's collection. But what is more important is that the Soviet school of thought was still strong. Each year we underwent a two-month-long internship. Upon return home after graduating, the knowledge and skills I gained at the University earned me a job in a large corporation. I managed as well to open my own geodetic company, which, up to this day, keeps providing me with solid profits. A year later, I read in a local newspaper that the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation issued quotas for Lebanese citizens on free-of-charge postgraduate studies. Since I wanted to advance my career and was at the same time dreaming of becoming a teacher at university, I submitted documents and soon returned to my alma mater."
When Mohammed, already the PhD graduate, came back to his homeland, he was first invited to Beirut Islamic University and then the Lebanese International University. The just graduated engineer was offered to establish the Department of Surveying and Mapping and head it. So what he did is he took the Mining University as an example, elaborated an educational programme from scratch and adjusted it according to requirements of the relevant Ministry. Then he translated from Russian to Arabic lecture materials and practical assignments he had gathered over the years of university life. The newly appointed Professor also arranged for the purchase of necessary equipment and hired new teachers, particularly from among graduates of Russian universities.
According to Prof Abud, "With each year, we see more and more applicants competing for a study place. Land dealings, real estate transactions, construction of facilities, bridges, roads, shipbuilding and aircraft building - all of these cannot be put into practice without geodetic engineering. Besides, the industry is constantly evolving and as a result of this requires specialists to regularly update their knowledge. The most popular field, as of now, is GIS-technologies; they provide for the development of a comprehensive digital database of the country's territories."
The profession of surveyor remains a relatively rare and extraordinary one. This can be seen from comparison: Lebanon's 18 universities graduate approximately 600 mechanics per year, yet there are only 400 surveying specialists in the country in total. The difference in the ratio, of course, directly affects income levels of specialists within both fields.
Two Lebanese universities are currently offering Bachelor's and Master's programmes in surveying and mapping. Still, if a student would like to pursue postgraduate studies, he has no other option but to study abroad. Hence Professor Abud directs most talented students to Russia.
As the former Mining University's student notes, "Four of my graduates are studying at Mining University and the other two in Moscow. In a few years, they will be back home and join so rare for Lebanon graduates with a PhD in land surveying. Based on their choice, they can become university teachers or advance science and carry out research activities. Finally, they can find work as consultants in a variety of different fields. For example, proper handling of modern high-precision weapons requires geodetic and gravimetric data. This way, young specialists can make themselves useful in such area as national defence and combat support."
The Professor's son completed his secondary education this year. The boy is interested in mining engineering and decided to become an oil and gas specialist. He could choose among the top-ranked engineering universities of Norway and Russia. Nevertheless, he preferred the university his father graduated from to many other, by no means less prestigious educational institutions. The industry has excellent career opportunities to offer. That is what the first-year student of the Mining University believes in since the Middle Eastern country has opened promising prospects in hydrocarbon development.
Lebanon is soon to start extracting oil and gas on its shelf for the first time ever. The deposits were discovered in 2011 at the crossing of territorial waters of Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus. Due to lack of experience and technologies, a decision was made to appeal to foreign entities. An agreement on exploration and development of the deposits was signed with Total, ENI and Novatek, which together formed a united consortium. It is expected that exploitation licenses will be issued at the end of the year. Exploration works within the part of the field belonging to Lebanon should last approximately 5 years. In the case of a positive outcome, 25-year-long exclusive production rights will be granted to consortium members. César Abi Khalil, the Minister of Energy and Water Resources, notes that at least 80% of the consortium's employees must be holding Lebanese citizenship. Preliminary research has shown that yet-to-find hydrocarbon reserves kept inside the Levant basin potentially reach 1.6 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic metres of gas.