Beirut: The US Embassy in Lebanon has tweeted pictures of its new premises in Beirut, spread across a 43-acre site overlooking the Mediterranean. It immediately raised eyebrows in Lebanon and beyond.
A sub-tweet showed Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Abou Habib inspecting the complex but went by largely unnoticed.
What caught everybody’s attention was the sheer size of the building. As of Sunday night, the picture had generated 2 million views on Twitter, competing with Lebanese tweets of King Charles’ coronation.
On Facebook, the same post generated far less attention, with no more than 1,300 likes and 101 shares.
Young Lebanese took to social media networks, questioning why their tiny country would merit such a massive fortified complex, especially that the current building in Antelias is doing just fine and that US-Lebanese relations are presently not warm, due to Hezbollah arms and the group’s paramount influence in Lebanese domestics.
Some considered it money spent in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Others wondered if this signalled the start of newfound US engagement in Lebanon to thwart Iranian influence. What was certain from the pictures is that the Biden administration has no plans to disengage from the Middle East, anytime soon.
America’s largest embassies
When complete, the new building in Beirut would be the second largest in the Arab World, topped only by the one in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Iraqis joke that the US premises in their capital is “larger than Vatican City” while Foreign Policy once described it as “only slightly smaller than Disneyland.”
More than 10,000 personnel work at the US premises in Baghdad, which cost $750 million to construct in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The US also has a massive consulate complex in Arbil, on a 50-acre land. In 2020, then-State Secretary Mike Pompeo famously threatened to close down the Baghdad complex due to repeated attacks by Iran-affiliated militias in the aftermath of the January 2020 assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Responsible for at least a handful of those attacks was Kata’eb Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia that takes inspiration from its Lebanese predecessor and namesake.
After Baghdad, the second largest US embassy in the world is presently is in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
It is yet to be seen whether the new building in Beirut will top that, but third on the list — for now — is the US embassy in Beijing, China, followed by the one in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The US embassy in London remains the largest in Western Europe, and the one in Kabul is huge, built across 36 acres after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.
Anniversary of the 1983 bombing
Days before the Beirut photo was published on May 5, 2023, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken came out with a statement on the 40th anniversary of the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut. He said: “Today, we remember the victims of a heinous terrorist attack at the US Embassy in Beirut forty years ago, killing 63 people. We stand with the families, friends, and colleagues of those whose lives were cut short. Despite Hizballah’s efforts to use terror to drive a wedge between the United States and the Lebanese people, our close cooperation has only deepened in the 40 years since this reprehensible attack.”
Blinken was referring to the April 18, 1983 suicide bombing of the US embassy with 900kg of explosives that killed 17 Americans, 32 Lebanese, and 17 passer-bys and visitors from different nationalities.
Many of the Americans killed on that fateful day were embassy staff, including a handful of soldiers, one marine, and eight CIA personnel including its Near East Director Robert Ames.
In response, the US moved its premises to a more secure location in East Beirut, which was also hit with a car bomb on 28 September 1983, killing twenty Lebanese and two Americans. That came just one month after two truck bombs struck at American marines, killing 307 people on 23 October 1983.