The crisis in Lebanon - GulfToday

The crisis in Lebanon

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Dollar-and-Lebanese-currency

A man counts US dollar banknotes next to Lebanese pounds at a currency exchange shop in Beirut, Lebanon. File/Reuters

As Lebanon sinks lower into financial ruin, foreign banks are cutting ties with the Central Bank, making it difficult for the country to purchase goods and transfer payments from abroad. Since the Lebanese currency has lost 90 per cent of its value since mid-2019 and 80 per cent of Lebanon’s food, medicine and fuel are imported, prices are soaring.

Nevertheless, politicians continue to squabble over the establishment of an independent cabinet of technocrats which could rescue Lebanese from growing poverty and the country from collapse.

Lebanese from different walks of life and backgrounds tell Gulf Today about their situations.

Lebanon-protests
Picture used for illustrative purpose.

Nicole Maillard, retired social worker, says the supermarket she frequents near her home has “no butter, no powdered milk for children, no hummus, or lentils. No subsidised oil, rice, and sugar. Takeaway continues but portions are smaller and prices are higher. I asked the check out if her salary had been raised. She said no. She now gets the equivalent of $40. We take money we think we will need for shopping and find it is not enough. Prices are rising two or three times a day.”

In 1990, at the end of the 15-year civil war, the Lebanese currency was 1,500 to the dollar. Today the bank rate is 3,900 to the dollar and the black market rate 10,000-15,000. The country’s foreign reserves have halved to $16.7 billion in two years and the GDP shrank by 25 per cent last year.

She continues, “The Central Bank is slowing imports, including food and essential medicine, by 3-4 months by dragging out permits. I stockpiled medicines I need last summer.”

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Nicole Maillard and Sherif Samaha.

Electricity is unreliable and mazout for generators is in short supply and expensive. Middle class couples are following the poor by having babies at home because they cannot afford the cost of a hospital or are afraid of covid. Lebanon has suffered nearly half a million cases and 6,600 deaths from the pandemic.

“People are furious with the warlords and politicians because there is no empathy, sympathy, or comprehension for the Lebanese. All they care about is finding ways to make more and more money. I stayed in Beirut during the civil war but it has never been as bad as now.”

Sherif Samaha, proprietor of Beirut’s modest Mayflower Hotel, and his wife and two sons had covid in January are not yet “100 per cent.” He and his family have lived in the hotel since their elegant Lebanese villa was destroyed on Aug.4 last year when ammonium nitrate exploded in the port and devastated nearby neighbourhoods.

“I was at first in despair but I did not give up. The house was flattened. We started from zero and we have all nationalities of workers. I wanted them to go slowly but they are eager to go fast because they need the money. Reconstruction will take a month to finish.” To pay for the house, he brought ‘fresh dollars’ from abroad which can be withdrawn as dollars from banks. Payments in dollars are in huge demand. Normal dollar savings are rationed and withdrawn in depreciating Lebanese currency.

“The hotel is 40 per cent occupied. Most guests are staying for months. Some are on a small mission, others are expats coming to visit family. We have no foreigners, no NGOs.” Most of the old staff, who had families to support, left because their salaries had shrunk due to the currency collapse and were replaced by young people who could survive on hotel pay. The restaurant and once popular bar are open only to hotel guests but their custom helps to keep it open.

Hamza-Tahhan-taxi-driver
Hamza Tahhan.

Hamza Tahhan is a taxi driver from Adloun, an ancient village south of the port of Sidon. He owns his house and lives there with his wife and daughter. Although he formerly made a good living taking tourists to historic sites, he has only a few recent fares, both from the airport.

One was to the Radisson hotel in Beirut and the other to the northern border where he dropped a Syrian expatriate who crossed into Syria. He and his sister receive 500 euro in aid every once in a while from a brother in Germany. Many Lebanese reply on transfers from family abroad but these are dwindling.

“Petrol has risen by 40 per cent since last week and spare parts are, maybe, ten times normal,” he says.

“There are fights in the supermarkets over subsidised rice, oil, sugar. Pharmacies had a one day strike to warn the government to bring medicine or they will close permanently. Smugglers take petrol and medicine to Syria.” His teenage daughter, Betoul, is studying on-line but teachers went on strike-on-line.

“It is not like before. We don’t have meat every day. But Lebanese

 

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