Social unrest in Lebanon
Beirut – currency chaos, exploding prices and burning banks

In Lebanon, the local currency has slumped to a record low, people are losing their jobs and the price of food is skyrocketing. Despite the threat posed by the coronavirus, hundreds are taking to the streets in protest. Julia Neumann reports from Beirut

The price of halloumi has only gone up by just under 20 percent. The salty, rubbery cheese is one of the few foodstuffs in Lebanon not to have experienced a price explosion. Lebanon doesn’t produce much apart from cheese and olive oil, however. Rice, fuel and headache tablets need to be imported and paid for at the usual global market prices.

For years this hasn’t been an issue, as the local currency has been pegged to the U.S. dollar with a fixed exchange rate since 1997. But because the economy is stagnating, there’s a lack of foreign currency and dollar reserves in Lebanon are shrinking, the local currency is rapidly losing value. The limit on dollar withdrawals imposed by the banks in September has also been unable to do anything to change the situation – but instead triggered a run on banks and currency exchanges. As of April, the withdrawal of dollars has been stopped completely.

Currency loses 60 percent of its value

A dollar should buy 1,500 lira. But anyone going to a currency exchange with U.S. dollars is getting more than twice as many lira as at the bank. The devaluation of the lira on the black market means the entire nation is hungry for dollars. The situation is being exacerbated by the closure of Beirut airport because of the coronavirus – not only did Lebanon’s large diaspora boost foreign currency reserves when returning from visits, business travellers also brought in dollars to pay for imports. As the possibility of bringing robust foreign currencies into the country has now been curtailed, the black market value of the lira has plunged even more rapidly.

Lebanon, a country the size of the German state of Hessen is in the grip of the most severe economic crisis in its history.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (photo: AFP/ DALATI AND NOHRA)
Counting on the IMF: "This is a turning point in Lebanon's history," declared Lebanon's prime minister Hassan Diab after his government submitted an application for several billion U.S. dollars in financial aid to the International Monetary Fund at the beginning of May. "We have taken a first step towards rescuing Lebanon from the financial abyss," Diab said. Lebanon is currently in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the civil war of 1975-1990

Not only do people want to safeguard their savings, they are also no longer able to afford basic supplies. According to information from the consultancy CRI, which published the Consumer Price Index for Beirut in March, the price of butter and flour has gone up by just under 45 percent in a year; sugar costs 65 percent more than in March 2019.

The catastrophic economic situation in Lebanon is the result of years of corruption, mismanagement and policies that favour the banks. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the holders of political power have maintained close ties with the business elite. For example, the former ministerial and billionaire Hariri family has its own bank.

Policies steered a neoliberal course for years without creating a welfare net. Anyone owning money in Lebanon was better off putting it in a bank account where it would earn interest in a two-figure sum, than investing it in the productive sector. These high sums of interest paid over many years to financially-sound investors are now crippling the financial system. Levels of national debt now stand at more than 170 percent of GDP.

Sluggish pace of reform

In March, the nation defaulted on a eurobond repayment of 1.2 billion U.S. dollars. If it is to stabilise the currency, the state needs a new influx of U.S. dollars. At the 2018 Cedar Conference, international donors such as Saudi Arabia and the EU pledged financial injections to the tune of 11 billion dollars. As a condition ahead of any cash release, they demanded economic reform and measures against corruption. But the necessary reforms were delayed.

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