Lebanon needs more than foreign friends to save itself
It is rare for someone to steal their own bank account. But a robbery this week in Jeb Jannine, in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, involved just that. Abdallah Assaii, owner of a local cafe, took seven bank workers hostage in order to withdraw $50,000 from his savings, a previously commonplace act that is becoming increasingly difficult as the country’s economic crisis has seen the banks impose informal capital controls. Mr Assaii’s hostages were eventually freed unharmed and his actions won support from many poor Lebanese. Although the threat of violence and criminal action cannot be tolerated, this incident shows how troubled Lebanon is and how weak its state has become.
The Lebanese pound has lost around 90% of its value on the black market in the past two years, and the UN estimates that four out of five people in the country live below the poverty line.
Lebanon needs all the friends and support it can get if it even wants to consider a recovery. That is why the visit of Kuwait’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah, on Saturday was good news. It was the first trip by a Gulf official to Beirut since a diplomatic rift emerged between Lebanon and the GCC last year, after a senior Lebanese minister made controversial comments regarding the conflict in the Yemen.
Sheikh Ahmad has now made the most optimistic comments yet that the damaging episode may be on the mend. In response, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said his country was keen to maintain “the best relations”. Relations with the Gulf are of major importance for Lebanon. The Gulf has supported the country for years politically, diplomatically and economically. It sends billions of dollars in aid to Lebanon, is a key trading partner and hosts a large number of Lebanese expatriates.
The visit was an important step in building confidence and a gesture, in the words of Sheikh Ahmad, “to help lift Lebanon out of all that it is going through”. Also this week, Lebanese politicians and diplomats are being offered another avenue of international support, as the country began long-delayed talks with the International Monetary Fund on Monday to secure a financial bailout.
But whatever the goodwill of the international community, its efforts risk being in vain if the rotten internal political situation does not improve. This week, the situation was further complicated after two-time Prime Minister Saad Hariri said on Monday he would retire from politics. The move leaves Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, one of the country’s largest electoral blocs, rudderless.
A new political vacuum will have its own delaying effect on securing progress at such a key diplomatic, social and economic moment for the country. As the riots continue to erupt, the most recent taking place outside the country’s central bank on Sunday, it’s especially important to keep the momentum going today.
In an emotional resignation speech, Mr Hariri referred to the “project” of his father, Rafik Hariri, also Prime Minister, as that of “ending the civil war in Lebanon and building a better life for the Lebanese people”. . The elder Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, would not see his hopes realized in today’s Lebanon, even with continued support from international friends, ranging from the Gulf to multilateral organizations. Politicians may come and go, but until the corruption and mismanagement of the political system is rooted out, the crisis will persist, and for the dispossessed, the new most popular heroes may look more and more like Abdallah Assaii.
Published: January 26, 2022, 03:00