I sniffed something was wrong in Lebanon when the central bank governor Riad Salame announced to us all that there were plenty of dollars in the system. No shortages. No tightening of the purse strings. I still have the papers with his announcement on page one.
Both before, during and after the 1975-1990 civil war, you’ve been able to pay for anything here in Lebanon in US dollars: dinner bills, rent, militias, guns (during the war), cars, airline tickets, groceries. The Lebanese pound fell amid the conflict but settled afterwards – courtesy of the country’s billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri – at 1,500 “lebs” to the dollar.
And everyone was happy. You knew that the cheerful local currency, splashed with colourful cedar trees, Roman ruins and Phoenician figurines, was interchangeable with the greenback. General Grant’s face was equal to 75,000 lebs. We even combined them in our change.
Until I walked up the road to my local ATM last week, inserted my bank card, demanded $400, was given the usual warning that this would attract an extra $5 from the machine – and was then presented with a terse voice message: “Your transaction has been cancelled.” The accent was American, of course.
I tried again, at $200. Same problem.
I’ve always been enthralled by the linguistics of banking. A “transaction” has held a certain thrall for me. A transaction should surely be the purchase of a property, the buying of shares, the takeover of a mega company. But by the end of my miserable ATM trip, I put in for 400,000 Lebanese pounds ($266) and was treated to a wad of those beautiful Lebanese notes with their pictures of the Baalbek ruins, museum masterpieces and, indeed, illustrations of Salame’s Lebanese central bank. My “transaction” had been completed.
In other words, there were not many dollars in the system. And this is where the Lebanese economic story starts to go downhill.
Without spraying readers with figures, the Lebanese government took out so many post-war loans – usually with the help of its old mandate ruler, France – that it ended up with a budget which effectively had to supply 80 per cent of its worth in servicing the national debt. Massive corruption over decades meant that huge amounts of money were spent on supplying basic needs to the Lebanese economic structure which, in sane countries, could have been realised with sensible taxes and restraints.
It is an absolute mystery to me, for example, why since I arrived in Lebanon in 1976 there has been a minimum power cut in Beirut; every day, without exception, for three hours. And oddly, like all Lebanese, I’ve come to accept this ridiculous situation in the same way that most people acknowledge dawn or sunset.
Three whole hours without an elevator, or a lamp to read by, war or no war. The Lebanese government actually sailed into Beirut a Turkish sea-borne power station and nothing changed. I spent lunch yesterday with two brilliant Lebanese businessmen, and even they could not fully explain to me how the “structural problems” of the Lebanese economy meant that my electricity would be cut off the moment I went home.
The best quotation came from Marwan Iskandar, a true Lebanese “bon viveur” who over a fine chocolate cake gave me his new book, Central Banking in Uncertain Times: Lebanon and the US. He was a student of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He wrote the following wonderful words to me in the foreword: “A book for your evaluation at a time of crisis in exchange in Lebanon. Even Lebanese smugglers are not paying back their profits in Lebanese banks. Welcome to Lebanon, Robert.”
The serious side to all this, of course, is that the Lebanese pound is wobbling. Two weeks ago, it touched 1,600 to the dollar. Right now, it’s just over the 1,500 rate again.
The central bank has arranged that dollars will be available for the purchase of oil, medicine and wheat – buying fuel with those pretty bits of paper with Roman columns on the front doesn’t work. And a number of very damaging – and violent – strikes by tanker companies and garages have been averted. Hospitals can still care for their patients, people can still eat their soft, gently smelling bread.
It has always amazed me that the most brilliantly commercial people in the Middle East – the Lebanese, remember, are the original Phoenician merchants – are so capable of destroying their own economy. We might also recall TS Eliot’s Death by Water, in which readers are invited to reflect upon the picked-apart dead mariner “Phlebas the Phoenician”.
Being a conspiratorial journalist, of course, I have other thoughts. The US is still trying to destroy the Assad regime in Syria. And the Islamic Republic of Iran. And Iran’s Lebanese militia asset, Hezbollah – once more, this week, accused of murder.
Is this what underlays the frightening economic undertow? Does fuel pass through Lebanon to Syria – as well as via an Iranian tanker to Banias? We all know that currency moves between Damascus and Beirut (after all, many Syrians are in fact Lebanese, and vice-versa).
This is not a trick to fool dumb Americans; it is a direct result of the post-First World War colonial mandate system that divided Lebanon from Syria and cut hundreds of thousands of families apart. Thus does history once more crunch up the poor old Middle East. And produce that wretched American voice on my ATM machine. “Your transaction has been cancelled.”