As Lebanon's economy collapses, even the wealthy are no longer immune
Lebanese protest in June against power cuts, the high cost of living and the low purchasing power of the Lebanese currency - Anadolu Agency
At the cocktail bar on my block, bartender Nino makes a decent sazerac but says he can't keep making it much longer.
The drink, which costs around US $ 27 at Lebanon's official exchange rate, now costs me around US $ 2.70 in lira, which was bought on the "parallel market". An acute shortage of foreign currency in a country where 80 percent of goods are imported has resulted in even licensed currency exchange houses abandoning the official rate of 1,515 lira per dollar.
When another power outage leaves us in the dark, eased by the light from our smartphones, Nino says he's not sure he can stay in business. Most customers would stay away if he continued to raise prices, he believes, but most of his overheads remain pegged to the dollar.
Owners in Gemmayze - once the heart of Beirut's vibrant nightlife - are now charging dollar rents, around $ 4,000 a month for a bar like his, says Nino. His own eighty-year-old landlord, who gave Nino a payment vacation during the recent coronavirus lockdown, has been billed again since the bar reopened. "What does he need the money for, it won't be around for much longer," grumbles Nino half-heartedly.
Beirutis sit together on the St. Nicolas stairs in the Gemmayze district for the opening of a film festival - Reutersuter
The lira hit new lows last week, trading at $ 15,300 against the greenback, exacerbating hardship for most but providing a godsend for those with access to foreign currencies. The resulting mounting inequality has become an increasingly uncomfortable aspect of life here in this Mediterranean nation famous for the flamboyant lifestyle of its elite.
At the bed and breakfast where I'm staying for the weekend, the owner Ralph has hired a night watchman. The cost of replacing even a missing pool lounger would be higher than the security staff's salary, he says. When his big black rescue dog Bella chews his Ray-Bans, Ralph complains that it would cost him two months' salary to replace his sunglasses.
But at dinner on Saturday night we can't get a table by the sea in a bulky local restaurant. We sit further back on the terrace, where we trained in the gym and surgically plump young Lebanese people pout for selfies at the bar and scream to Bee Gees melodies. The seafood meal costs us about $ 20 a head, including drinks and tip.
However, there are signs that the collapse of Lebanon is gradually encroaching on our privileged bubble.
Recently, the roast beef truffle sandwich was on the menu at a popular craft beer bar in Badaro, an up-and-coming neighborhood known as Beirut's Brooklyn. "We buy meat as if it were a drug deal," says Sami, the owner, and describes the troubles of buying beef in the back alley.
As foreign exchange reserves become scarce, the few remaining subsidized goods are scarce. If the petrol pumps have not yet run completely dry, hours of waiting at petrol stations are inevitable, even for those returning from relaxed weekend trips. Nerves are torn, cops whose salaries are now worth maybe $ 100 a month seem helpless to keep fighting from breaking out in line.
لبناني امام المحطة ️ pic.twitter.com/3JWB9Y4PHE
- ﮼مـصـدر ﮼مسـؤول (@ MMas2ool) June 15, 2021
The fuel shortage also means that the generator companies no longer supply electricity around the clock. Grid power has been patchy for decades, but until recently private utilities covered the deficit - for those who could afford it. Without electricity for much of the night, you cannot run a fan, let alone an air conditioner.
Which, of course, is just a little taste of what most Lebanese will endure in this impending summer of discontent.
I ask Nagi, my fix-it man, to estimate the percentage of the population who regularly have fresh dollars available. “About 12 percent,” he estimates with remarkable precision.
As a driver for a foreign NGO, Nagi is fortunate to have kept most of his salary in dollars, even when his employer put him on leave during the pandemic. He says he's taking home more in a month than his doctor brother earns in a year at a private clinic.
Even if you have money, some goods are scarce. In February, concerned families were desperate for bottled oxygen on the black market when Covid patients were treated in their cars in front of crowded hospitals. Friends and colleagues returning from overseas are now asked to bring scarce medication with them.
Officially, more than half of the population now lives beyond the national poverty line, although this number is rapidly deteriorating. The World Bank warned this month that Lebanon is suffering from one of the worst crises in the world since the mid-19th century.
A real GDP decline of around 40 percent "is usually associated with conflicts or wars," the authors dryly stated, adding that "there is growing awareness of possible triggers for social unrest."
Given Lebanon's history of civil war, this should be alarming even to the most isolated elite in the country. Political disagreements, however, have prevented the formation of a new government since former Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned days after the massive explosion in Beirut port last summer that killed over 200 people. (The exact number varies depending on the source, while the government has never produced a final death toll.)
Last week France announced it was holding a fundraiser for the Lebanese army, one of the few institutions that has remained untouched by the country's sectarian divisions. Army chief General Joseph Aoun warned in a speech to officers in March that the soldiers "suffer and starve like the rest of the population".
But with IFIs and foreign governments insisting that systematic reforms precede bailouts, there is "no clear turning point on the horizon," as the World Bank puts it.
In the meantime, I hope Nino stays open, and not just for the sake of my Sazeracs.
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