Lebanon’s precious gems lose their shine amid Syria conflict

An aerial view of the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 05 July 2019

Lebanon’s precious gems lose their shine amid Syria conflict

  • Gold shops are turning to Shawarma and Falafel restaurants, says syndicate chief
  • About 5,000 Lebanese are working in the gold and jewelry trade

BEIRUT: “The gold and jewelry trade in Lebanon has witnessed a decline in sales ever since the outbreak of the war in Syria in addition to the regional developments, and the situation has worsened in the past two years,” said Antoine Mghani, the president of the Syndicate of Jewelry in Lebanon.

“Gold shops in Burj Hammoud, which is dominated by Armenians and where tens of young people work as goldsmiths, have begun to shut down. Gold shops are turning to Shawarma and Falafel restaurants,” he said. 

“These young craftsmen are seeking to emigrate to the United States after obtaining passports from Armenia, which makes it easier for them to obtain immigration visas to the United States.”

The gold and diamond markets in Lebanon are concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli (North Lebanon), Jounieh (Mount Lebanon) and other areas. 

The syndicate, which is supposed to embrace all workers in this field, has been divided since the 1980s as a result of the civil war. Mghani estimates the number of people working in the gold and jewelry trade at about 5,000 Lebanese. 

Only about 400 are members of his syndicate, while Beirut’s gold dealers belong to a different one. There are 12 gold-processing plants in Lebanon and some of the goldsmith’s shops have been operating for 120 years.

The two syndicates protect the stakeholders before the law. 

Pictures and specifications of stolen jewelry are shared between them, so that they don’t buy any stolen merchandise. Lebanon, which shares most of its borders Syria, is open to smuggling operations of stolen goods that are being discharged in the Lebanese market.

“The owners of stolen jewelry from Syria who wish to sell them in Lebanon head to the shops that are the closest to the borders between the two countries, instead of going to Beirut, where there is more vigilance and greater caution by shop owners,” said a Syrian diamond dealer at the Beirut gold market, who wished to remain anonymous.

“A young Lebanese man visited me a few months back and told me that he was fighting in Syria while revealing a 7-carat diamond he wanted to sell,” said another Lebanese diamond dealer in the same market, also on condition of anonymity.

The dealer said that he refused to buy the diamond. “I do not buy stolen goods and I do not buy from the thieves. I have a reputation to maintain in the market.”

The president of the Goldsmiths Association in Damascus, Ghassan Jazmati, told the Syrian newspaper Al Watan three months ago: “The gold is being smuggled from Syria to Lebanon and the proof is the Syrian gold with no stamping filling storefronts in Beirut, especially 21-karat gold.”

However, Mughni stressed that "Syria does not affect the Lebanese market." He said: "Aleppo produced gold, but there were no factories, all destroyed, some went to Turkey and a small number came to Lebanon."

"The stolen gold in Syria is being turned into bullion to facilitate its sale wherever it is, and usually the stolen goods in Lebanon are being disposed of in Syria or in Lebanese areas where there is no complete control of the state." In Syria there are chaos and open borders between us. They took their gold to Lebanon as savings, and the distinction between the thief and the right owner needs experience from the seller. "

Bilal Ghandour, a gold and diamond dealer, said: “Syrian workers in Lebanon are transferring their savings into 21-karat gold because its value does not drop when they wish to sell. During the period of Syrian resurgence in Lebanon, our business bloomed, whereas in light of the restrictions on Syrian workers, their gold purchasing power has diminished.”

As for stolen gold from Syria and attempts to sell it in Lebanon, Ghandour stressed: “We cannot know whether it is stolen or not, but we usually ask for a receipt and rely on our assessment of the person wishing to sell.”

Mghani confirms Lebanon’s commitment to the Kimberley Process to prevent the sale and purchase of blood diamonds: “Lebanon is committed to international agreements and is working hard in coordination with the central bank to clean up any similar situations.”

On the possibility of money laundering through the gold and diamond dealership, Mghani said: “Money laundering needs a strong discharge, and this is not available in Lebanon.”

There is no law in Lebanon that obliges gold and diamond dealers to join the syndicate, especially since affiliation requires the applicant to be accompanied by 4 or 5 people who know him. 

“Anyone can become a gold seller. He may be a butcher and decide to become a gold seller. He does not need a license like a pharmacist, so there is a bit of disorder in the sector. We need a more active presence from the jewelry department at the Ministry of Economy.”

Iran on ‘dangerous path’: UK warns British ships to avoid Strait of Hormuz

Updated 2 min 16 sec ago

Iran on ‘dangerous path’: UK warns British ships to avoid Strait of Hormuz

  • Iran had taken a ‘dangerous path’: British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
  • France has expressed full solidarity with Britain

LONDON: London Saturday advised British ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz for “an interim period” following Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker.
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s unacceptable actions which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation,” a government spokeswoman said following an overnight meeting of the government’s COBRA emergencies committee to discuss the crisis.
“We have advised UK shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period.”
She noted comments by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier that “there will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved.”
She added that there will be further meetings over the weekend and “we remain in close contact with our international partners.”
Hunt said on Saturday that he was worried that Iran had taken a “dangerous path” after it seized a British-flagged tanker on Friday.
“Yesterday’s action in Gulf shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilizing behavior after Gibraltar’s LEGAL detention of oil bound for Syria,” Hunt said on Twitter.

“As I said yesterday our reaction will be considered but robust. We have been trying to find a way to resolve Grace1 issue but WILL ensure the safety of our shipping.”
Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker was allegedly due to a collision with an Iranian fishing boat, the country’s state-run IRNA news agency said Saturday.

France and Germnay have expressed solidarity with Britain and has called on Iran to release tanker.
The British navy seized Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Friday it had seized the British-flagged Swedish-owned Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz for breaking “international maritime rules.”
Iranian authorities alleged Saturday the ship had collided with a fishing boat. It said the tanker was now at anchor off the port of Bandar Abbas with all its crew aboard. The Indian and Philippine governments said they were working to get Iran to release nationals from the two countries who were on board a British-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran in the Arabian Gulf.
India’s foreign ministry spokesman, Raveesh Kumar, said Saturday its diplomats were “in touch with the Government of Iran to secure the early release and repatriation” of the 18 Indian crew members on the Stena Impero.
Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs also said its ambassador to Tehran was in contact with Iranian authorities to ensure the lone Filipino crew member’s safety and immediate release.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola said there have been no reports of injuries among the crew.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency has said the other crew members consisted of three Russians and a Latvian.