Lebanon’s economy faces stark choice: Reform or collapse

Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri still has not formed a government to undertake the reforms necessary to unlock the donors’ funds. (AFP)
Updated 23 November 2018

Lebanon’s economy faces stark choice: Reform or collapse

  • It has been more than six months since Lebanon held its first national elections in nine years
  • Lebanon still has a primitive infrastructure, widespread electricity and water cuts and a longstanding waste

BEIRUT: Lebanon is marking 75 years of independence with a military parade Thursday in Beirut, but many anxious Lebanese feel they have little to celebrate: the country’s corruption-plagued economy is dangerously close to collapse and political bickering over shares in a new Cabinet is threatening to scuttle pledges worth $11 billion by international donors.
The World Bank issued a stark warning last week, with one official saying that unless a government is formed soon to carry out badly needed reforms, “the Lebanon we know will fizzle away.”
It’s been more than six months since Lebanon held its first national elections in nine years but the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, still hasn’t formed a government to undertake the reforms necessary to unlock the donors’ funds.
The vote, in which the Shiite militant Hezbollah group and its allies made significant gains, did little to pull Lebanon out of a political impasse. Anger against politicians’ apparent indifference, worsening public services and distress over down-spiraling finances and gloomy predictions are building up.
Last Friday, heavy rains caused Beirut’s sewage system to burst, turning the city’s famous Mediterranean coastal avenue into a river of filthy, foul-smelling black water that engulfed motorists along the otherwise scenic route. On the same day, the military had closed a main artery for drills ahead of the Independence Day parade, paralyzing traffic for hours. Flights from Beirut’s international airport were missed and a woman reportedly went into labor on the road. The army later apologized.
Despite a population of over 4.5 million that is among the most educated in the region, Lebanon still has a primitive infrastructure, widespread electricity and water cuts and a longstanding waste crisis that over the past few years saw trash piling in the streets for weeks at a time.
“There is no independence (to celebrate) because corruption is eating us up,” said Mohammed Al-Rayyes, a shop owner in Beirut’s Hamra district. “The coming days are going to be very difficult.”
The tiny Arab country has coped with multiple political and security crises over the past decades and also suffered from the seven-year civil war in neighboring Syria, a conflict that has occasionally spilled over the border and brought more than 1 million refugees into Lebanon, putting even more pressure on its dysfunctional infrastructure.

 

A soaring debt of $84 billion and unemployment believed to be around 36 percent are compounding concerns that the country will finally cave in.
“It is a shame because so much time is being wasted,” Ferid BelHajj, the World Bank’s vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, said during a meeting with a group of journalists last week.
For years, he said, Lebanese officials have been promising to work on solving the electricity crisis, which costs the country about $2 billion a year and has been the main factor in accumulating Lebanon’s debt.
Of immediate concern is the future of $11 billion in loans and grants pledged by international donors at a meeting in Paris in April, which Lebanon risks losing if no Cabinet is in place soon to unlock the funds and approve reforms that were set as conditions by the donors and which have been delayed for years. In April, Hariri pledged to reduce the budget deficit by 5 percent over the next five years.
The crisis has prompted some Lebanese to change their deposits from the local currency, which has been pegged to the US dollars since 1997, to US dollars for fear the Lebanese pound might collapse. Riad Salameh, the Central Bank governor, has been repeatedly reassuring the markets, saying the local currency is stable.
Mohamad Shukeir, head of the Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, told the local MTV station that 2,200 businesses closed doors so far this year.
Aftershocks of rising tension between the United States and Iran are also felt in Beirut, with Tehran ally Hezbollah being blamed by opponents for preventing Western-backed Hariri from forming a national unity government.
Hezbollah has demanded that six Sunni lawmakers allied with the Shiite group and opposed to Hariri be included in his Cabinet — something that Hariri, the country’s top Sunni Muslim leader, categorically rejects.
Despite the dangers, political bickering is not likely to end soon and the debt is mounting.
“The level of debt that we have in Lebanon requires us to act very quickly,” said economist Kamel Wazne. “Any delay will expose us to financial collapse.”
BelHajj of the World Bank said that reforms would act as a buffer to the crisis. But in their absence, “the crisis can be very nasty.”
“If we don’t go about these reforms fast, the Lebanon that we know will fizzle away,” he said.

FASTFACTS

Despite a population of more than 4.5 million that is among the most educated in the region, Lebanon still has a primitive infrastructure, widespread electricity and water cuts and a longstanding waste crisis that over the past few years saw rubbish piling in the streets for weeks at a time.


Turkey accused of using illegal phosphorus munitions in Syria

Updated 20 October 2019

Turkey accused of using illegal phosphorus munitions in Syria

  • Reports are credible, expert tells Arab News
  • Hospitals report spike in burns victims

ANKARA: Accusations that Turkey has used banned incendiary weapons against civilians in its invasion of northern Syria are credible, a leading security analyst told Arab News on Saturday.

Kurdish leaders said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fighter jets had dropped munitions containing napalm and white phosphorus on civilian targets in the border town of Ras Al-Ain, a key objective for Turkish troops.

“The Turkish aggression is using all available weapons against Ras Al-Ain,” the Kurdish administration said. “Faced with the obvious failure of his plan, Erdogan is resorting to weapons that are globally banned, such as phosphorus and napalm.”

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for New American Security, told Arab News: “There are now multiple credible reports that Turkey has used white phosphorus munitions in its campaign in northeast Syria, and especially against the stubborn defenders of the city of Ras Al-Ain.”

The attacks on Ras Al-Ain are being investigated by UN chemical weapons inspectors, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and Human Rights Watch. 

OPCW said it had “not yet determined the credibility of these allegations,” and its inspectors were monitoring the situation.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Erdogan’s jets ‘dropped munitions containing napalm and white phosphorus in Ras Al-Ain.’
  • The attacks are being probed by UN chemical weapons inspectors and Human Rights Watch.
  • A video posted on social media shows children with burns that a doctor says were consistent with the use of banned weapons.

If the use of banned incendiary weapons were proved, it would be a grave violation of Turkey’s pledge to wage war with concern for civilian lives, Heras said.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there had been a spike in burn wounds treated at the Syrian-Kurdish hospital at Tal Tamir, mostly casualties brought in from the Ras Al-Ain area. 

The Kurdish Red Crescent said at least six people were being treated in hospital for burns. 

Kurdish officials posted a video on social media showing children with burns that one doctor in Hasakeh province said were consistent with the use of banned weapons.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical weapons expert, told the UK newspaper The Times that the burns appeared to have been caused by white phosphorus.

The substance may be used to create a smoke screen, or as a battlefield marker, especially at night, but its use as an incendiary weapon is prohibited under international law.

Since 1997, Turkey has been a signatory to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.

Dr. Willem Theo Oosterveld, a senior fellow at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, said the deployment of white phosphorus was not explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. 

However, he said, under humanitarian law “the use of means and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited.”