Cash-strapped Lebanon to probe ‘suspicious’ capital flight

A protester leads a chant during ongoing protests against the Lebanese political class, in front of the building of the Lebanese Association of Banks in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. (AP)
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Updated 27 December 2019

Cash-strapped Lebanon to probe ‘suspicious’ capital flight

  • Lebanon’s banks have since September imposed increasingly tight restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers
  • As Lebanon’s protest movement enters its third month, demonstrators are increasingly targeting banks

BEIRUT: A probe has started into the billions of dollars sent overseas from Lebanon amid a political crisis that has gripped the country for months, with the country’s central bank chief warning that “nothing can disappear.”

Lebanon is experiencing a severe liquidity crunch in light of an economic downturn, political gridlock and massive protests, factors that have triggered a crisis of confidence inside and outside the country.

Banque du Liban governor, Riad Salamé, said: “People may do as they please with their money, but if suspicious funds were transferred in 2019, we will investigate them, and investigations start in Lebanon. We will do whatever we are legally permitted to do to verify all the transfers that took place. Nothing can disappear. The central bank is addressing the gradual crisis, and we hope the decisions we have taken to increase the banks’ capital will help the country recover so that the economy can improve.”

He did not blame civil society for the deterioration of the Lebanese lira’s exchange rate against the dollar. After Oct. 17, the date on which the protests erupted, he said that the banks closed for two weeks and it was this shuttering that created turmoil in the financial market.

The dollar’s exchange rate at shops has reached 2,100 liras, but Salamé said there was no change in the official rate which is set at 1507.50.

A parliamentary finance and budget committee said overseas remittances worth billions of dollars were made from Lebanese banks. 

“Approximately $11 billion of bank money has ended up overseas,” said MP Hassan Fadlallah, while committee head Ibrahim Kanaan said Lebanese people’s concerns over the domestic situation had led to the withdrawal of $6 billion from banks.

People braved bitter conditions to protest outside a banking association’s headquarters and Banque du Liban branches. There is a campaign to confront banks withholding the money of small depositors. Protesters urged people to stop making loan repayments, condemning banking policies and corruption.

Security measures around banks have failed to deter anger, with people demanding money and salaries from staff.

One man entered a branch of Credit Libanais in Tripoli with an axe in his hand, demanding they give him his money. People around him and security forces intervened to calm him down.

Shopkeepers have closed their doors because they cannot import goods, and owing to a decline in customer numbers, and a failure to pay rent.

Tony Ramy, who is president of a restaurant, cafe and nightclub syndicate, urged people to go out as much as possible on New Year’s Eve so restaurants did not remain empty.

Lebanon appears unable to shake off its financial and political woes. The prime minister in charge of forming a new government following the abrupt resignation of political scion Saad Hariri, Hassan Diab, is laboring away out of the spotlight to gather together his Cabinet. 

“What is required in this difficult time is a rescue emergency government without wasting time on some classifications and descriptions,” MP Qassem Hashem said. 

“Time is precious and must not be wasted on these trivial titles that are useless for the rescue process that requires everyone’s participation.”

Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

Updated 12 July 2020

Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

  • This form of transport means freedom — and health and safety into the bargain

PARIS: After months of working on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, Spanish nurse Yone Alberich was ready for a holiday, but the question was how.

Going on holiday generally meant flying abroad — but with the virus still very much in the air, she didn’t want to take a plane. 

Nor did Alberich want to stay in a hotel or be around crowds of people. So she and her husband rented a motorhome.

“The idea was to keep away from people to avoid getting infected,” said the 32-year-old, who has a toddler and lives in the Valencian coastal town of Castellon.

“And with COVID, what could be better than traveling around with your house on your back?“

With social distancing the new norm in Europe to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there has been a shift in thinking about holidays, with a recent survey showing 90 percent of Spaniards would remain in Spain rather than traveling abroad. And 83 percent planned to use their own car over public transport.

Fabrizio Muzzati, who runs specialist Spanish travel agency Aquiestoy Caravaning, said that many people who never thought about a motorhome holiday are now considering it.

“At a time when the whole world is very much looking for a sense of security, there are a lot of people who are going to give it a go because of the circumstances.”

And as travel restrictions were eased, motorhome rentals resumed “intensively,” the Spanish mobile home and campervan association ASEICAR said last month, suggesting it may be “key to reviving tourism this summer.”

And it is not just in Spain. “Since the rollback, there’s been a real craze for motorhomes, everywhere,” says Francois Feuillet, president of the European Motorhome Federation. “The motorhome means freedom, savings and being green. Now we can add health and safety and for us, that’s a real boon.”

Across Europe, there has been growing interest in the sector and today there are five million users and two million vehicles in circulation, industry figures show. In Germany, Europe’s main market, more than 10,000 new motorhomes were registered in May, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year, while France added 3,529 new registrations — up nearly 2 percent.

And in Spain, a much smaller market but where interest is growing rapidly, there were 1,208 new vehicles registered in June — up 20 percent on last year, ASEICAR figures show.

There has also been a jump in demand in the rental market.

Yescapa, a peer-to-peer rental platform, registered more than 32,500 bookings across Europe in June, with requests for July and August 60 percent higher than in the same period last year.

Of that number, just under a third — or 9,435 — were in Spain.Despite the reopening of Europe’s borders on June 15, most people are reluctant to go abroad, Yescapa co-founder Benoit Panel said.

“Since COVID, there have been almost no cross-booking rentals,” he said, referring to travelers booking outside their country of origin, who usually constitute 20 percent of reservations.

First-time renter Jose Pascal Guiral, who runs a ceramics export business and always holidays abroad, took a motorhome as soon as lockdown ended, spending a week touring scenic mountain passes in the Spanish Pyrenees.

“It’s so much nicer than going in a plane or a hotel, it gives you a real sense of freedom. You go for a week and you feel like you’ve been on holiday for a month,” he said.

Julio Barrenengoa Gomez, director of Caravanas Holidays, said that the crisis has increased interest in national tourism.

“People tend to want a motorhome to travel around Europe but this year, they’re looking to stay here in Spain. With all our desire to visit Europe, it seems like we’ve forgotten just how beautiful Spain is. This year is going to boost national tourism.”

Others believe the health crisis will accelerate a shift away from the mass tourism of resorts, cruises and package holidays.

“This pandemic will change people’s habits because they’ll be less likely to stay in crowded places,” said Fernando Ortiz, director of established Spanish motorhome brand Benimar.

“Not necessarily because of the risk — they will find a vaccine — but because people like being able to change their plans from moment to moment while traveling,” he said. “And that is likely to last.”