There is precious little joy to be found in Lebanon this Christmas

“The revolution did not achieve any of our ambitions and then the blast at Beirut’s port happened, which revealed the extent to which our state is corrupt,” says Beirut resident Joelle Daniel. (Reuters)
“The revolution did not achieve any of our ambitions and then the blast at Beirut’s port happened, which revealed the extent to which our state is corrupt,” says Beirut resident Joelle Daniel. (Reuters)
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Updated 24 December 2020

There is precious little joy to be found in Lebanon this Christmas

There is precious little joy to be found in Lebanon this Christmas
  • The coronavirus is the least of the problems for many people trying to survive amid a devastating economic crisis with no end in sight
  • As families struggle to afford the basics after the currency crash, ‘luxuries’ such as gifts for children and a festive meal are out of their reach

BEIRUT: Christmas arrives in Lebanon this year accompanied by several crises.

The streets and markets have been packed with last-minute Christmas shoppers in recent days but this is not a sign of an improving economy or a sense of joy among the people. Instead it reflected a desperate search for the cheapest possible shopping options.

Salaries in Lebanon lost about 80 percent of their value this year against the dollar. They can no longer cover even the costs of basic necessities, the prices of which have skyrocketed, so how can they possibly pay for festive “luxuries” such as gifts for children and a hearty Christmas dinner?

“100,000 Lebanese pounds ($66) is not enough to buy laundry detergent, toothpaste and shampoo,” said Souad, a resident of Forn El-Chebbak in the southern suburbs of Beirut. “So, how can a person whose salary was LBP800,000 pay for the remaining basic necessities of life, along with food and drink?

“I am trying to convince my children to be satisfied with just one gift this year. We have to make do with what we have — and we do not think that next year will be any better.”

Toys and gifts for children that cost about LBP20,000 before the currency’s collapse now cost LBP120,000 or more. Meanwhile the prices of imported toys from well-known foreign brands have increased from LBP45,000 to LBP250,000.

The costs of gifts for adults are even more prohibitive — a good-quality pair of shoes that used to sell for up to LBP300,000 now costs more than LBP1 million.

“There is a weekly decline affecting our business, which has reached almost 90 percent,” said Ghassan, who owns a jewelry store. “A person who used to be able to buy a necklace for $200, or LBP300,000, a year ago now has to pay LBP1.6 million, which is three times the country’s minimum wage.”

While the threat to health from the coronavirus crisis should not be trivialized, the pandemic might to some extent prove to be a financial blessing in disguise in Lebanon, as families will be able to reduce the cost of Christmas meals by avoiding large family gatherings.

 




A woman sits in her damaged house in Beirut on Aug. 6, two days after a massive explosion at the port devastated the Lebanese capital. (AFP)

Expensive meats, extravagant deserts and imported cheeses will be absent from most festive tables this year. A charcuterie plate containing 200 grams of three types of cheese and a selection of processed meats now costs LBP350,000, compared with LBP60,000 last year.

Turkey, a Christmas-dinner tradition in Lebanon, used to cost an average of about LBP150,000 in a restaurant. Now the price of a cooked turkey delivered to your home is at least LBP750,000 — and could be as high as LBP1.3 million depending on the side dishes ordered with it.

As for sweet treats for dessert, the price of a kilogram of high-quality chocolate now exceeds LBP120,00, while a luxury Christmas cake can cost as much as LBP1 million.

“This year’s Christmas celebrations are different as there are no foreign meals on the tables or imported gifts,” said Beirut resident Joelle Daniel. “We are buying local products and focusing on educational children gifts manufactured by Lebanese designers.

“Everyone is suffering economically and we have to make do with what we have. This year was a bad one and we do not think that 2021 will be any better. My family and I have started to prepare our immigration papers because the economic, social and political situation (in Lebanon) is very dire.

“The revolution did not achieve any of our ambitions and then the blast at Beirut’s port happened, which revealed the extent to which our state is corrupt.”

Many of those who already left Lebanon in search of a better life abroad have returned to the country to spend Christmas with their families. In the past few days more than 7,000 people have come back to Beirut for the holidays, and more than 8,000 have arrived since the start of the month. But the visitors are unlikely to bring much seasonal good cheer for struggling businesses.

“The economic activity that has accompanied the holidays has had a limited effect,” said Ghassan Abou Jaoude, who owns a clothes shop near the Palace of Justice in Beirut. “When the holidays are over, every merchant will have to compare his losses and profits and will find that staying at home is less costly than accumulating more debts.

“This is because people simply no longer have money, while all of our political leaders have abandoned their people, prefer to obey the wishes of foreign powers and refuse to make any concessions in the face of such fateful national issues.”
 


US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel
Updated 42 min 40 sec ago

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel
  • Amos Hochstein met President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, PM Mikati and other ministers
  • Lebanon is ready “to continue to cooperate positively,” Aoun said

BEIRUT: Amos Hochstein, the US envoy appointed by the Biden administration this month to mediate Lebanon’s maritime border dispute with Israel, held talks on Wednesday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the future of the negotiations.
Aoun expressed “Lebanon’s readiness to continue to cooperate positively” with the process. However, the points of contention remain.
“The administration of President Joe Biden is ready to help Lebanon and Israel find a mutually acceptable solution to their common maritime borders,” the State Department said.
Hochstein, who is also the State Department’s senior adviser for energy security, also met Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, Energy Minister Walid Fayyad and army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun.
The speaker’s office said Berri’s discussion with Hochstein focused on “multiple files, particularly the demarcation of the maritime and land border between Lebanon and occupied Palestine. The framework agreement announced in October last year was confirmed.”
The US administration’s framework agreement for talks, which was implemented a year ago by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, includes two demarcation zones, for land and maritime borders. In accordance with the agreement, the US acts as mediator at the request of both sides.
Lebanon has been seen as struggling with the demarcation of its maritime borders. After submitting a border proposal to the UN in 2011, Lebanese officials decided that it was based on mistaken estimates and demanded an additional 1,430 square kilometers, an area that includes part of Israel’s Karish gas field. The Israelis oppose this.
Berri told Hochstein: “We have a new opportunity to resume negotiations in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, thanks to the new US efforts in this context.”
He also highlighted “the importance of excluding Lebanon from the sanctions of Caesar’s law in the topics of piping Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan through Syria to Lebanon.” Lebanon has been experiencing widespread power outages as a result of fuel shortages amid a crippling economic crisis. The Caesar Act is US legislation sanctioning the Syrian government for war crimes against the Syrian people.
“The US envoy conveyed to Berri an optimistic view about positive progress being achieved in what relates to these matters,” the speaker’s office said.
Oil industry governance expert Diana Al-Qaisi told Arab News: “The US mediator has reached out to the Egyptian minister of electricity regarding redirecting the Egyptian gas into Lebanon.”
She added that Hochstein’s talks in Lebanon focused on diplomacy and how best to facilitate negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border to agree a mutually acceptable solution, though Lebanon continues to stand firm in its demands.
Lebanese officials have yet to agree a strategy for the next phase of negotiations and their starting point for talks on the border.
The focus of Lebanese authorities then shifted on Wednesday to the nation’s financial crisis and a forensic audit of Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank. President Aoun met a delegation from the company Alvarez and Marsal, who informed him that the audit of the bank’s accounts was due to begin on Thursday morning. Aoun urged them to work quickly due to the urgency of the task.
On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund opened negotiations with the Lebanese government to agree a strategy to begin to address the country’s insolvency.
Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, stressed the need to address the losses faced by the financial sector and determine an accurate picture of the current financial situation in the country.
“Last time we had a full update of the situation was August 2020, before the resignation of the previous government, therefore many things have happened and we need to update the numbers and have a new baseline,” he said.


New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing
Updated 49 min 58 sec ago

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing
  • Regime kills 13 in retaliatory shelling of Idlib

JEDDAH: At least 27 people died in separate attacks in Syria on Wednesday in the country’s worst day of violence for nearly five years.

Two bombs planted on an army bus in central Damascus were detonated early in the morning, killing 14 people. Video footage showed emergency crews searching the charred shell of the bus and a bomb squad defusing a third device near by.
The bombs were detonated as the bus passed near the Hafez Al-Assad bridge, close to the national museum.The capital had been largely spared such bloodshed since troops and allied militias retook the last significant nearby rebel stronghold in 2018.
“We hadn’t seen violence of that type in a long time,” Salman, a fruit seller, said at the scene. “We thought we were done with such attacks.”
The bus attack was the deadliest in Damascus since a Daesh bombing targeted the Justice Palace in March 2017, killing at least 30 people.
No one admitted Wednesday’s bombing, but the finger of blame was pointed at Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance of militants who control the northwest Idlib province. An hour after the attack, Assad regime forces began shelling the opposition-held town of Ariha in Idlib. Four children on their way to school were among 13 people killed, the highest civilian toll since a March 2020 truce brokered by Turkey and Russia effectively put fighting in Idlib on hold.
“At 8 a.m. we woke up to the bombardment. The children were terrified and were screaming,” said Bilal Trissi, a father of two who lives near by. “There are children who died and people who lost their limbs. We don’t know why, what are we guilty of?”
The Save the Children charity said the shelling caused minor damage to two schools in the area.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF condemned the shelling, which it says was a “reminder that the war in Syria has not come to an end.”
The Damascus bombing will also challenge the Assad regime’s assertion that Syria’s decade-old civil war wasover and that stability was guaranteed for reconstruction and related investment.
The conflict erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of unarmed protesters demanding regime change and it has left about half a million people dead. Bashir Assad’s position once hung by a thread, but Iranian support and Russia’s military intervention in 2015 marked the start of a long and bloody fightback.
Regime forces have recaptured nearly all key cities, while US-backed Kurdish forces still run the northeast.The regime’s main focus is now Idlib region, home to opposition forces who were forced to surrender elsewhere.
In a separate incident on Wednesday, six members of a pro-Assad militia were killed in an arms depot blast in the central province of Hama. Regime sources said a “technical error” caused the explosion.


Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo

Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo
Updated 20 October 2021

Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo

Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo

CAIRO: A head-on vehicle collision Wednesday left at least 19 people dead and one other injured just outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo, state-run media said.
The Al-Ahram daily reported the crash took place when a passenger microbus collided with a truck on a highway that links Cairo’s outskirts on the banks of the Nile River.
Another state-run daily, Akhbar el-Yom said the truck crossed to the wrong side of the highway and collided head-on with the microbus.
Footage circulating online purported to show bodies lying on the roadside as ambulances rushed to pick up casualties.
Traffic accidents kill thousands every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. Crashes are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Last month, a bus overturned on a highway linking Cairo with the city of Suez, killing at least 12 people and injuring 30 others.
In April, a bus overturned while trying to pass a truck on a highway in the southern province of Assiut, leaving at least 21 people dead and three others injured.
Egypt’s official statistics agency says around 10,000 road accidents took place in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.


Why drone war by proxy is Iran’s favored weapon of asymmetric warfare

A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows military officials inspecting drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)
A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows military officials inspecting drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)
Updated 16 sec ago

Why drone war by proxy is Iran’s favored weapon of asymmetric warfare

A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows military officials inspecting drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)
  • Targets of drone strikes include airports, oil storage sites, commercial shipping, and military and diplomatic facilities
  • Experts say IRGC using its proxies in Yemen and the wider region to launch attacks with plausible deniability

WASHINGTON, D.C.: In recent months multiple waves of attacks by so-called loitering munitions, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle designed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have been launched against civilian facilities in various parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s political pawn in Yemen, the Houthis, has been given the know-how and components to use the technology as part of a regional strategy that has led to a spike in drone attacks throughout the Middle East.

In one particularly devastating attack, on Sept. 14, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil-processing facilities were badly damaged by a combined missile and drone strike, sending shock waves crashing through the global oil market.

The drones are relatively cheap to manufacture and can be difficult to defend against, particularly the loitering “suicide” munitions that have been used with increasing frequency by Iran and its proxies against Arab, American and Israeli interests across the Middle East.

The targets include civilian airports, major oil storage sites, commercial shipping, and both military and diplomatic facilities.

Defense policy planners and military commanders are hard pressed to come up with a strategy that can effectively counter Iran’s successful harnessing of asymmetric warfare to its domestic drone-production capabilities.

Ali Bakir, a research assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, said Tehran is leveraging drone strikes by its extremist proxies to strengthen its position in the region. A coordinated response by regional allies is needed to prevent further attacks, he added.

“Although not of sophisticated nature, Iran’s fleet of drones poses a growing threat to its neighbors and security in the Gulf,” Bakir told Arab News.

“This threat stems from the fact that Tehran is using drones with relatively primitive technology as missiles to compensate for the lack of adequate ammunition and advanced targeting systems. Equipping the IRGC’s regional franchise with these drones enables Iran to extend its reach and lethality.

“Surprisingly, despite the serious damage caused by the Iranian drones used to attack Saudi Arabia’s strategic oil facilities in 2019, no adequate and strategic response has yet been developed to counter Tehran’s drone threat, either by the Arab states or by the US.”

The IRGC’s use of proxies, such as the Houthis and Iraqi Shiite militia groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah, to launch drone strikes gives it a measure of plausible deniability. To date it has not faced any major military pushback against its expanding production line.

A missile fired by Houthi militants at Saudi Arabia in 2017 had been made in Iran. (AFP/File Photo)

This has allowed drone attacks to continue, including the strike this month on King Abdullah Airport in the southern Saudi city of Jazan that injured at least 10 civilians.

Analysts have also highlighted the ability of Iran to circumvent global sanctions to acquire the necessary components and technology to mass-produce explosives-laden UAVs.

This has allowed designated terrorist groups, trained and equipped by the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force, to use increasingly sophisticated drones in locations ranging from the Golan Heights to the Strait of Hormuz.

Without a comprehensive regional strategy that employs a more active posture to deter and weaken Iran’s combat-drone capabilities, Tehran and its transnational network of militant groups is likely to conclude that the benefits outweigh the cost of escalating attacks.

“I believe that the response to Iran’s growing threat should be proactive, collective, and multi-layered,” said Bakir.

This handout image provided by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media on February 10, 2021 reportedly shows a view of the damaged hull of a Flyadeal Airbus A320-214 aircraft on the tarmac at Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia's southern Asir province. (AFP/Saudi Ministry of Media/File Photo)

“In other words, countering Tehran’s drone threat should incorporate intelligence efforts to block foreign components smuggled from Germany, France, the US and other countries into Iran to be used in its drone program.

“On a military level, while it is important to develop dynamic, technological and cost-efficient solutions to address this challenge, the response should not rely solely on defensive measures. Acquiring advanced capabilities of the same nature can constitute a credible deterrence and establish a favorable balance of threat.

“The problem remains with Iran’s armed militias, which are harder to deter and have mostly little to lose. When it is necessary, drone shipments should be targeted before reaching them. Stealth attacks on Iran’s militias that use these drones should be executed to raise the cost and, whenever necessary, let Iran bear the responsibility.”

During a recent conference in Chicago, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an organization of exiled Iranian opposition figures, attempted to highlight to a broad US audience the imperative of recognizing the growing national security threat posed by Iran’s drone program.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office, said the mastermind behind Tehran’s drone program, Brig. Gen. Saeed Aghajani, was personally responsible for orchestrating the 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

“There has to be a comprehensive policy to succeed in containing the Iranian regime’s threat regarding its drones and supporting its proxies,” Jafarzadeh told Arab News.

“The central element of the right policy should be accountability. When Tehran wages terrorism and takes people hostage and hires proxies, it uses them as a tool to gain concessions from its counterparts. So far, because of the lack of accountability, regime terrorism has actually been empowered.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on February 27, 2021 shows debris on the roof of a building in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh in the aftermath of a missile attack claimed by Yemen's Houthi militia. (AFP/SPA/File Photo)

“Instead, there should be consequences for the regime’s illegal and rogue behavior. When former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was eliminated, it made the Iranian public very happy, it created fear among the IRGC and Quds Force commanders, it demoralized its proxies, and it further shrank the influence of the regime in the region.

“Tehran threatened to take revenge but that has not come in the past 22 months. Instead, the regime lost several other key persons with no ability to retaliate. This is the best example we have that Tehran is much weaker than it claims.”

However, it appears Washington is unlikely to embark on a more proactive policy that would raise the stakes for Iran and its proxies. The Biden administration has already lifted sanctions on a number of figures linked to Iran’s ballistic missiles program, and has signaled it remains keen to restart negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

These moves suggest there is little appetite in the White House to tackle head-on the low-intensity drone campaign being waged across the Middle East by the IRGC.

Those, like Jafarzadeh, who strongly disagree with the US administration’s more conciliatory approach say any revived negotiations should not exclude holding Iran to account for the drone attacks.

“Tehran has to pay the price for every terror plot, every missile they fire, every UAV they launch, and every person they kill in the region or in Iran,” Jafarzadeh said.

A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows military officials inspecting drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)

“For the Muslim and Arab nations, it is very important to rely on the experience of the past 40 years. The Iranian regime wants to make a show of force to obligate the countries of the region to provide concessions to the Iranian regime, but only decisiveness has worked.

“Most importantly, this regime is very weak and vulnerable and its strategic and regional resources are very limited now.”

That Tehran feels emboldened enough to launch drone strikes against oil tankers, international airports and other civilian targets, despite an array of sanctions designed to prevent them and their proxies developing such capabilities, shows that this strategy needs a rethink, according to analysts.

“We believe that sanctions will not help,” Tal Beeri, head of the research department at the Alma Research and Education Center in Israel, told Arab News.

“The Iranians know how to act militarily under sanctions, both in terms of force buildup and in terms of the use of force. The last few years have proven this well.”

A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. (AFP/Iranian Army Office/File Photo)

If sanctions are proving insufficient, neutralizing the strategic threat posed by the Iranian network of proxy-enabled drone strikes will probably require a measure of cooperation and knowledge-sharing by states in the region that have found themselves in the crosshairs of Iran’s proxy militant groups.

Iran is not the only country in the region with a robust drone program. Greater regional cooperation, including better intelligence sharing and the outside acquisition of drone weapon systems, might offer an antidote to Tehran’s ambitions on a wide front.

Static air-defense systems can only hold the line up to a point against the increasingly sophisticated drone tactics and technology in the hands of the IRGC’s proxies.

“The essence of the threat is the wide deployment and accessibility of the UAVs program,” said Beeri.

“The program has become accessible to all of Iran’s proxies in the Middle East. Today all proxies have intelligence-gathering UAVs and attacking UAVs, and they know how to operate them with great professionalism.

“The UAVs program is a fact. In our opinion, it cannot be thwarted — but can be disrupted.”


Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights

Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights
Updated 20 October 2021

Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights

Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights
  • The new restriction will come into force just before midnight Wednesday, the North African kingdom's airports authority said
  • In a tweet, national carrier Royal Air Maroc said the move was due to “the pandemic situation”

RABAT, Morocco: Morocco is suspending until further notice all flights to and from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands amid rising coronavirus infections in those countries.
The new restriction will come into force just before midnight Wednesday, the North African kingdom’s airports authority said.
In a tweet, national carrier Royal Air Maroc said the move was due to “the pandemic situation.” It did not provide further detail.
Morocco’s Health Ministry warned Monday of the threat of a new virus surge, stressing “the need to avoid possible a relapse of serious and critical cases and COVID-19-related deaths, which have occurred in several European countries.”
COVID-19 cases have been rising sharply in the Netherlands over the past two weeks and also are climbing in Germany.
The UK recorded almost 50,000 new infections in a single day this week. The chief executive of health care umbrella group, the NHS Confederation, said the health system risks being overwhelmed unless measures are introduced now, while the government urged millions get booster vaccine shots.
Germany’s foreign ministry urged citizens in Morocco to immediately contact their travel company due to the imminent halt in flights.
Dutch carrier Transavia said it was investigating whether it could get clearance to fly beyond the midnight cutoff “to pick up stranded passengers” from Morocco.
The World Health Organization said there was a 7 percent rise in new coronavirus cases across Europe last week, the only region in the world where cases increased.
Earlier this month, the Russian embassy in Rabat announced that commercial flights between the two countries had been suspended, citing a decision it had received from Moroccan authorities, but did not indicate the reason.
Morocco has Africa’s highest vaccination rate, with more than 50 percent of the population fully inoculated.
The government has also started administering booster vaccine shots, and said it is introducing a COVID-19 vaccine pass as a mandatory requirement for access to public venues and travel. The decision takes effect Thursday.
Overall, Morocco has registered more than 942,000 infections and 14,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to the Health Ministry.