Concerns grow that Lebanon fuel crisis is leading to ‘industrial and agricultural disaster’

Concerns grow that Lebanon fuel crisis is leading to ‘industrial and agricultural disaster’
Streets in Beirut turned into a large parking lot, with queues near gas stations as people filled their tanks with gasoline. (AFP/File)
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Updated 11 June 2021

Concerns grow that Lebanon fuel crisis is leading to ‘industrial and agricultural disaster’

Concerns grow that Lebanon fuel crisis is leading to ‘industrial and agricultural disaster’
  • Gasoline stocks running out and factories closing next week
  • There is a systematic plan to destroy the economy, claims MP Michel Daher

BEIRUT: Lebanon is witnessing shortages in medicines, fuel and other basic goods, with long lines forming outside petrol stations on Thursday.

The country has been grappling with an unprecedented economic and financial crisis that has seen the local currency collapse and banks clamp down on withdrawals and money transfers.

Ongoing political contacts have not reached a breakthrough to end the stalemate on forming the government.

As protests against living conditions continued on Thursday, streets in Beirut turned into a large parking lot, with queues near gas stations as people filled their tanks with gasoline.

Some drivers spent all night in their cars.

Information, meanwhile, spread on social media platforms that “the petroleum price may be reaching LBP140,000 ($93) based on the dollar exchange rate in the black market and the price of oil barrels at the moment.”

The dollar exchange rate in the black market increased on Thursday, reaching LBP14,750 against the dollar.

Walid Dib, head of the fuel companies’ workers and users syndicate, warned that the “oil and gas sector is nearing collapse next week when the companies’ reserves run out.”

He added: “It is weird how officials and decision-makers lack interest in that, and no decisions are taken by those responsible for the file in order to put an end to the crisis.”

Gas stations’ tanks have been constantly low on subsidized gasoline for weeks, but shortages reached a new depth on Thursday as people’s fears of rationing and shortages intensified, leading to a large number of gas stations closing down.

The gas station owners’ syndicate urged the government and Banque du Liban (BDL) “to clearly announce their policies in this sector and be frank with us and the people about what they truly want to do.”

This new crisis — adding to the many calamities facing the Lebanese — is dangerous, as it affects Lebanon’s service system and all of its sectors, with the latest being the shortage in fuel to operate power plants two days ago.

MP Michel Daher, who withdrew from Gebran Bassil’s bloc last year, expressed his fear of “the fuel crisis leading to an industrial and agricultural disaster.”

He said that a number of factory owners informed him that they will close down next week due to a shortage in fuel oil, which is still smuggled into Syria.

He noted that “the unavailability of fuel will prevent farmers from irrigation.”

He told Arab News: “There is a systematic plan to destroy the Lebanese economy, especially in summer when the Lebanese await the return of migrants who refresh the economy with dollars. I know that a large number of those canceled their visit.”

He noted that “the political class in Lebanon is in denial, and people are rapidly heading toward the crisis while the state does not have any response plan.”

The MP said: “There is deadly inflation and no one wants to admit the problem.”

He voiced concern that some parties “want the collapse to happen.”

Daher said he believed that some political sides in Lebanon “want to reformulate the Taif Agreement, and the full collapse helps hold a constitutional convention.”

Daher added: “Each side wants to relaunch itself politically, by proving its point of view.

“Each side has its political agenda, and the internal solution might require chaos, as this brings people to power who might not reach it with external solutions. They are preceding the regional solution in order to remain on the table.”

On Thursday, petroleum importing companies called on canceling subsidies on gasoline “amid the rationing transfers of the BDL which has lowered the monthly number of electricity-generating ships from four to one.”

George Brax, a spokesperson for the gas station owners’ syndicate, said the BDL “has not given its pre-approval to petroleum importing companies, which allows them to unload electricity-generating ships that have reached the Lebanese waters or will arrive in a few days.”

He referred to “calls taking place in an attempt to find solutions.”

Brax feared that “humiliating citizens and gas station owners at the moment is in the framework of the political game in the country.”

An electricity-generating ship has been waiting in the sea. Another is expected to arrive in two days, but the BDL has not made the necessary funds available.

Brax criticized the government and the BDL that spent “tens of billions of dollars from the depositors’ money and refrained from paying a few million dollars to save the summer that will multiply the dollars they spent.”

He added: “Halting imports all of a sudden and leaving the country without fuel is a criminal and destructive act.”

The unannounced lifting of subsidies on 98-octane gasoline is part of the plan to rationalize subsidies that previously affected food items, with only eight items currently subsidized.

A source at the Ministry of Finance told Arab News: “Failure to directly announce lifting subsidies is due to fear that it leads to public protests with unintended consequences. None of the politicians want to bear those consequences.”


Iraqi border authority seizes dangerous chemicals in Basra

Iraqi border authority seizes dangerous chemicals in Basra
Updated 12 min 2 sec ago

Iraqi border authority seizes dangerous chemicals in Basra

Iraqi border authority seizes dangerous chemicals in Basra
  • The first container had flammable chemicals
  • The authority has referred the reports to the judicial authority

DUBAI: Iraq’s Border Ports Authority seized a hoard of dangerous chemicals in Umm Qasr port in Basra on Friday, state news agency INA reported.
The authority said the chemicals were flammable.
“With the help and cooperation of the National Intelligence Service, we have seized two containers, the first one contains dangerous flammable chemicals which have been left for a long time at the port,” INA quoted the statement.
The second container has prohibited second-hand motorcycles which were being prepared for smuggling, the report added.
“Two reports have been organized with what was seized and were referred to the judicial authorities to take necessary legal measures,” INA quoted the statement.


Turkey disappointed at EU summit outcome

Turkey disappointed at EU summit outcome
Updated 25 June 2021

Turkey disappointed at EU summit outcome

Turkey disappointed at EU summit outcome
  • The EU in March held out a string of incentives to convince Erdogan to make good on pledges to mend fraught relations
  • Brussels is preparing a plan to provide Turkey with $4.2 billion in extra funding from 2021 to 2024 to help it host Syrian refugees
ANKARA: Turkey on Friday expressed disappointment after an EU summit ended with a critical statement about Ankara’s rights record and no clear progress on a customs treaty or committment on aid.
The EU in March held out a string of incentives to convince President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make good on pledges to mend fraught relations.
Brussels is readying a plan to provide Turkey with 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in extra funding from 2021 to 2024 to help it host millions of refugees from Syria.
The leaders at their summit on Thursday told the European Commission executive body to present a formal proposal “without delay.”
But they outlined no timeframe and added that “fundamental rights in Turkey remain a key concern.”
The Turkish foreign ministry said the statement “came well short of what was expected or necessary.”
“In order to reduce tensions and start dialogue and cooperation, Turkey has done more than its share,” it said.
Ankara has been at particular odds with France and historic rival Greece over Turkish drilling operations near the divided island of Cyprus and search for natural gas in disputed eastern Mediterranean waters.
But Ankara and Athens have resumed direct talks about their dispute for the first time since 2016 and Turkey has pulled back its research vessels from the contested areas of the sea.
Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron have also tried to calm their war of words by exchanging personal letters and meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit this month.
Ankara expressed particular frustration with the limited progress made in Brussels on an upgrade of a customs treaty the sides reached in 1995.
The ministry called the lack of clear movement on the pact “a delaying tactic and a lack of goodwill.”

Iran’s top leader receives its home-made coronavirus vaccine

Iran’s top leader receives its home-made coronavirus vaccine
Updated 8 min 13 sec ago

Iran’s top leader receives its home-made coronavirus vaccine

Iran’s top leader receives its home-made coronavirus vaccine
  • Iranian pharmaceutical company Shifafarmed made the COVIran Barekat vaccine based on deactivated virus
  • Iran has not published data about efficacy of the vaccine, but claims of about 85 percent immunity to the deadly virus

TEHRAN: Iran’s supreme leader has received the first coronavirus vaccine developed by the Islamic Republic, state TV reported Friday.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that he was not interested in taking foreign-made vaccines, because it is better to “wait for the Iranian vaccine because we have to be proud of this national honor.”
In January, Khamenei banned imports of the American and Britain vaccines, a reflection of mistrust toward the West.
Iranian pharmaceutical company Shifafarmed made the COVIran Barekat vaccine based on deactivated virus, and the first study of the safety and effectiveness began in late December.
The emergency authorization was approved last week after the country, which is the worst-hit nation in the Middle East, faced problems importing enough vaccines.
Iran has not published data about efficacy of the vaccine, but claims that people who get the home-made jab have about 85 percent immunity to the deadly virus.
Iranian officials said the death toll from COVID-19 rose by 115 over the day into Friday, putting the country’s total at 83,588 since the pandemic broke out last year.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said 10,820 new confirmed cases were registered over the same period, bringing that total to 3,150,949.
At least 1,397 people remained hospitalized with the virus, she added.
Lari said that 3,219 of the patients are in serious condition, and that 2,809,595 have recovered so far. Iran remains among the hardest-hit countries in the world.
Iran has also said it is working on a vaccine with cooperation from a foreign country. Iranian authorities said that another vaccine, produced jointly by Iran and Cuba, will join the country’s vaccine package in coming days.
Iran’s local vaccine research has gained urgency as officials allege that heavy American sanctions will hamper the Islamic Republic’s mass inoculation efforts.
Iran retains some access to vaccines, including through its participation in COVAX, an international initiative designed to distribute vaccines to countries regardless of their wealth. But international banks and financial institutions are reluctant to deal with Iran for fear of American penalties. Under COVAX rules, Iran could order enough doses to vaccinate half of its 82 million people.


Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage
Updated 25 June 2021

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage
  • Some are leaving the country, others are saving up for tickets to return home
  • One Sudanese worker told how he was shot at for refusing to open the pumps

BEIRUT: Lebanon is suffering massive fuel shortages amid the worsening economic crisis in the country. Long queues outside gas stations have sparked brawls, traffic jams, accidents on nearby roads and even gunfights.

Abdo Mustafa, an Egyptian expatriate working as a gas station attendant in Beirut, revealed that following the announcement last weekend of an increase in fuel prices he has been insulted and beaten by some people among the long queues of drivers waiting to fill up their vehicles.

He came to Lebanon to “earn good money to support his family, not be beaten or insulted,” he told Arab News on Thursday.

“This fuel-shortage crisis has developed so quickly, and its grimness and uncertainty has unfolded vastly and negatively on migrant workers in Lebanon.”

Mustafa, a 37-year-old father of two, has now decided to return home because of the devaluation of the Lebanese currency and the scarcity of dollars amid a worsening economic crisis, along with the personal abuse he is receiving as a result of the worsening fuel shortages.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that President Michel Aoun was heading a meeting to address the fuel crisis and its effects. The other participants included the caretaker ministers of power and finance, and the governor of Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank.

With more than 10,000 expatriates employed at about 2,000 gas stations in Lebanon, it seems likely that more will leave as soon as they can afford to do so, given the escalating risk of insults, assaults and even death threats. (AN Photo/Bassam Zaazaa)

They discussed a number of proposals designed to prevent any damaging escalations that might affect security and social stability. Local media reported that plans were approved to import subsidized fuel at the higher exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, which is the rate at which customers are currently permitted to withdraw their savings, instead of the official exchange rate of 1,500 pounds.

Ebrahim, the Lebanese manager of a gas station in the Hamra area, said he believes fuel prices will continue to rise.

“This has got to end, otherwise security deterioration is inevitable,” he told Arab News. “A Bangladeshi and a Sudanese worker already left us. They couldn’t tolerate the economic situation, or being attacked by irritated clients.”

He added that the action agreed by the authorities during Thursday’s meeting is merely a temporary solution.

Egyptian worker Abdullah Ahmad said the economic situation in Lebanon was so “good and enticing” when he arrived in the country in 2011.

“When we could purchase the dollar at (the official rate of) 1,500 (pounds) we made good money that we sent to our families. My cousin convinced me to come,” he said.

Now Ahmad, too, is trying to save money so that he can afford to return home.

“I didn’t come here to be humiliated,” he said. “Last week a provoked client cursed my whole family when the fuel ran out before his turn.”

Gas stations have been constantly low on subsidized fuel for many weeks but the shortages got worse this month as fears grew among the public of rationing and pumps running dry. As a result, a large number of petrol stations closed.

“A number of fistfights, heated arguments and shootings have taken place between irritated drivers,” an official from the Internal Security Forces told Arab News. “We have been dispatching two or three policemen at the most-crowded stations to organize traffic flow and enforce security.”

Some workers were reluctant to talk to the media, while others declined to give their names. When approached by Arab News, the manager of one gas station in the Dar Al-Fatwa area said: “Please leave; we don’t want media.”

A few blocks away, in the Msaytbeh neighborhood, Bangladeshi gas station employee Abdul Rahim said that that after being beaten and insulted by waiting motorcyclists last month he asked his boss to move him from pumping fuel to washing cars.

Afraid to give his full name, the 41-year-old added that the area where he works is popular with supporters of the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party led by Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, a major ally of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah.

The moment the gas station opens, Abdul Rahim said, people flock there. He added that he was surprised “how quickly they learn that the station has opened.”

Several brawls among queuing customers have escalated into gunfights, he added.

“Last month, a massive crowd of motorcyclists shouted and yelled and cursed at me to fill their tanks … after I stopped the pump,” he told Arab News. “I don’t remember how many blows I took or how many times my mother was cursed.”

Nour M., who is also from Bangladesh, and declined to give his full name, said that the neighborhood in which he works is full of supporters of Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, “who flock to the gas station in their hundreds wanting to jump queues and fill up with gas.”

He added: “When (it runs out) I have to simply stop. Angry clients, who look like thugs, instantly beat us. Mostly, they come armed with sticks and beat us if we don’t fill (their tanks).”

The 37-year-old also revealed that he has received death threats, and that he knows many people working in gas stations who take kickbacks in return for ensuring drivers can fuel their vehicles.

“Actually we would be lucky to get extra money to permit them to fill their tanks … with the dollar crisis, some of us act boldly and take kickbacks to recover our losses,” he said.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that President Michel Aoun was heading a meeting to address the fuel crisis and its effects. (AN Photo/Bassam Zaazaa)

The manager of another gas station, who refused to give his name because he feared for his safety, said that the owners of many stations suffer at the hands of “politically-affiliated thugs who come in motorcycle groups and terrorize the peaceful car drivers who are lined up.”

He added: “They jump lanes, terrify and threaten our workers. We often encounter more than 10 fights a day.”

Nour Awad from Sudan, who works at a gas station in the Mount Lebanon area, told Arab News that he was shot at in May when he refused to fill a vehicle after the pumps closed.

“I phoned my boss, who was shot at and injured because he refused to open the pumps — he was hospitalized,” he said.

Awad added that he, too, is trying to save enough money to fly back home “as I cannot live or survive here anymore.”

With more than 10,000 expatriates employed at about 2,000 gas stations in Lebanon, it seems likely that more will leave as soon as they can afford to do so, given the escalating risk of insults, assaults and even death threats.

Gas station workers, who mostly come from Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria and Sudan, previously earned the equivalent of about $400 a month, but this has been reduced to about $40 by the devaluation of the Lebanese currency and the soaring exchange rate amid an economic collapse a World Bank report described as the “world’s worst since the mid-19th century.”

Thousands of domestic workers from Asia have also left Lebanon since the financial crisis escalated after the 2019 protests in the country, and salaries lost more than 85 percent of their purchasing power.


Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike
Updated 25 June 2021

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike
  • Jump in new infections is a blow for a country which has prided itself on one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts

JERUSALEM: The Israeli health ministry reimposed a requirement Friday for masks to be worn in enclosed public places following a surge in COVID-19 cases since it was dropped 10 days ago.
The spike in new infections is a blow for a country which has prided itself on one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts.
The head of Israel’s pandemic response taskforce, Nachman Ash, told public radio the requirement came after four days of more than 100 new cases a day, with 227 cases confirmed Thursday.
“We are seeing a doubling every few days,” Ash said. “Another thing that’s worrying is that the infections are spreading. If we had two cities where most of the infections were, we have more cities where the numbers are rising and communities where the cases are going up.”
Ash said the rise in cases was likely due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus first seen in India.
Reimposing the mask requirement is a setback for Israel, coming so soon after it was lifted on June 15 on the back of a successful vaccination campaign.
Some 5.2 million people have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, after Israel obtained millions of doses.
Ash said despite the increased number of positive cases, he did not yet see a parallel rise in hospitalizations or deaths.
“It’s clear it’s a factor of time, that not enough time has passed,” Ash said. “But we hope the vaccines will protect us from a rise in hospitalization and difficult cases.”
The health ministry urged Israelis to wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces too, including at pride events scheduled for this weekend.
A pride march scheduled for Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. The event is resuming after it was suspended last year due to the virus.
Israel became a pioneer in Covid inoculations after then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained millions of doses from Pfizer in exchange for sharing health data on the vaccines’ impact.
In February, Netanyahu celebrated the arrival of a batch of vaccines saying: “We have made Israel a global model for success.”
The resulting fall in new cases allowed much of daily life to return to normal but it did not save Netanyahu his job. He was replaced as prime minister earlier this month by his onetime aide turned foe Naftali Bennett.
Bennett warned Tuesday of a “new outbreak” of coronavirus. On a visit to Ben Gurion international airport, he announced a new Covid testing facility for incoming travelers and strengthened enforcement of quarantine orders for those returning from overseas.
To cut down on the spread of the virus, he asked Israelis to cancel their travel plans. “Whoever doesn’t have to fly abroad, please don’t,” Bennett said.
On Wednesday, Israel announced it was delaying delayed plans to reopen its borders to individual tourists.
Bennett urged parents to vaccinate children aged 12 and older “as soon as possible,” noting that Israel’s stock of vaccines would soon expire.
A deal to trade soon-to-expire vaccines with the Palestinian Authority for new shots arriving in the autumn fell apart last week amid mutual accusations of bad faith.
Israel has faced criticism for refusing to vaccinate most Palestinians living in the West Bank, or in the Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli blockade. Israeli citizens living in West Bank settlements have been eligible to take part in its vaccination program, however.