Anger returns to streets of Lebanon as lira plunges in value against dollar

Anti-government protesters smash a bank widow, during ongoing protests against the Lebanese central bank's governor and against the deepening financial crisis, at Hamra trade street, in Beirut. (AP)
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Updated 15 January 2020

Anger returns to streets of Lebanon as lira plunges in value against dollar

  • Obstacles remain to the creation of a new administration, President Aoun says
  • Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with the local currency plummeting against the US dollar

BEIRUT: Protesters in Lebanon burned tires, blocked roads and brought traffic in Beirut to a standstill on Tuesday in renewed demonstrations against economic hardship and government corruption.

In Tripoli, protesters clashed with army and internal security forces. An officer was hit in the head by a stone, and a protester was hit by a rubber bullet.

The demonstrations, which began in October and led swiftly to the resignation of Saad Hariri as prime minister, had been scaled back in recent weeks amid negotiations to form a new government.

But angry protesters returned to the streets on Tuesday to complain about unemployment and financial meltdown, as the Lebanese lira plunged in value to 2,500 against the US dollar, compared with the official exchange rate of 1,515.

 

“We gave them a month to form a new government, so they thought we were weak and they went back to their corruption,” said one woman standing on the Ring Bridge with protesters waving Lebanese flags.

“They proved that they do not care about the people or the economic collapse that the country is experiencing, so we decided to return to the streets.”

Another activist said: “We want a government that will save the country from the abyss it has fallen into.” One woman from Tripoli complained: “I do not work, my children are unemployed, politicians do not care.”

Protesters from Beirut’s southern suburbs joined a demonstration outside the Central Bank, chanting against the governor and his policies of restricting dollar transactions and deposit withdrawals. 

Others gathered outside the Beirut home of the newly designated Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, calling for his resignation less than a month after he was appointed.

President Michel Aoun said obstacles remained to the creation of a new administration.

“Although we do not have the luxury of delay, the formation of this government requires the selection of qualified candidates, worthy of the confidence of both the people and the Parliament, which in turn requires time,” he said.


Houthi banknote ban sparks crisis in Yemen

Updated 20 January 2020

Houthi banknote ban sparks crisis in Yemen

  • Locals are bracing for a spike in fuel prices, which occurs when riyal dives

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Prices of basic imported goods increased 10 percent in government-controlled areas of Yemen this weekend — a result of the Houthi ban on newly printed banknotes.

“Importers told us the increase is due to the fall of the Yemeni riyal against the dollar and the Saudi riyal,” Mohammed, a shop owner in Al-Mukalla told Arab News.

The Iran-backed Houthis issued a ban on the use of banknotes released by the Central Bank in Aden, saying the move is meant to stop inflation and the deterioration of the Yemeni riyal against hard currencies. The Houthis have vowed to confiscate new bills and punish traders who possess or use them.

When the Houthis issued the ban a month ago, the Yemeni riyal was trading at 600 against the dollar.

The riyal has since fallen in value to around 650, forcing local importers to increase the prices of goods, and demonstrating
how areas liberated from the Houthis are still vulnerable to their economic decisions.

Locals are also bracing for a spike in fuel prices, which usually occurs when the Yemeni riyal dives.

Since December, Houthi-controlled areas such as Sanaa and other heavily populated areas in northern Yemen have suffered from a severe credit crisis that has pushed locals to exchange new bills with scarce and damaged old ones, or converting them to the dollar or Saudi riyal.

The liquidity crisis has prompted local exchange companies to freeze government salaries, exacerbating suffering in a country that is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN. 

“My agency managed to get rid of new notes here and there. We now only accept Saudi riyals or old bills,” a young man who runs a travel agency in Sanaa told Arab News on condition of anonymity to protect his identity. 

“Traders who have a lot of new bills smuggle them inside goods to be delivered to government-controlled areas, where they’re exchanged for old banknotes.”

The dollar is traded at 580 Yemeni riyals in Houthi-controlled areas, lending weight to economists’ speculation that the decision could create two economies, derail business between liberated areas and those under Houthi control, and boost currency arbitrage on the black market. 

Another repercussion of the ban is the unprecedented level of smuggling of hard and local currency between north and south.

In Al-Mukalla, local exchange companies told Arab News on Sunday that big traders in Sanaa smuggle hard currencies into liberated areas, where they are sold at higher rates. 

“They buy the dollar at 580 in Sanaa and sell it here at 640,” said Abu Awadh, a worker at a local exchange company who used a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. Demand for the dollar and the Saudi riyal has decreased for the first time in years, he added.

Despite an abundance of the dollar in the market, the Yemeni riyal continues to plunge. According to local traders, the reason is that currency dealers move dollars between liberated areas seeking higher rates. 

The internationally recognized government in Aden, which has condemned the ban, appears powerless against its repercussions.

The Economic Reforms Team, a group of economic experts, warned that the Houthi decision could cause humanitarian, economic, social and political consequences. It urged warring parties in Yemen not to use the economy as a weapon.