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’

  • 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.”

Iran ultraconservative named presidential election winner

Updated 18 min 7 sec ago

Iran ultraconservative named presidential election winner

  • Hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi was seen as all but certain to emerge victorious
  • Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined those who said they would not cast their ballot

TEHRAN: Congratulations poured in for Iranian ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday for winning presidential elections even before official results were announced.
Iran’s outgoing moderate President Hassan Rouhani said his successor had been elected in the previous day’s vote, without naming the widely expected winner, Raisi.
“I congratulate the people on their choice,” said Rouhani. “My official congratulations will come later, but we know who got enough votes in this election and who is elected today by the people.”
The other two ultraconservative candidates – Mohsen Rezai and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi – explicitly congratulated Raisi.
“I congratulate ... Raisi, elected by the nation,” Ghazizadeh-Hashemi said, quoted by Iranian media.
And Rezai tweeted that he hoped Raisi could build “a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems”.
The only reformist in the race, former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati, also tweeted his congratulations to Raisi.
Raisi, 60, would take over from moderate Rouhani at a time the Islamic republic is seeking to salvage its tattered nuclear deal with major powers and free itself from punishing US sanctions that have driven a painful economic downturn.
Raisi, the head of the judiciary whose black turban signifies direct descent from Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, is seen as close to the 81-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political power in Iran.
The moderate candidate in Iran’s presidential election has conceded he lost to the country’s hard-line judiciary chief.
Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati wrote on Instagram to judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi early Saturday.
Hemmati wrote: “I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran.”
Voting on Friday was extended by two hours past the original midnight deadline amid fears of a low turnout of 50 percent or less.
Many voters chose to stay away after the field of some 600 hopefuls was winnowed down to seven candidates, all men, excluding an ex-president and a former parliament speaker.
Three of the vetted candidates dropped out of the race two days before Friday’s election, and two of them threw their support behind Raisi.
Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of those who were disqualified by the powerful 12-member Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, joined those who said they would not cast their ballot.
Raisi’s only rival from the reformist camp was the low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, 65, who had polled in the low single digits before the election.
Iran’s electorate, of now almost 60 million eligible voters, has delivered surprise results before, observers warn. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held next Friday.
On election day, pictures of often flag-waving voters in the country of 83 million dominated state TV coverage, but away from the polling stations some voiced anger at what they saw as a stage-managed election.
“Whether I vote or not, someone has already been elected,” scoffed Tehran shopkeeper Saeed Zareie. “They organize the elections for the media.”
Enthusiasm has been dampened further by the economic malaise of spiralling inflation and job losses, and the pandemic that proved more deadly in Iran than anywhere else in the region, killing more than 80,000 people by the official count.
Among those who lined up to vote at schools, mosques and community centers, many said they supported Raisi, who has promised to fight corruption, help the poor and build millions of flats for low-income families.
A nurse named Sahebiyan said she backed the frontrunner for his anti-graft credentials and on hopes he would “move the country forward... and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation.”
Raisi has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
To opposition and human rights groups, his name is linked to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The US government has sanctioned him over the purge, in which Raisi has denied playing a part.
Ultimate power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader, but the president wields major influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Rouhani, 72, leaves office in August after serving the maximum two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.
His landmark achievement was the 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran.
While Iran has always denied seeking a nuclear weapon, Trump charged it is still planning to build the bomb and destabilising the Middle East through armed proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fueled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.
Iran’s ultraconservative camp — which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in the Islamic republic — attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.
Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the candidates including Raisi that Iran must seek an end to the US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna aiming to revive the nuclear accord

EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

Updated 19 June 2021

EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

  • Lebanon fuel crunch inspires demonstrations at gas stations and supermarkets
  • Rocket-propelled grenades found in Beirut rubbish

BEIRUT: Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, is expected to start a round of talks with Lebanese officials in Beirut on Saturday.

This comes days ahead of a meeting of EU officials in Brussels, called by France, to discuss imposing sanctions on Lebanese officials accused of corruption and political obstruction.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director general of the General Security, highlighted “Russia’s constant will to stand by Lebanon and support it on the economic and security levels.”

He made his comments following talks with Russian officials.

Ibrahim added: “There should be a government, regardless of its form, in order to find solutions to all problems in Lebanon.”

He is a prominent figure in Lebanon who often conducts foreign negotiations.

Meanwhile, the living crisis is worsening, leading to armed clashes.

People are still waiting for long hours to fill up on gasoline amid shortages of fuel, which is subsidized by the state. The subsidy is expected to be lifted soon.

But this is dependent on the ration card for needy people, which is still being debated by parliamentary committees.

The fuel crisis sparked a clash on Friday in front of a gas station in Tripoli, which led to a shooting, with no casualties.

Also in Tripoli, a clash in front of a supermarket led to exchanging shots, causing two injuries.

The city has the biggest percentage of struggling Lebanese, who were impoverished further due to the collapse of the currency.

For the second consecutive day, employees of the public sector stuck to their strike which was called for by the Public Administration Employees Association in protest against the collapse of their purchasing power and the deterioration of economic and living conditions.

Contacts and consultations related to forming the new government have stalled after the failure of the initiative of the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, but he has insisted that “it is still standing.”

Walid Jumblatt, president of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) said: “It is impossible for some officials to keep waiting while the country’s conditions are retreating.”

Jumblatt added: “It is time for a settlement away from personal calculations.”

In the past two days, Berri had joined Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in accusing President Michel Aoun and his political party of trying to get the blocking third in the government, contrary to the constitution.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Internal Security forces announced that they “captured 16 RPG type rocket-propelled grenades, and five grenades of other types dumped in waste containers near the House of the Druze Community in Lebanon in Beirut.”

Internal Security also declared that the “old ammunition” was removed after being examined by its explosives experts.

The identity of the party which disposed of the ammunition remains unknown.

The Anti-Narcotics Division at the Lebanese Customs seized a large quantity of Captagon pills hidden in a container loaded with stones, destined to be smuggled to Saudi Arabia via the port of Beirut.

“Some people implicated in the operation were arrested,” declared the caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmi.

Speaking at the Port of Beirut, he revealed that the shipment was destined for Jeddah.

EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

Updated 18 June 2021

EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

  • Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon's squabbling politicians
  • Senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil

PARIS/BRUSSELS: Criteria for European Union sanctions being prepared for Lebanese politicians are likely to be corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mishandling and human rights abuses, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters.
Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after 11 months of a crisis that has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, electricity blackouts, and fuel and food shortages.
The bloc, which has been holding technical discussions on possible measures for the last month, has yet to decide on which approach to take, but foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is due in Lebanon this weekend and will report back to foreign ministers on Monday.
As many senior Lebanese politicians have homes, bank accounts and investments in the EU, and send their children to universities there, a withdrawal of that access could help focus minds.
Paris says it has already taken measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese officials it sees as blocking efforts to tackle the crisis, which is rooted in decades of state corruption and debt, although it has not named anybody publicly.
The EU first needs to set up a sanctions regime that could then see individuals hit by travel bans and asset freezes, although it may also decide to not list anybody immediately.
The note, which also outlines the strengths and weaknesses of taking such a measure, focuses on four criteria. It begins with obstructing the establishment of a government, the political process or the successful completion of the political transition and then turns to obstructing the implementation of urgent reforms needed to overcome the political, economic and social crisis.
Financial mishandling, which would target people, entities or bodies believed to be responsible for the mismanagement of public finances and the banking sector, is also a core criteria as is the violation of human rights as a result of the economic and social crisis.
“It might be argued that the lack of political responsibility of the leadership in Lebanon is at the core of a massive implosion of the economy,” the note reads, referring to the possible human rights criteria.
“This has led to significant suffering and has affected the human rights of the population in Lebanon.”
Such diplomatic notes are common in EU policymaking, circulated among EU diplomats and officials, although they are not made public.
The note also says an “exit strategy” proposing benchmarks for establishing whether the sanctions regime has served its purpose as well as for renewing or lifting individual designations should also be put in place.
How quickly sanctions could be imposed is still unclear, but with political divisions continuing to worsen, the bloc is likely to press ahead before the summer holiday period.
There are divisions among the 27 EU states over the wisdom of EU sanctions, but the bloc’s two main powers, France and Germany are in favor, which is likely to prove pivotal. A larger group of nations has yet to specify their approach.
Hungary has publicly denounced EU efforts to pressure Lebanese politicians.
A senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who is already under US sanctions.

10 arrested, 9 injured as protesters at Al-Aqsa face rubber bullets

Updated 19 June 2021

10 arrested, 9 injured as protesters at Al-Aqsa face rubber bullets

  • About 1,000 Palestinians gathered in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound after weekly prayers

JERUSALEM: Israeli police on Friday arrested 10 Palestinians during clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, with nine people injured as protesters hurled rocks and officers fired rubber bullets, police and medics said.

About 1,000 people gathered in the compound after weekly prayers chanting “God is great” and some hoisting Palestinian flags. Some demonstrators threw stones at police, who raided the site, a reporter said.

The confrontation came after Palestinians protested against Jewish nationalists who had marched through Israel-annexed East Jerusalem on Tuesday, chanting insults to Islam.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said nine people were hurt, including three hospitalized in the confrontation, with injuries due to “beatings, rubber bullets and sound bombs.”

“Several dozen youths began disturbing the order and throwing stones toward security men,” police said in a statement, adding that “Ten suspects were arrested.”

A day earlier, police said they arrested eight people who demonstrated at the Damascus Gate, an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, where the nationalist Jewish march had congregated.

Also on Friday, Palestinians protested near Nablus in the occupied West Bank against the expansion of a Jewish settlement on the lands of Beita village. The Red Crescent said 47 people were injured when security forces fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

The Al-Aqsa compound lies in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967, in a move most of the international community does not recognize.

Oman, slowest vaccinator in the Gulf, pushes campaign amid COVID-19 surge

Updated 18 June 2021

Oman, slowest vaccinator in the Gulf, pushes campaign amid COVID-19 surge

  • The UAE’s more than 14 million administered doses is enough to have vaccinated about 72.6 percent of the country of around 9.8 million
  • Oman by comparison has administered enough to have vaccinated about 6.1 percent of the country of around 5 million

DUBAI: Fresh COVID-19 vaccine supplies are accelerating inoculations in Oman, which has had the slowest rollout in the Gulf due to procurement difficulties, a government health official said, as a surge in cases puts hospitals under pressure.
“The situation is now changing, we are regularly now receiving stocks of vaccine ... the campaign again has started,” Zahir Ghassan Al-Abri, of the General Directorate of Primary Health Care at Oman’s Ministry of Health, told Reuters.
Since it began vaccinating in May, Oman has given at least one dose to around 15 percent of the eligible population, said Abri. Ministry of health data on Tuesday shows 720,199 doses have been given in the country of around 4.5 million people, with 184,621 people having received two doses.
Reuters analysis, based on the number of vaccinations administered per total population assuming every person needs two doses, shows Oman to be lagging far behind its neighbors.
The United Arab Emirates’ more than 14 million administered doses is enough to have vaccinated about 72.6 percent of the country of around 9.8 million. Oman by comparison has administered enough to have vaccinated about 6.1 percent of the country.
Kuwait, which also experienced some procurement delays, has administered enough to have vaccinated about 21.6 percent of the country.
Abri said the slow campaign was due to supply difficulties.
“As with other countries the delivery of these vaccines has not been met through the agreed timeline for different reasons.”
Oman offers the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines. It has not approved the shot produced by China’s state-owned Sinopharm, which the UAE used in its early, rapid rollout after hosting Phase III clinical trials.
Asked whether Oman plans to introduce other vaccines, including Sinopharm, Abri said they would be considered as long as they met government standards.
“The strategy adopted by the ministry of health since the beginning is selecting vaccines based on reports of efficacy and safety, as approved by research and guidelines published by different international organizations.”
Cases in Oman have trended upwards since January, with a pronounced surge since a dip in early May.
It has recorded 242,723 cases and 2,626 deaths in total. On Thursday it reported 2,015 new cases.
Oman’s media this week said hospitals nationwide were straining under rising cases. A main field hospital in the capital Muscat was at more than 90 percent capacity, state media said.
Aiming to vaccinate everyone 12 and over by the end of the year, Oman will on Sunday offer shots to people over 45.