Lebanon’s public ride-share drivers fear livelihood crash

Lebanon’s public transport system is at risk of collapse due to fuel shortages and rising petrol prices.

Beirut, Lebanon — For the first time in more than 10 years, Khalid Abu Sleeman recently stopped driving his public ride-share van from the northern province of Akkar to Beirut, saying he struggles to cover the skyrocketing cost of his vehicle Has been doing.

In fact, he said he loses more money driving a van than staying at home without work. Oil and tire changes, and other maintenance costs for vehicles have become out of reach for many drivers as the Lebanese currency continues to depreciate from the official rate of around £1,500 to the US dollar.

Since the end of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost up to 90 percent of its value.

At the start of the crisis, 40-year-old Abu Sleiman was still able to care for himself and his family, which he had saved, but things went downhill as living expenses also rose.

His siblings support him with medical expenses after a recent slip disc injury, but he is also struggling to find daily work. To survive, Abu Slimane is now indebted to a handful of pharmacies and small grocery stores.

Like him, his nephew is also a van driver trying to support his family. He has not given up yet, but has been fighting.

Abu Sleiman, sitting under a tree on the sidewalk near a gas station in the northern city of Halba, shared a photo of himself and other van drivers smoking a water pipe. But they didn’t have an afternoon break; They were waiting for the petrol pump to open.

“My nephew and others came to the petrol station five hours ago,” he said. “It’s really outrageous.”

Like Abu Sleeman and his nephew, drivers in Lebanon often wait hours in long queues to partially fill their vehicles with petrol.

As Lebanon’s financial reserves are drying up, the country is now facing severe fuel shortages. Petrol stations are rationing whatever fuel they have left, which has created a thriving black market around Beirut with petrol dealers carrying the smuggled fuel in plastic containers.

The Central Bank once subsidized fuel imports at the official pegged exchange rate. But at a steep cost of $3 billion per year, the cash-strapped country decided to reduce fuel subsidies and increase fuel prices by reducing fuel imports and increasing fuel prices to 3,900 Lebanese pounds instead of the previous 1,500 pounds rate. . In this way, the central bank will spend less on depleting foreign reserves.

Vehicles queue for fuel south of the Lebanese capital on June 24, 2021, amid severe fuel shortages [File: Joseph Eid/AFP]

Van driver Mazen Al Fadous had mixed feelings about the decision. They knew prices would rise, but felt that it might bring stability and a sense of normalcy to their work routines.

“Things are already bad,” Al Fadous, 37, told Al Jazeera over the phone. “But maybe it can stabilize things and prevent humiliation at gas stations.”

However, drivers stand in queues for hours at petrol stations. The Fuel Distributors Syndicate told local media that fuel had arrived in the country, but the central bank was at least opening credit lines for the country’s handful of licensed fuel importers and distributors.

Subsidies have been a major form of economic security for decades in Lebanon, where the central bank opens lines of credit to importers for fuel, wheat and medicine at relatively stable and affordable prices in the market. It is arguably Lebanon’s only consistent form of social security – although it is costly and is now proving unstable.

“The authorities and the Central Bank continue to procrastinate – if they don’t have the money, let them say it,” Fadi Abu Chakra, the head of the syndicate, said in a recent television interview, adding that the fuel was being distributed. is. an eyedropper”.

And it doesn’t look like the central bank will turn on the tap anytime soon. The authority now allows industrialists to import diesel fuel directly at the market rate instead of centralizing imports to help them deal with rising power cuts.

With inflation rising across the country, public transport drivers tell Al Jazeera they are eagerly waiting to see if the government will raise their fees while petrol prices continue to rise.

Al Fadous carries passengers back and forth from the northern city of Tripoli to Beirut. But rising unemployment and lack of fuel have made it difficult for them to sustain themselves.

Lebanon announced a slight increase in its ride-share fees exactly a year ago – its first since 2008. But a year ago, the Lebanese pound was below 4,000 against the US dollar. Today, it has swelled to around 22,000.

“I’m almost certain we will eventually get a fee hike to ease the situation a bit,” Al Fadous told Al Jazeera, but acknowledged that riders would be upset.

“They’ll probably complain because their salary isn’t worth much — some people once had a great salary, but now they’re worth about $100.”

Meanwhile, he and other shared taxi, minibus and van drivers wait anxiously.

“Where is the state?” Common among them is the phrase.

For years, Lebanon’s semi-regulated transport network has been a lifeline for workers who cannot afford their cars.

Civil society organizations such as Riders Rights say that with proper planning and management, drivers can build their livelihood while expanding access for passengers across the country.

“Both drivers and passengers have been left to fend for themselves during this situation, and they are suffering from this instability,” Chadi Farage, co-founder of Riders Rights, told Al Jazeera.

“Instead of spending billions on fuel subsidies, authorities can invest in sustainable public transportation, expanding its geographic reach, improving its quality and making it more efficient.”

Lebanon’s economic crisis has pushed the small country to the brink of collapse. Without a full government for nearly 12 months, officials are scrambling to reform their dysfunctional and corrupt economic system, and have failed to provide a lifeline for a population that is increasingly in poverty. is descending.

The international community has conditionally offered billions to make the country’s economy viable again, with Lebanon expected to restructure its corrupt economic sectors. He also urged Lebanon to implement anti-corruption and transparency mechanisms, in particular a forensic audit of the Central Bank.

But Faraz doubts whether officials will invest the money in the well-being of drivers, passengers and the public.

“I don’t think that’s what they want to do.”


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