Lebanon is small. The colonial powers who drew borders around its mountain ranges and Mediterranean port cities gave it roughly half the area of Wales. You can drive from top to bottom in about three hours.
So to drive for five hours, as I did recently, is unusual. Lebanon had not expanded: the journey should have taken less than two hours. But like other motorists that day, we got snarled in chaos caused by a fuel shortage, which is making tiny Lebanon slower to get around, and life ever more anxious.
As the country’s economic crisis has deepened, we have got used to the havoc of darkened traffic lights and unlit streets. Now endless queues to fill up cars have become a new feature of Lebanon’s roads — along with frayed nerves, scuffles and intermittent shootings. “I’ve already been waiting for an hour and a half!” a tall motorist in Beirut yelled to passers-by. I had clocked his car some 75 minutes earlier and understood why he was shouting: he’d barely moved 50 metres.
Poorly paid gas station workers, often migrants, are being burnt by frustrated drivers’ rage. One fuel company chief told me that 25-30 per cent of his workforce had quit, having decided a monthly salary equivalent to $76 was not worth the verbal and physical abuse.
Nowadays, drivers allow an hour minimum to refuel. But because they can be turned away empty-handed, motorists have resorted to extreme tactics: one taxi driver said he queues from 4am for a station that opened at 7:30; a friend drives 20km to a pump where an acquaintance fills his tank. To survive a failing state, it helps to be well-connected, extremely patient or rich: the wealthiest can pay extra for fuel delivery or dispatch chauffeurs.
As he begged foreign countries for money last week, caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab listed the “queues of cars” alongside other daily indignities, such as medicine and baby milk shortages. Diab argued that making aid conditional on reforms threatened Lebanon’s survival. His audience was unsympathetic. For months, foreign leaders have chastised Beirut for time-wasting — Lebanese have waited 11 months in vain for bickering politicians to form a new government.
The fuel crisis stems from Lebanon’s currency losing over 90 per cent of its value in less than two years, and its commercial banks no longer supplying businesses with hard currency for overseas purchases. Lebanon relies on imports, so the currency crash caused runaway inflation. To stop fuel prices rocketing, the central bank subsidised exchange rate operations, using its dollar reserves. But since a banking crisis broke out in October 2019, those reserves have halved. In recent weeks, the caretaker government started to raise gas prices, a prelude to lifting costly subsidies.
But because fuel is still subsidised, much is smuggled to neighbouring Syria, which is also suffering shortages. More is hoarded by pump owners, hoping to profit when prices rise. Still more is stuck on tankers, waiting for dollars from the backed-up central bank before it can be unloaded.
The acting energy minister encouraged Lebanese to ditch cars and take public transport. But minibuses are privately run and the state pays Railway Administration employees, but there are no trains.
Our extended journey began with searching for petrol in the pretty harbour town Byblos. Out of town, a station with a (quick) 15-minute wait half-filled our tank — most pumps are rationing supply.
Heading north, we passed miles of waiting cars. Then roadblocks set by protesters diverted us. An hour late, we crawled into Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. Confounded by more roadblocks, we approached a petrol queue blocking the road. A man dashed towards us shouting: “There’s been a shooting!” Cars performed screeching turns and we ended up back where we first got diverted.
Hours later in mountainous Akkar, our destination, we found that petrol stations were closed. We bought fuel from a young man who had obtained plastic gallon jugs of gasoline (I did not ask how). By the afternoon, the roadblocks and fuel lines remained. Don’t ask me how long the return journey took.