The fuel shortage crisis has returned to the forefront in Lebanon, and this time, it is not only the scarcity of government subsidies that is stoking it, but smuggling to Syria as well. A video depicting a fuel tanker crossing the border through Bekaa was widely shared on social media, as was a voice recording of the tanker’s owner threatening the state and those who share the video.
The video deeply frustrated citizens who are suffering from a scarcity of fuel and frequent diesel shortages and wait in queues to fill their tanks. Some stations, especially in the Bekaa, but also in the south and the north have even closed.
A member of the Strong Republic (Lebanese Forces deputies), Deputy Antoine Habshi, says: “Remaining silent about this matter is no longer acceptable. The video, if authentic, is a scandal for the authorities in power; their people are being humiliated in front of gas stations while the fuel it subsidizes is going to Syria."
In his conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, Habshi adds: “Smuggling fuel to Syria is ongoing despite the recent announcement regarding a crackdown on this front, adding that “there are illegal crossings that are known to all and the goods smuggled to Syria clearly pass through them. Nothing is concealed, and the security forces should play their role."
The Supreme Defense Council had deliberated the illegal crossing issue in mid-May and decided to draft a holistic plan to establish military, security, and customs control centers aimed at curbing smuggling.
Habshi points out that “the smuggling issue is not new”. He considers that “today, more than any time in the past, it needs to stop it, especially in light of the (Central Bank’s) decision to lift subsidies on fuel imports because of the decline of its foreign currency reserves."
As part of the effort to curtail smuggling, the Economy Ministry, in collaboration with the Energy Ministry, set up a framework to monitor the quantities entering and being consumed in the local market. Fuel companies and distributors are required to submit to the Economy Ministry a list of the quantities sold and the customers (companies, fuel stations, and generator owners) who bought petrol and diesel on a weekly basis. According to citizens, however, the framework has not changed anything.
Zahir Suleiman, an advisor to the Caretaker Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar, explained that “this framework is still being followed, and it is being implemented in stages. The Ministry of Energy has worked on updating the files of companies that obtain (fuel) from state facilities and made it obligatory to own a filling station. This restrained shell companies.”
In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Suleiman stressed that “several companies that were found to have storage facilities without obtaining a storage license have been held accountable, and the necessary legal measures have been taken against them.”
Suleiman also pointed out that greater quantities were imported this year than the previous year and the year before that, meaning that either consumption has increased, or hoarding or smuggling schemes are being orchestrated. “This is the responsibility of the security authorities in charge of protecting borders.”
Many citizens reported that the fuel shortage in the Bekaa is due to “gas station owners’ preferring to sell it to smugglers who buy it at twice the rate set by the state to smuggle it to Syria.” Responding to these claims, Suleiman says that the ministry has not received complaints to this effect from the authorities concerned and that the company or gas station engaging in such actions would stop receiving its share of the facilities’ fuel if these claims are shown to be accurate.
For his part, the representative fuel distributors in Lebanon, Fadi Abu Shakra, believes that the fuel crisis stems from “the limited quantity received by distributors,” explaining that “there is a scarcity in state facilities.” He adds: “A steamboat arrived last Sunday, and a small part was delivered on Monday, and another part will be delivered today (yesterday), but the quantity does not meet market demand, so distribution is being.”
He expressed his hopes that the crisis would be solved as soon possible, stressing that, “it is the Energy Ministry’s issue. Distributors receive [fuel] from it and distribute, and they cannot do anything if they did not receive."