Lebanon’s public ride-share drivers fear livelihood crash

Fuel shortages and petrol price rises threaten to grind Lebanon’s public transport system to a halt.

A view of taxi cars and public transportation vans in Beirut, Lebanon July 15, 2020.
Soaring costs of living and fuel shortages have made it difficult for van drivers to sustain themselves [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – For the first time in more than 10 years, Khaled Abou Sleiman recently stopped driving his public ride-share van from the northern province Akkar to Beirut every day, saying he struggled to cover his vehicle’s skyrocketing running costs.

In fact, he said he loses more money driving the van than by staying at home without work. Oil and tyre changes, and other maintenance costs for vehicles have fallen out of reach for many drivers as Lebanon’s currency continues to tumble from its official rate of about 1,500 pounds to the US dollar.

Since late 2019, the Lebanese pound lost a whopping 90 percent of its value.

At the start of the crisis, Abu Sleiman, 40, was still able to look after himself and his family with some money he had saved, but things went downhill as living expenses also soared.

His siblings supported him with medical expenses after a recent slipped disc injury, but they are also struggling to find daily work. To survive, Abou Sleiman 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 just yet, but has been struggling.

Sitting under a tree on the sidewalk near a gas station in the northern city of Halba, Abou Sleiman shared a picture of him and other van drivers while smoking a water pipe. But they were not having an afternoon break; they were waiting for the petrol station to open.

“My nephew and the others came to the petrol station five hours in advance,” he said. “It’s truly humiliating.”

Much like Abou Sleiman and his nephew, drivers in Lebanon often spent hours waiting in long queues to partially fill their vehicles with petrol.

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

The Central Bank once subsidised fuel imports at the official pegged exchange rate. But at the hefty cost of $3bn per year, the cash-strapped country decided to reduce fuel subsidies and finance fuel imports at the rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, instead of the previous 1,500 pounds rate, and increased fuel prices. That way, the Central Bank would spend less on dwindling foreign reserves.

Vehicles queue up 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. He knew prices would go up, but felt it perhaps would bring a sense of consistency and normalcy into his work routine.

“Things are already bad,” Al Fadous, 37, told Al Jazeera over the phone. “But maybe this could stabilise things and stop the humiliation at the gas stations.”

However, drivers continue to anxiously queue for hours at petrol stations. The Fuel Distributors Syndicate told local media that the fuel has arrived in the country, but the Central Bank is opening minimal lines of credit for the country’s handful of licensed fuel importers and distributors.

Subsidies have been a key form of economic protection in Lebanon for decades, where the Central Bank opens lines of credit for fuel, wheat, and medicine for importers to maintain them at a relatively stable and affordable price at the market. It’s arguably Lebanon’s only consistent form of social protection – though it’s expensive and now proving to be unsustainable.

“The authorities and the Central Bank continue to procrastinate – if they don’t have the money then let them say it,” Fadi Abou Chacra, who heads the syndicate, said in a recent television interview, adding that fuel is being distributed with “an eyedropper”.

And it doesn’t look like the Central Bank will turn on the faucet anytime soon. The authorities now allow industrialists to directly import diesel fuel at the market rate, rather than centralise imports, to help cope with increased power outages.

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

Al Fadous drives commuters back and forth from the northern city of Tripoli to Beirut. But soaring unemployment and fuel shortages have made it difficult for him to sustain himself.

Lebanon announced a modest rise in its ride-share fees exactly a year ago – its first since 2008. But one year ago, the Lebanese pound was just below 4,000 to the US dollar. Today, it’s skyrocketed to about 22,000.

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

“They will probably complain because their salaries aren’t worth much any more – some people once had great salaries but are now worth about $100 today.”

In the meantime, he and other shared taxi, minibus, and van drivers anxiously wait.

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

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

Civil society organisations such as Riders’ Rights say that with proper planning and management, drivers can build on their livelihoods while also expanding access for commuters across the country.

“Drivers and passengers are both left to fend for themselves during this situation, and are suffering from this instability,” Riders’ Rights co-founder Chadi Faraj told Al Jazeera.

“Instead of spending billions on fuel subsidies, the authorities could invest in sustainable public transport, expand its geographic reach, improve its quality, and make it more efficient.”

Lebanon’s economic crisis has driven the tiny country to the verge of collapse. Without a full-fledged government for almost 12 months, the authorities are scrambling to reform its wasteful and corrupt economic system, and failing to provide a lifeline for a population that continues to descend into poverty in greater numbers.

The international community has conditionally offered billions to make the country’s economy viable again, expecting Lebanon to restructure its corrupt economic sectors. They also have pushed Lebanon to implement anti-corruption and transparency mechanisms, most notably a forensic audit of the Central Bank.

But Faraj is sceptical whether the authorities would invest the money in the drivers, commuters, and the public good.

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

Source: Al Jazeera