Omar Aawah finds himself in a desperate situation. His savings, locked in a bank in Lebanon, have become almost worthless due to the country’s ongoing financial crisis. Like millions of other depositors in the country, Omar can only withdraw his money at an exchange rate that severely diminishes its value. Faced with the prospect of losing the majority of his life savings, Omar resorts to extreme measures in an attempt to retrieve what is rightfully his.
In a grainy viral video, Omar holds up a bottle containing homemade acid, threatening bank staff with the dangerous liquid. However, his intention is not to rob the bank but to reclaim his own funds. “I just want what is rightfully mine,” he pleads in the video. “I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Omar’s life savings have shrunk so significantly that he has lost more than 80% of his hard-earned money. He leaves the bank triumphant with the remains of his savings, a mere $6,500, which he urgently needs for a crucial neck surgery that could prevent paralysis.
Omar’s predicament reflects the devastating situation faced by many Lebanese citizens who have lost access to their savings. Since the financial crisis began, people’s ability to withdraw money has been severely restricted, and the exchange rates for US dollars have rendered their savings nearly worthless. The rise of bank robberies, or rather, desperate attempts by depositors to retrieve their own funds, has become a significant problem. Threats of force during such incidents not only fail to solve the underlying financial issues but also create frightening and dangerous situations for bank staff who bear little responsibility for the wider problems.
The root of Lebanon’s financial crisis is deeply connected to the country’s political class and its central bank governor, Riad Salameh. After serving as the governor for 30 years, Salameh is preparing to step down amid serious accusations of embezzlement and illicit enrichment. He is being investigated by at least seven countries, including Lebanon, for allegedly laundering over $300 million. The accusations against him are substantial and varied, with assets seized in Germany and France, and probes in Switzerland regarding illegal transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars from the central bank.
Swiss NGO, Accountability Now, has been actively investigating Riad Salameh for years and has filed criminal complaints in multiple countries. The central bank governor is suspected by European prosecutors of belonging to a criminal organization, a significant and troubling revelation. Corruption and financial mismanagement have plagued Lebanon for years, leading to the squandering of international aid meant for the country’s needy population. Essential goods, including electricity, medicines, fuel, and food, have become increasingly scarce, leaving the majority of households struggling to afford basic necessities.
As Salameh’s term comes to an end, public anger towards the banks and those responsible for the financial crisis continues to grow. Graffiti outside the central bank building reflects the frustration and resentment felt by the Lebanese population. Salameh’s departure from his position at the central bank does not promise an end to the country’s economic crisis. With no successor named and no clear solutions in sight, Lebanon’s financial woes are far from over, leaving its citizens to bear the brunt of the crisis.