Damascus/Beirut: The Lebanese-Syrian border has always been notorious for the smuggling activity that runs through its rigid terrain - for items ranginf from electronics to foodstuff to money. Nowadays, a new sector has been added to the list: petrol.
Due to chronic gasoline shortage in Syria, a small slice of the 6km area between the two borders has been carved out exclusively for gasoline sale, tucked between hills, away from the watchful eye of both Lebanese officialdom and the United Nations.
That smuggling business has resulted in unprecedented gasoline shortages within Lebanon, with long queues at gas stations.
Lebanese authorities have been trying to combat the smuggling, with limited success, stationing plain-clothes security personnel on their side of the border, with orders to confiscate gasoline cans tucked in the back seat of cars. But they can do nothing about the petrol filled to the brim in the fuel tanks of cars, ostensibly for personal use.
The price of subsidised petrol at Lebanese stations is currently 40,000 Lebanese pounds - of $3.30 at current market rates. That same litre is sold to the Syrians for $20 and rises to a staggering 120,000 SP ($40) if it is delivered directly to end-users in Damascus.
As economic conditions worsen in their country, many Lebanese have taken to the underground gasoline smuggling business, seeing it as profitable, and low-risk. If caught, the only punishment is that the gasoline is confiscated, with no fine or arrest.
According to the World Bank, more than 50 per cent of Lebanese now live below the poverty line and are making less than $3.84/day.
Gasoline aside, Syrians with financial means have been buying everything they can get their hands on in Lebanon, because its so much cheaper than in Syria. That applies to professional smugglers, small merchants, and the moneyed elite who all find it cheaper nowadays to shop in Lebanon than in Syria.
The COVID-19 lockdown and closure of borders between the two countries has minimised damage, but not eroded it. Many can still cross the borders, either with fake airplane tickets or fake appointments at Lebanese clinics and hospitals.
The exchange rate in Lebanon currently stands at 12,200 LP to the US dollar. Eighteen months ago, it stood at just 1,500 LP. Although prices have increased significantly, Lebanese outlets were unable to raise the selling price of their products eightfold, to match the slump in their currency. As a result, products already in stock are selling at cheap prices, making them attractive to the Syrians but still unaffordable to most Lebanese.
“I was shopping at a Beirut supermarket and tried placing two jars of Nescafe in my cart,” said Mervat, a Syrian housewife who frequents Lebanon on weekends. “The supermarket attendant recognised my accent and came up to me, politely saying: I am sorry Madam, but you can only buy one of those items.”
Each jar costs a whopping 89,000 LP ($7.3) but that’s still cheaper from their selling price in Syria: 39,000 SP ($13). In Lebanon all foreign goods need to be bought in hard currency, which is no longer available throughout the country.
In Syria, however, and due to sanctions such products need to be smuggled into the country, from Turkey, Iraq, or Lebanon itself. The cost of bribes involved to bring these items through borders and checkpoints explains why they are far more expensive in Syria.
A Nutella jar, for example, currently sells for 40,000 LP ($3.3). In Syria, the same jar costs 17,000 SP (nearly $6).
The crisis becomes all the more biting when it comes to items like meat and chicken. One kilo of meat in Lebanon now costs 65,000 ($5.3) but the price in Syria is a staggering 25,000 SP ($8.3).
“The Syrians who can afford it are buying their meat from Lebanon,” lamented Abu Hisham, a butcher in Damascus. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “I cannot blame them but the cost of everything has gone through the roof in Syria, because of electricity shortages that have ruined our freezers and increased the cost of storage, topped with the death of livestock.”
In Lebanon, however, minimum wage stands at 675,500 LP ($55.8). They are being forced to drop meat from their menus and resort to more affordable meals like fried vegetables, which will eventually lead to mass malnutrition.
Adding to the problem on the Syrian side is total lack of government control of market prices in Syria, which has prompted merchants to sell at high profit, resulting in many turning to Lebanon instead. Last week, President Bashar Al Assad issued price control legislation, making high margin profit a crime, punishable by hefty fines and lengthy imprisonment.