Violent protests erupt across Lebanon as currency collapses

News Network
June 12, 2020

Beirut, Jun 12: Angry Lebanese protesters blocked roads across the country with burning tyres, debris and their vehicles, incensed over the local currency's depreciation by more than 25 percent in just two days.

The demonstrations from northern Akkar and Tripoli to central Zouk, the eastern Bekaa Valley, Beirut and southern Tyre and Nabatieh on Thursday were some of the most widespread in months of upheaval over a calamitous economic and financial crisis.

Protesters set ablaze a branch of the Central Bank, vandalised several private banks and clashed with security forces in several areas. At least 41 people were injured in Tripoli alone, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

"I'm really pissed off, that's all. If politicians think they can burn our hearts like this the fire is going to reach them too," unemployed computer engineer Ali Qassem, 26, told Al Jazeera after pouring fuel onto smouldering tyres on a main Beirut thoroughfare.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have lost jobs in the past six months and hundreds of businesses have shuttered as a dollar shortage led the Lebanese pound to slide from 1,500 to $1 last summer - where it was pegged for 23 years - to roughly 4,000 for each US dollar last month.

But the slide turned into a freefall between Wednesday and Thursday when the pound plummeted to roughly 5,000 to $1 on black markets, which have become a main source of hard currency. There was widespread speculation the rate hit 6,000 or even 7,000 pounds to the dollar, though most markets stopped trading.

Protesters began amassing on streets across the country before sunset and increased into the thousands across the country as the night fell.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab cancelled all meetings scheduled for Friday to hold an emergency cabinet session at 9:30am and another at 3pm at the presidential palace to be headed by President Michel Aoun.

The pound's collapse is the perhaps the biggest challenge yet for Diab's young cabinet, which gained confidence in February after former prime minister Saad Hariri's government was toppled by an unprecedented October uprising that had the country's economic crisis at its core.

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told Al Jazeera that there was "disinformation" being circulated about the exchange rate on social media and said he was investigating possible currency manipulation.

"I don't understand how the exchange rate increased by so much in two days," he said.

Many protesters have pitted blame on Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, nominally in charge of  keeping the currency stable. But they have also called on the government to resign.

"If people want reform between dawn and dusk, that's not going to work, and if someone thinks they can do a better job then please come forward," Nehme said.

"But what we can't have is a power vacuum - then the exchange rate won't be 5000, it'll be a catastrophe."

'Everyone paying the price'

When protesters set a large fire in Beirut's Riad al-Solh Square, which lies at the foot of a grand Ottoman-era building that serves as the seat of government, firefighters did not intervene to extinguish it.

It later became clear why: Civil Defence told local news channel LBCI they had run out of diesel to fuel their firetrucks.

Basic imports such as fuel have been hit hard by the currency crisis, making already-weak state services increasingly feeble.

A half-dozen or so police officers with Lebanon's Internal Security Forces observed the scene unfolding in front of them in the square.

"Why do you destroy shops and things and attack us security forces - do you think we're happy? Go and f****** break that wall or go to the politicians' houses," one police officer told Al Jazeera, referring to a large concrete barrier separating protesters from the seat of government.

"In the end we are with you and we want the country to change. Don't you dare think we're happy. My salary is now worth $130," the officer said.

The currency's spectacular fall seems to have pushed many Lebanese to put common interests above their differences.

Large convoys of men on motorbikes from Shia-majority areas of southern Beirut joined the demonstrations on Thursday, though they have clashed with protesters many times before - including at a protest on Saturday.

Some chanted sectarian insults, leading to brief clashes in areas that were formerly front lines during the country's devastating 15-year civil war.

Instead, the motorbike-riding demonstrators on Thursday chanted: "Shia, Sunni, F*ck sectarianism."

"We are Shia, and Sunnis and Christian are our brothers," Hisham Houri, 39, told Al Jazeera, perched on a moped with his fiancee behind him just a few metres from a pile of burning tyres.

The blaze sent thick black smoke into the sky towards an iconic blue-domed mosque and church in downtown Beirut.

"Politicians play on these sectarian issues and sometimes succeed, but in the end, they'll fail because all the people have been hurt," he said. "The dollar isn't just worth 6,000 for Shias or for Sunnis, everyone is paying that price."

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Agencies
September 27,2020

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Dubai, Sept 27: The Dubai-Sharjah intercity bus service, a major lifeline for commuters who travel between the emirates daily for work, has resumed.

Two of the routes started today, while the third will begin two weeks later.

"The first of the three routes, E303, starts from the Union Metro Station in Dubai and heads to Al Jubail Bus Station in Sharjah. The second route, E307A, starts from Abu Hail Metro Station in Dubai and heads to Al Jubail Bus Station in Sharjah as well. These two routes start operation on Sunday, September 27. The third route, E315, will start from Etisalat Metro Station in Dubai and head to Muwaileh Bus Station and will start after two weeks, Sharjah," said Adel Sharkri, Director of Planning and Business Development, Public Transport Agency, RTA.

"The three routes are vital for the integration of public transport networks between Dubai and Sharjah. These routes are transitional to riders returning to Sharjah starting their journey off three metro stations in Dubai (Union, Abu Hail and Etisalat). They will ease the mobility of commuters between the two Emirates, especially those living in Sharjah and working in Dubai," he added.

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News Network
September 23,2020

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Sharjah, Sep 23: An Indian expatriate cannot believe that he can finally go home after 20 years, with Dh750,000 of fine waived off by Sharjah authorities.

What's in a name? Even a letter matters, says Thanavel Mathiazhaagan, an Indian worker in the UAE who is set to return home after being granted a waiver of nearly Dh750,000 in overstay fines, reports Gulf News.

The man from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu claims that he could not avail amnesty opportunities in the UAE in the last 20 years as his identity verification was not cleared from India due to a mismatch in his father's name in documents back home and that shown in his passport. As it turns out, there was a spelling error in his father's name in the documents in India.

Mathiazhaagan, 56, said he himself realised this (the reason for not getting the clearance) only after his latest request for repatriation was taken up by two social workers in the UAE after he sought their help to return home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He told media that he had landed in the UAE in 2000 after paying Rs 120,000 (Dh6,048) to a recruitment agent for a job in Abu Dhabi. This could be verified from the stamp on his employment visa entry permit -- the only document that Mathiazhaagan has preserved, apart from a copy of the last page of his passport.

He said the agent had taken his original passport, claiming that his residence visa would be stamped in the passport once he gets the medical fitness certificate issued.

"I took the medical test and waited for my employment visa. But, the agent kept delaying it and later I got to know that the company, which was supposed to hire me, had shut down." Eventually, he said, the agent stopped answering his calls and could not be traced at all later.

"I stayed in a room with some people from my native place. I lived there for eight months with no job. After that I came to Sharjah and started doing odd jobs."

Mathiazhaagan said he illegally stayed in the UAE to feed his family by doing part-time jobs for various households and companies.

He claimed that he did try for returning home during the previous visa amnesty offers in the UAE and lost more than Dh10,000 to people who promised to help him with clearance of his documents that never came through.

Prior to the fine waiver announced till November 17 this year for people with expired visas or who had their visas cancelled before March 1 during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE government had granted visa amnesties in 2003, 2007, 2012 and 2018.

Gulf News could not independently verify if Mathiazhaagan had indeed applied for an emergency certificate (EC), a one-way travel document issued to Indians without a valid passport, in order to facilitate their return home, during the earlier instances of amnesty.

However, A. K. Mahadevan and Chandra Prakash. P, who helped Mathiazhaagan get an EC through the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said he had failed to get identity clearance from India during the pandemic. They said they found out the reason behind the rejection only after Mathiazhaagan met Mahadevan, seeking help to return home.

"His name is Thanavel Mathiazhaagan as per the copy of the last page of his lost passport and the UAE entry permit," said Prakash, the Vice-President of Indian People's Forum, a community organisation that also pitched to get a travel clearance for Mathiazhaagan.

"Unfortunately, the documents sent by Trichy Regional Passport Office to the Senthurai Police Station for his identity verification showed his father's name as Thangavel whereas his father's actual name is Thanavel -- according to all other records. The additional letter 'g' in the name created the problem," said Prakash.

The duo said they approached the Indian Embassy and the local departments in Mathiazhaagan's village to rectify the mistake and process his documents. "Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor took special interest in solving this case after the issue was taken up with him," said Prakash.

Mahadevan said he was happy that Mathiazhaagan would be flying home soon and meeting his youngest daughter, who had not even been born when he left India for the UAE.

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News Network
September 30,2020

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Dubai, Sept 30: An Indian expat who had suffered a stroke five months ago and since been bedridden in a hospital, was flown home earlier this week.

Ramachandran Kottakkunnu, 60, left for India in a wheelchair - in a condition far from the life he had lived in the UAE. He had been a UAE resident for over 30 years and used to run a successful business until he lost it all, said Praveen Kumar, the social worker who managed his repatriation in collaboration with the Consulate-General of India in Dubai.

After losing his business, he started working for a small textile shop in Deira's Naif district, earning a salary of Dh2,500. He struggled but he kept going because his wife and daughter are both ill, Khaleejtimes reported.

"His wife has cancer and his daughter has heart disease. That is the only reason he was still living here in the UAE, to pay for his family's medical bills," said Kumar.

Then, he suffered stroke, and the small store he was working with could no longer pay for his hospital expenses. He stayed in the hospital for nearly five months, with his bills reaching almost Dh1.6 million.

"Ramachandran was in a deplorable state. He was in a vegetative, coma state when he was admitted to the hospital five months ago. He still cannot speak; however, thanks to the hospital where he was being treated, he was able to get on a wheelchair and fly home," Kumar said. A wheelchair and an air ticket were provided by the consulate.

"Thanks to the Consulate-General of India and intervention from social workers and volunteers from the mission's medical team, Ramachandran was finally repatriated to his hometown in Kasaragod district in Kerala. He is now admitted for palliative care at a major hospital in Mangalore, Karnataka," Kumar said.

Though he is still unable to speak, the social workers thought it best that he avail of treatment in India instead of staying in the UAE with no means to pay the mounting medical bills.

Jitender Singh Negi, consul for labour, consular and Madad, told Khaleej Times: "I can confirm that Ramachandran was repatriated to India with our support. He had an outstanding bill of nearly 1.6 million. However, the hospital was kind enough to release him.

"He was working for a very small company that was in financial distress amid the Covid-19 crisis, so they were not in a position to support him. Our volunteers worked with him towards his repatriation."

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