On the highway into Beirut the other day, we drove past a petrol queue that was more than two miles long. On and on it went, the drivers sweating and swearing in brutal heat. Some had run out of fuel while they waited, having to push their cars when the queue inched forwards. There were people on laptops working from their cars during the day-long wait. Petrol queues are an everyday fact of life in Lebanon, but this was something else. Seeing that I was a foreigner, a frustrated driver gestured at the long line ahead of him and shouted: ‘Lebanon!’ He was summing up the fury and disgust felt by the Lebanese at what has happened to their country.
The fuel crisis is one sign of an economic disaster that has seen Lebanon’s currency, the lira, lose 95 per cent of its value over the past 18 months. Mostly, that means rising prices. But sometimes — thanks to the unintended consequences of government interference in the market — it means falling real prices and shortages of commodities such as fuel. In one petrol line was Hani Chiah, a 60-year-old man driving a gleaming black SUV. The car wasn’t his. He had been employed as a site manager on big construction projects, earning good money. But the work had dried up and now he was reduced to chauffeuring around one of the Lebanese super-rich who, presumably, still had access to dollars. Hani had been there since 6.30 a.m., waiting for four hours so far. He recited the familiar lament of the Lebanese middle class: ‘We used to go out to have fun. We used to buy clothes to look good. Now, we don’t do any of the things that bring joy to life. Now, we just try to survive.’ He was scared for his children and grandchildren.