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Crisis snuffs out Beirut Christmas spirit

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Trying to be positive: A Christmas greetings billboard in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, near the Mosque of Mohammed al-Amin and the Maronite Cathedral of Saint George.

LEBANON: Beirut in December was once a shopping extravaganza, where day-long traffic jams clogged streets decked out with flashing Christmas lights and building-sized billboards advertising champagne and jewellery.

In barely two years of a brutal economic collapse, the lights have gone out on Beirut’s commercial heyday and power shortages have left the city’s streets shrouded in gloom.

This year, the roadside billboards tell a different, more frugal story: one that reflects the worst financial crisis to ever hit the once free-spending Middle Eastern country.

Steel safes, banknote counters, discounts on money transfers — the offers plastered on the bridges straddling the main highway into Beirut aren’t your typical Christmas pleasers. “Sales of safes and vaults have increased by 35 to 50 percent since the start of the economic crisis in 2019,” a sales representative at Smartsecurity LB, one of the main retailers in Lebanon, told Agencies.

Alarms and CCTV systems are also selling like hot cakes.

The lack of trust in banks that are widely blamed for the worst financial crisis in Lebanon’s history has raised the estimated amount of cash stashed away in Lebanese homes to a whopping $10 billion.

“We’re at minus 90 percent compared to pre-2019 crisis levels,” said Antonio Vincenti, chairman of the Pikasso out-of-home advertising company, a market leader in Lebanon. Even Wham’s usually unescapable seasonal hit “Last Christmas” is nowhere to be heard, a relief to some perhaps, but a sure sign that something has changed.

On shop windows, Christmas sale posters are outnumbered by “We’re Closed” signs — and beggars have replaced Santa impersonators on the street outside.

The busiest shops are foreign exchange booths, which now provide free black plastic bags in which to carry out bulging wads of the ever depreciating Lebanese pound.

Four out of five Lebanese are now considered poor, according to the UN income threshold of $2 a day.

At a supermarket in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital, a half-bottle of the cheapest champagne costs 900,000 Lebanese pounds, substantially more than the minimum monthly wage, now worth less than $25 on the black market.


Friday, December 17, 2021 – 01:00

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