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Lebanese banker says capital control law ‘solution’ for holdups

REUTERS/Issam Abdallah
A closed sign is pictured inside a Blom Bank branch, which was held up by depositor Abed Soubra seeking access to his own savings, in Beirut on September 16, 2022.

A top Lebanese banker on Friday criticised politicians for failing to enact a capital control law, saying this was the way to avoid bank raids by savers demanding funds from frozen accounts and to stop banks’ “discretionary practices”.

BLOM Bank Chairman Saad Azhari – whose bank has been one of several held up this month by savers – said he understood depositors were fed up, but “resorting to force” was dangerous and against everyone’s interests.

The statement to Reuters was Azhari’s first since a woman forced BLOM Bank employees to hand over $13,000 of her savings to pay for cancer treatment for her sister, wielding what turned out to be a toy gun.

Azhari called for a capital control law as soon as possible to regulate “away from discretionary practices by banks and violent and unlawful actions by depositors”, saying he had called for such a law from the start of the crisis.

“Unfortunately, our politicians did not enact the law, as they caved in to populist sentiments and pressures, instead of doing what is right and needed and what is in the interest of all its citizens,” he said.

The holdups reflect savers’ desperation three years since Lebanon’s financial system collapsed due to decades of state corruption and waste and unsustainable financial policies.

Three years on, the government has agreed neither a financial recovery plan nor enacted reforms deemed vital to get Lebanon out of the crisis. While the government says it is committed to reforms, the IMF says progress remains very slow.

Bankers and ruling politicians have objected to recovery plans drawn up by governments, prompting criticism that both have blocked the way out of the crisis.

Unethical Practices

Without a capital control law, banks have imposed informal restrictions on dollar withdrawals.

Azhari said some banks had resorted to legal but unethical “discretionary practices”. BLOM Bank had not adopted such practices “at all when it came either to its big shareholders or influential politicians”, he said.

The woman who held up a BLOM Bank branch said she acted after the bank declined to provide her with her savings.

BLOM Bank has said the branch had cooperated with her request but asked for documentation as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to the informal controls.

Azhari said she had agreed to return with the documents, “so it was a total surprise to us when she returned to the bank with an organised group of supporters and demanded by force to have the deposit”.