Lebanon petrol shortage sparks hours-long queues, armed clashes

It’s been madness outside of petrol stations all across Lebanon for the past few weeks – a petrol shortage has resulted in tense, hours-long queues, in some cases, boiling into knife fights and gunfire. Our Observer in Beirut told us about the "humiliation" and stress that Lebanese people have been feeling as they are faced with the latest consequence of the economic crisis affecting the country.  

Left: Video of a queue outside a petrol station in Beirut, posted on Twitter on Thursday, June 17 Right: Petrol station employees beat a customer with a petrol pump nozzle, in Dora, Akkar Governorate. Video posted on June 15.
Left: Video of a queue outside a petrol station in Beirut, posted on Twitter on Thursday, June 17 Right: Petrol station employees beat a customer with a petrol pump nozzle, in Dora, Akkar Governorate. Video posted on June 15. © Twitter / @timourazhari / @LarissaAounSky

The value of the Lebanese pound has been plummeting for the past few months. On June 17, the exchange rate was 14,800 pounds per American dollar. 

Against this backdrop, the price of petrol at the pump has increased several times over the past few months, even though it is still partially subsidized by the government. On June 17, the government announced that the price of a can of 20 litres of unleaded petrol would rise by 1,700 pounds [around €0.94] to 43,000 pounds [around €24].  

And since the Lebanese government has reduced imports of hydrocarbon products the past few months, petrol stations across the country have shut down. Some have begun rationing their customers to pump only 10 litres of petrol at a time.

As a result, long queues – sometimes extending over several kilometres – have formed in front of the stations that are still open. Videos circulating on social media show tensions rising and fights breaking out amongst angry customers. 

Des coups de feu fusent dans une station-service Total, dans le quartier de Qasqas, dans la banlieue de Beyrouth, mercredi 16 juin.

In this video, you can hear shots ring out in front of a Total petrol station in the Qasqas neighbourhood in a suburb of Beirut on June 16. 

Des clients s’affrontent à coups de pompes à essence, à Dora, dans le gouvernorat de l’Akkar. Vidéo diffusée le 15 juin.

Employees at a petrol station hit a customer with a pump nozzle in Dora, in the Akkar Governorate. Video posted on June 15.  

Jalal Naanou is an independent journalist in Beirut. He’s been spending at least three hours a day queuing for petrol:    

 'People find this situation humiliating'

Over the past few months, Lebanon’s Central Bank has been slow to settle import bills, which has resulted in companies demanding to be paid in advance. The shortages have been made worse by the fact that some unemployed youths have been buying petrol and selling it on the black market to the rich. As a result, the amount of petrol available for people to buy at the pump has decreased considerably. 

Waiting three hours a day under the boiling sun in front of a petrol station is unbearable, unjustifiable. People find this situation humiliating. Sometimes, you might wait in line for several hours and, then, when you get to the pump, the employees tell you that there is nothing left and you have to come back the next day. 

So it isn’t surprising that people are losing their cool and fights are breaking out. 

One of the many queues in front of petrol stations in Beirut. Video posted online June 17. 

Fights often break out when someone tries to cut in line and pass in front of other people. 

At first, we were shocked when we saw videos of brawls and gunshots being fired in front of petrol stations. But now it’s become routine. Lebanese soldiers and other security forces have been deployed to certain stations over the past few days, but they can’t be everywhere. I think that cities should send the police in as reinforcements, which they haven’t always done. 

Des coups de feu sont tirés - sans qu’on puisse identifier par qui - alors qu’une rixe a lieu devant une station-service , le 11 juin, à Tariq El Jdideh, un quartier de Beyrouth.

Shots were fired by an unidentified gunman as a brawl took place in front of a gas station, on June 11, 2021, in Tariq El Jdideh, a neighbourhood of Beirut.

A shot is fired in a tense scene in front of a petrol station in Beirut. This video was posted on June 1.  

These shortages are affecting every part of people’s daily lives. School bus companies recently told families, 'If you want your kids to go to school, drive them yourselves, we don’t have any more petrol.' I also know teachers who can’t get to school, even though exams are taking place right now.  

Minister of the Economy Raymond Rajar said in April that the shortage was “largely a result” of petrol being smuggled into Syria. But journalist Jalal Naanou isn’t buying it:

It’s true that petrol is shipped illegalyl into Syria on a daily basis. The Lebanese Army often seizes contraband petrol at the border. But we can’t let politicians use smuggling, which happens all over the world, as an excuse for their incompetence and their inability to get the country out of this crisis.

Lebanon is experiencing shortages of many other products, including certain medicines and baby formula. 

Half of all Lebanese people are living under the poverty line as a result of the economic crisis, which has been worsening for nearly two years. Protesters regularly take to the streets, shutting down traffic and calling for a complete turnover of Lebanese leadership, which they have deemed “incompetent” and “corrupt.”