Curtail the cartels

File - A bread bakery in Beirut, Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

Syndicates controlling three vital sectors of the Lebanese economy - fuel, flour and medicine - are behaving like cartels and holding the country to ransom.

The government needs to look closely at their activities and alleged expenses in dollars and see whether all is as they claim.

Take bakeries. In reality, they have no problem operating with the amount of dollars the Central Bank has secured to pay for their flour needs. Yet they are demanding more because they use this semisubsidized product for cakes and all kinds of other sweets - not just bread. That’s where their profits soar and that’s what they’re trying to protect.

The same goes for the fuel cartel, which is suspected of demanding dollar facilities worth three times more than the country’s consumption. Why? Because the extra imports are sold on the black market - essentially to Syria in defiance of sanctions, smuggled every day via illegal border routes.

As for medication, Lebanese flock to Syria and Turkey to buy cancer drugs and other medication at a fraction of the prices we put up with here due to flagrant collusion between doctors and drug representatives, who provide fringe benefits for doctors. In Lebanon there are some 7,000 brands of drugs approved for sale, provided by a handful of agents who control the prices. France and England approve a fraction of that number.

Governments for decades have given these groups special treatment. The time has come to call their bluff, the way Prime Minister Saad Hariri did over the weekend with the fuel syndicate.

The Lebanese can no longer put up with their cartel-like behavior and constant threats.

This serious challenge needs courageous action that goes beyond the current crisis. To avoid a repeat of panic at the fuel pumps and similar scenes, a permanent solution that breaks these monopolies must be found.

It might ruffle a lot of feathers, but it is what Lebanon desperately needs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2019, on page 1.




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