Lebanon News

Insurers stop offering coverage as violence escalates

A charred car is seen in Beirut, Nov. 25, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Last Sunday night, mobs of men waving Hezbollah and Amal flags ran through the streets in Beirut after a violent faceoff against protesters, Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army. Equipped with batons and rocks, they smashed and pillaged cars and shops. The next morning, residents in Saifi and Monot woke up to find that their cars had been burnt, storefronts broken into and homes vandalized.

Remo Ciucciomei, the owner of a boutique wine store in Saifi, was one of many such people. The counter-protesters smashed into his store, stole multiple bottles of Italian wine and took over LL350,000 ($230 at official rates) from the register. “I’m thinking of leaving [Lebanon] now. I have kids and this is the second time they’ve attacked [my shop] in a month,” he said.

A few streets down, in Monot, a man by the name of Fadi Irani also woke up to find that a large rock had shattered the back window of his car. Irani was recently laid off from his job as a result of the company’s financial difficulties. He does not have the money to repair his car, he says.

“When I asked him [the ISF personnel] how they [the government] will compensate for our losses, they told me that they will call me back,” said Irani.

On Monday, the Higher Relief Council, originally established during the Civil War to deal with emergencies, released a statement that the council would “conduct a field inspection and determine the damages and compensate those affected.” ISF personnel took pictures of his car and license plate, assuring him that they would get back to him soon. However, he says they never called him back.

The Daily Star was unable to reach the Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Kheir, the head of the council. He has visited many areas across the country to evaluate damages incurred during protests.

Former minister and former Beirut MP Michel Pharaon told The Daily Star that Kheir is evaluating the damages. “He will present the results to caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri will then decide” what and who will be compensated, he said.

While Irani may not have had insurance, it’s unclear whether those who do have insurance packages are better off, especially as the political and economic atmosphere grows increasingly uncertain.

In conversations with major insurance companies in Lebanon, it appears that many are beginning to remove coverage for damage occurred in protests or riot situations. The minority who continue to offer their clients these protections have, however, raised the premium for this insurance significantly.

Farah Merhi made the rounds on social media this week as pictures of her smiling next to her charred car circulated on social media with the caption: “You may have burnt my car, but you may never burn my smile.” Moved by Farah’s resilience, individuals raised over $10,000 on a GoFundMe page to help Farah by a new car.

“My insurance company @Fidelity [Fidelity Insurance] did not cover a single dollar from my loss because they say that they don’t cover riot and terrorism acts which is totally insane for me!” tweeted Farah.

The Daily Star spoke to Fidelity after speaking with Farah and acquiring details of her contract. While Farah had protection for third-party damages and fires, she did not have a special cover for “strikes, riots and civil commotion,” or SRCC, damage.

“This type of cover is not included in her policy. All damages related to sabotage, riots and civil disorder are not. They fall under a very special insurance package,” said a representative from Fidelity Insurance. Fidelity has completely removed provision for SRCC and interested clients would not be offered this protection anymore, even if they were able to afford it.

Farah has also reported the damage to the Higher Relief Council but, like Irani, she hasn’t heard back.

As business owners and residents alike start seeing increased damage arising from the protests, more people have been asking their insurance companies for protection. But, in a time of high risk, the cost of coverage skyrockets.

“In a time of peace, people think that there is no need to protect themselves from such events but suddenly when things start to change, everyone starts asking about these special kinds of coverage,” said a representative from the Libano Suisse Insurance Company. “These coverages are provided from the outside [foreign companies] so when the [country’s] situation is rated in the red zone [high-risk area], it gets more expensive,” she added.

Similarly, Malak Majed, Operations Manager of UFA Assurances, said that they are covering SRCC damage - but only if it was included in the original contract of the client.

However, like Libano Suisse and Fidelity, they have said that they will not be offering clients the option to add or buy riot insurance while riots are happening.

Allianz SNA, another major insurance company, has also ceased providing coverage. The likes of Arabia Insurance are one of the very few that are continuing to offer SRCC protection, but at very high premiums.

However, the issue is not limited strictly to riot insurance.

One man, who preferred to speak on the condition of anonymity, reported that he had to go to a third-party workshop to repair the damage to his car following a road accident. As it was cheaper to go to a third-party, the insurance company agreed that they would compensate him. But, the workshop needed to pay in dollars.

“I took my car to be fixed but they need to buy the car parts from another entity that only accepts dollars,” he said. With the pound rising in unofficial markets to rates of over LL2,300, as compared to the official peg of LL1,500-1,515 to the dollar, insurance companies that function primarily in dollars are arguably feeling the pressure of the liquidity crisis.

“Like the rest of the country, we have also generally been affected by this situation,” a representative from Libano Suisse Insurance told The Daily Star.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 30, 2019, on page 2.

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