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In bankrupt Lebanon, locals mine bitcoin and buy groceries with tether


Aerial view of the seafront Manara district near downtown Beirut.

Bilwander | Getty Images

When Georgio Abou Gebrael first heard about bitcoin in 2016, it sounded like a scam.

But by 2019, as Lebanon plunged into a financial crisis following decades of expensive wars and bad spending decisions, a decentralized and borderless digital currency operating outside the reach of bankers and politicians sounded a lot like salvation. 

Gebrael was an architect living in his hometown of Beit Mery, a village eleven miles due east of Beirut. He had lost his job and needed to figure out another way to quickly get ahold of cash. In the spring of 2020, Gebrael says, the banks were closed and locals were barred from withdrawing money from their accounts. Receiving cash via international wire transfer wasn’t a great option either, since these services would take U.S. dollars from the sender and give Lebanese pounds to the recipient at a much lower rate than market value, according to the 27-year-old. 

“I would lose around half of the value,” explained Gebrael of the experience. “That’s why I was looking at bitcoin – it was a good way to get money from abroad.” 

Gebrael discovered a subreddit dedicated to connecting freelancers with employers willing to pay in bitcoin. The architect’s first job was to film a short commercial for a company that sold tires. Gebrael was paid $5 in bitcoin. Despite the tiny amount, he was hooked.

Georgio Abou Gebrael filmed a short commercial for a company that sells tires, in exchange for $5 worth of bitcoin.

Georgio Abou Gebrael

Today, half of Gebrael’s income is from freelance work, 90% of which is paid in bitcoin. The other half comes from a U.S. dollar-denominated salary paid by his new architecture firm. Beyond being a convenient way to earn a living, bitcoin has also become his bank.

“When I get paid from my architecture job, I withdraw all my money,” continued Gebrael. He then uses that cash to buy small amounts of bitcoin every Saturday. The rest he keeps as spending money for daily needs and home renovations. 

Gebrael isn’t alone in seeking alternative ways to earn, save, and spend money in Lebanon – a country whose banking system is fundamentally broken after decades of mismanagement. The local currency has lost more than 95% of its value since Aug. 2019, the minimum wage has effectively plummeted from $450 to $17 a month, pensions are virtually worthless, Lebanon’s triple-digit inflation rate is expected to be second only to Sudan this year, and bank account balances are just numbers on paper.

“Not everyone believes that the banks are bankrupt, but the reality is that they are,” said Ray Hindi, CEO of a Zurich-based management firm dedicated to digital assets.

“The situation hasn’t really changed since 2019. Banks limited withdrawals, and those deposits became IOUs. You could have taken out your money with a 15% haircut, then 35%, and today, we’re at 85%,” continued Hindi, who was born and raised in Lebanon before leaving at the age of 19.

“Still, people look at their bank statements and believe that they’re going to be made whole at some point,” he said.

Despite losing nearly all of their savings and pension, Gebrael’s parents – both of whom are career government employees – are holding out hope that the existing financial system will rightsize at some point. In the meantime, Gebrael is covering the difference.

Others have lost faith in the monetary system altogether. Enter cryptocurrency.

CNBC spoke with multiple locals, many of whom consider cryptocurrencies a lifeline for survival. Some are mining for digital tokens as their sole source of income while they hunt for a job. Others arrange clandestine meetings via Telegram to swap the stablecoin tether for U.S. dollars in order to buy groceries. Although the form that crypto adoption takes varies depending upon the person and the circumstances, nearly all of these locals craved a connection to money that actually makes sense.

“Bitcoin has really given us hope,” Gebrael said. “I was born in my village, I’ve lived here my whole life, and bitcoin has helped me to stay here.”

The lost ‘Paris of the Middle East’

General view of Beirut, Lebanon in 1956.

Bettmann | Lebanon League of Progress | Getty Images

Between the end of the second World War and the start of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, Beirut was in its golden age, earning it the title of “the Paris of the Middle East.” The world’s elite flocked to the Lebanese capital, which boasted a sizable Francophone population, Mediterranean seaside cafes, and a banking sector known for its resilience and emphasis on secrecy.

Even after the brutal 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon competed with offshore banking jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands as an ideal destination for the rich to park their cash. Lebanese banks offered both a certain degree of anonymity and interest rates ranging from highs of 15% to 31% on U.S. dollars, according to one estimate shared by Dan Azzi, an economist and former CEO of the Lebanese subsidiary of Standard Chartered Bank. In return, Lebanon drew in the foreign currencies that it so desperately needed to re-stock its coffers after the civil war.

There were strings attached. Some banks, for example, had a lock-up window of three years and steep minimum balance requirements. But for a while, the system worked pretty well for everyone involved. The banks got an influx of cash, depositors saw their balances swiftly grow, and the government went on an undisciplined spending spree with the money it borrowed from the banks. The mirage of easy money was further reinforced by the government putting some of that borrowed cash toward maintaining a fixed exchange rate for deposit inflows at an overvalued peg.

Tourism and international aid, plus foreign direct investment from oil-rich Gulf states, also went a long way toward shoring up the balance sheet of the central bank, Banque du Liban. The country’s brain drain and the subsequent boom in remittance payments sent home by the Lebanese diaspora injected dollars as well. 

World Bank data shows remittances as a percentage of gross domestic product peaked at more than 26% in 2004, though it stayed high through the 2008 global financial crisis. Those payments, however, began to slow through the 2010s amid unrest throughout the region, and the growing prominence of Hezbollah – an Iranian-backed, Shiite political party and militant group – in Lebanon alienated some of the country’s biggest donors. 

A vandalized ATM in Beirut, Lebanon.

Anwar Amro | AFP | Getty Images

Meanwhile, as the government splurged to try and rebuild from the civil war, the government’s budget deficit plunged further into the red, and its imports have far outstripped its exports for years.

To try to stave off a total economic meltdown, in 2016, central bank chief Riad Salameh, an ex-Merrill Lynch banker who had been on the job since the early 1990s, decided to dial up banking incentives. People willing to deposit U.S. dollars earned astronomical interest on their money, which proved especially compelling at a time when returns elsewhere in the world were relatively underwhelming. El Chamaa tells CNBC that those who deposited U.S. dollars and then converted those dollars to Lebanese lira earned the highest interest.

The era of easy money fell off a cliff in October 2019, when the government proposed a flurry of taxation on everything from gas, to tobacco, to WhatsApp calls. People took to the streets in what became known as the October 17 Revolution.

As the masses revolted, the government defaulted on its sovereign debt for the first time ever in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic took hold around the world. Making a terrible situation worse, in Aug. 2020, an explosion of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored at the port in Beirut – blamed on gross government negligence – killed more than 200 people and cost the city billions of dollars in damages. 

Anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration against the political elites and the government, in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 8, 2020 after the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut.

STR | NurPhoto via Getty Images

The banks, spooked by all the chaos, first limited withdrawals and then shut their doors entirely as much of the world descended into lockdown. Hyperinflation took root. The local currency, which had a peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to $1 for 25 years, began to rapidly depreciate. The street rate is now around 40,000 pounds to $1. 

“You need a backpack to go for lunch with a group of people,” explained Hindi.

After re-opening, the banks refused to keep up with this extreme depreciation, and offered much lower exchange rates for U.S. dollars than they were worth on the open market. So money in the bank was suddenly worth much less.

Azzi dubbed this new form of money “lollars,” referring to U.S. dollars deposited into the Lebanese banking system before 2019. Today, withdrawals of lollars are capped, and each lollar is paid out at a rate worth about 15% of its actual value, according to estimates from multiple locals and experts living across Lebanon.

Meanwhile, banks still offer the full…

Read More: In bankrupt Lebanon, locals mine bitcoin and buy groceries with tether

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