Money transfer companies are replacing banks in crisis-ridden Lebanon

Money transfer companies are replacing banks in crisis-ridden Lebanon


Like many in crisis-stricken Lebanon, Elias Skaff used to wait hours to withdraw cash from the bank, but now prefers money transfer companies as confidence in lenders has eroded.

Anyone who relies on traditional banks to get their money “is going to die 100 times before cashing it in,” said Skaff, 50, who weathered Lebanon’s three-year economic downturn with the help of US dollar payments from a relative survived abroad.

Once the flagship of Lebanon’s economy, the banking sector is now widely despised and shunned after banks barred depositors from accessing their savings, stopped offering loans, closed hundreds of branches and axed thousands of jobs.

Last month, a local was widely hailed as a folk hero after he stormed a Beirut bank with a gun and held staff and customers hostage for hours to demand part of his $200,000 in frozen savings to pay for his ailing father’s hospital bills pay.

With Lebanon’s deep crisis showing no sign of abating, money transfer agencies are increasingly filling the gap, also offering currency exchange, credit card and tax payment services, and even setting up wedding gift registries.

Skaff said he now receives his money through a Beirut branch of Western Union’s Lebanese agent OMT, which says it operates more than 1,200 branches nationwide and handles 80 percent of money transfers outside of Lebanon’s banking sector.

“We create services similar to those that banks offer at the request of our customers,” said OMT spokesman Naji Abou Zeid.

Lebanon is reeling from its worst economic crisis since the financial sector collapsed in 2019. The local currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market as poverty and unemployment have skyrocketed.

Angry protesters have often targeted banks, vandalizing their ATMs with rocks and spray cans.

“We can’t even withdraw a penny from the bank,” said 45-year-old Alaa Sheikhani, a customer waiting in line at an OMT branch.

“How should we trust them with our money?”

– survival of referrals –

Elie, 36, who recently married, said he used Whish Money, a Lebanese money transfer company, to set up his wedding favor list, which he says saved wedding guests time, hassle and money in fees.

“Instead of waiting for hours in the often overcrowded bank, they can give the money to an agency,” said the man, who asked not to be named. “It’s unmatched in terms of time savings and cost.”

Whish Money’s marketing director, Dina Folge, said the company is attracting customers by charging “zero fees” for Lebanese pound transfers.

Some companies are now even paying salaries through money transfer companies instead of banks.

“When the crisis started, we were forced to pay salaries in cash and that was a waste of time,” said Rachelle Bou Nader, human resources manager, because accountants had to count large wads of banknotes.

But now her company, sporting goods retailer Mike Sport, pays its employees through Whish, so they “can withdraw their salary easily, in installments, and for free,” Bou Nader said.

Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said remittances from the Lebanese diaspora have become crucial in helping families weather the devastating economic crisis.

“Today, a young Lebanese worker living abroad does not hesitate to send his parents $100 because that amount is now making a difference,” he said.

Lebanese banks have drastically increased fees for the few services they still offer – including foreign currency transfers, now their only significant source of income – said Nader, adding that this has further fueled the exodus to money transfer companies.

About 250,000 Lebanon residents received remittances in the first half of 2022, eight percent more than in the same period last year, according to OMT.

The World Bank has reported that Lebanon received US$6.6 billion in remittances in 2021, one of the highest in the Middle East and North Africa.

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