keeping all secrets: banking in Lebanon
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 29, 2007
My current job pays me in local currency – local Lebanese currency, as opposed to local U S currency, which also circulates here.
Since I don’t want to truck around millions of Lebanese pounds in cash each month, I chose the “direct deposit” option, which required me to get a local bank account.
I’ve never had a foreign bank account before, so the idea was rather exciting. The reality was less so.
Excuse me, but are we waiting for something? I asked the account services representative after ten minutes of watching her tidy up her desk.
We are waiting to see whether it is allowed for you to have an account with us, she told me. Because you are foreign.
My father tells me that since the passage of the Patriot Act, banking in the US has become equally burdensome. But why a Lebanese bank would want to deter any foreigner bringing money into the country from opening an account – especially since the sector’s prospects are so dismal otherwise – was a mystery.
Perhaps I should have chosen a less successful bank. I went with BLOM, because it had been in the news recently for being the only bright spot in a dim sector (and because I appreciated BLOM’s efforts to transform Rifaat al Asad’s eyesore building in Abou Roumaneh into its flagship Damascus branch). Maybe a struggling bank would have been more eager to help.
At any rate, I was approved and am now the proud possessor of a Lebanese ATM card (“how do I choose my PIN?” “Choose? You do not choose. Here it is, in this envelope. No one chooses.”) and an old-school account:
“Can I bank online?” “Yes, you can see your bank account online, after you fill out a paper with us.”
“Can I convert my deposits into dollars online?” “No – you cannot convert them with this account. When you want to convert your deposit, you must come to this branch and we will open a second account for you.”
“Can I transfer money?” “Of course not. When you want to transfer money, you must come to this branch.”
Right. Well, I like history – and this account is certainly a step back into the past.
In addition to my type of account, the bank offers other accounts – including one enticingly titled the secret account.
What does this mean? I asked the account services person, while we sat waiting for my approval.
It means that it is a secret account, she told me, smiling.
But who is it secret from? I asked her, curious.
Everybody, she said, laughing. Even we cannot see whose account it is.
Before the Civil War, Lebanon’s promoters used to call it the Switzerland of the Middle East. Apparently at least in banking it still is :).