A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

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 :).



10 Responses to “keeping all secrets: banking in Lebanon”

  1. Raed Rafei said

    I totally endorse what you wrote. I have my own squabbles with banks here. The problem is not only with the banking system but most of the time with employees who totally lack professionalism.

  2. Sietske said

    Right. Well, I like history – and this account is certainly a step back into the past.

    You made me smile.

  3. intlxpatr said

    This is one of the funniest blog entries you have ever written. I even had to read parts of it out loud. I remember working with the Embassy in a nearby local country – when we would shop in Damascus, the checks would clear through Lebanese banks faster than the checks I wrote at our embassy!

  4. Nicolien said

    “Right. Well, I like history – and this account is certainly a step back into the past.”

    Not to be the nasty American basher, but that’s exactly what I thought when I finally managed to open a bank account in New York (Citibank) when I was living there (coming from the Netherlands)- and they gave me a cheque-book. Last time I had seen that was when I was six, and it was my parents’.
    I have to admit that I haven’t tried opening an account here yet, though, and your post doesn’t make me look forward to it…

  5. Raed, I’m not sure whether you mean “here” Lebanon or “here” CA, but the individual tellers I’ve dealt with have been good – friendly, courteous, professional. Its just that – no offense to them – I would rather deal with the bank strictly via the internet!

    Sietske & khalti, thank you! And khalti, I’m not surprised. Even in 2005 many Damascus shops cleared credit card purchases through Lebanon (or Kuwait, or Bahrain). And we all know how important an uninterrupted flow of money was to the civil war 😛

    Nicolien, POOR YOU. I had an account with Citibank for six years, and I feel your pain. Its online banking services were adequate, but I dreaded having to visit a branch. Even if there were only three people standing in line before me, I was guaranteed an hour’s wait and an utterly incompetent (not to mention un-interested) teller at the end. It was worse than the Post Office!

  6. […] Rafei, a local journalist who works with the LA Times. I don’t know him, but he has kindly commented on this blog before, and he writes for “Babylon and Beyond”, the blog published by the LA Times‘ […]

  7. Charles said

    Waiting in line is my nightmare in Lebanese banks. Each teller has their own cordon line, so you have to choose one and if other tellers get freed up faster you may be stuck with your choice of teller and keep waiting while latecomers get served earlier by other tellers. On two occasions, I fumed so much I started snapping at tellers, fellow customers, the bank manager etc. I’m sure I overreacted, but do you face a similar problem? I’m a Lebanese expat and I opened my account at BLOM.

  8. Oh, Charles – the lines. ugh. Waiting in line is so stressful here. In the US, waiting in line is a stress-reliever: you know that you will be served after the person in front of you and before the person behind you. Here, the person behind you is standing at your elbow, trying to move forward, while three other people are standing _outside_ the cordon rope, trying to bypass the line entirely. So when you do get to the teller, you have people leaning over and past you from all sides.

    So … yes, I face a similar problem. I haven’t snapped yet – my strategy is avoidance :). I haven’t been to the bank since December, and I am way, way, way overdue for a visit!

  9. viv said


  10. viv said

    those who are criticizing the lebanese banks, and those who prefer american banks and others, make me laugh, you are stupid and show only discrimination, i prefer to deal with blom rather than dealing with an american bank that will go bankruptcy, its obvious that u dont know anything about banking, economy, politics and lebanese war. maybe you prefer the indian banks or citibank,

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