Lebanon’s central bank chief will not renew term under shadow of embezzlement probe
In January, Riad Salameh had demanded ‘guarantees’ that he not be arrested following the European judicial probe
By News Desk - February 20 2023

(Photo credit: Greg Demarque/Executive Magazine)

The US-backed chief of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh – who has been at the head of the institution since 1993 – said on 19 February during an interview with Egyptian television that he would not seek a renewal of his term.

“No one has asked me to continue [as central bank chief], but even if they do, I think this is enough,” Salameh said.

Throughout the interview, Salameh attributed Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis to ‘political instability’ and ‘inadequate foreign currency reserves.’

Earlier in February, the central bank officially devalued the country’s currency to 15,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, despite the fact that the lira has been on a downhill slope since the financial crash in 2019 and by now has lost nearly 100 percent of its value.

According to a 19 February report by Lebanese media outlet Al-Nahar, which cites another report by Ad-Diyar newspaper on Sunday, the central bank chief will hold a meeting on 20 February in order to address the rapid deterioration of the currency.

The newspaper said that “Riad Salameh … will chair a meeting for the bank’s central council tomorrow to discuss means to halt the monetary deterioration, [and] stressed in the latest financial meeting chaired by [Prime Minister Najib Mikati] that any plan or measures in this regard would require ending the banks’ [open ended] strike,” which began on 7 February.

Although Salameh has claimed that he is not seeking to remain head of the central bank, Lebanon’s Finance Minister Youssef Khalil said on 17 February that Salameh might stay in power and that no consensus has been reached on the matter.

“There may be a plan to extend the terms of all first-level public servants, not just Salameh, but there is not yet consensus on that.”

“There is no consensus yet, and in Lebanon, and especially in this political environment, making a big change like this is difficult. It’s very difficult,” the minister said in reference to Salameh’s term potentially ending, without elaborating further.

This echoes what many officials have said in the past and signifies a potential fear among Lebanon’s political elite that Salameh may ‘bring everybody down with him’ in the event that he is forcibly dismissed.

At the start of last year, Mikati threatened to resign if Salameh was dismissed. At the time, the prime minister had said that Salameh was “a guarantor that there will not be a major collapse in the price of the national currency.” Many, including Lebanon’s resistance Hezbollah, have accused the central bank of facilitating aggressive fluctuations of the currency’s exchange rate on behalf of Washington in order to ramp up pressure on the country.

On 16 February, it was reported by Saudi media that the US was considering imposing sanctions on Salameh for alleged ‘links to Hezbollah.’

Two days later, this was denied by a US State Department spokesperson.

“We have seen these rumors, and while we generally are not discussing any possible sanctions, I can confirm that these rumors are not based on facts,” the spokesperson said on 18 February.

Salameh has been the focus of a broad European judicial probe, which began in 2020, regarding his embezzlement of millions in public funds. In January, a team of European investigators arrived in the country to continue the investigation.

The team has since left, but will return to Lebanon in early March to continue the probe, judicial sources revealed. Salameh’s claim that he is not seeking a new term may be motivated by fear over the outcome of the European investigation.

Most Popular