The pilfering of Lebanon’s wealth is, arguably, the bank heist of the 21st century. The long-serving governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, has become the focus of international pressure for accountability, leading to frustration over his, and Lebanese institutions’ generally, refusal to cooperate with Western investigations.

Untold billions of depositors’ money, stored in a number of banks in many currencies and supposedly delivering implausibly generous interest rates, turned up missing during a financial crisis that took hold in 2019.  The BDL is Lebanon’s central bank, controls the lire, and regulates the commercial banks that were once a bedrock of the economy.

The Lebanese lire has since lost more than 90% of its value, and most depositors are still unable to access their savings. They are allowed small monthly withdrawals, almost always in the form of unreliable lire, no matter the designated currency denomination of their deposits. Ordinary people have been repeatedly driven to staging half-baked armed robberies to finance medical emergencies and other crises.

No one knows how much cash was spirited out of the country over decades of systematic plunder, while an illusion of solvency was maintained by a Ponzi structure using newer deposits to back older ones. But the national wealth was gutted. The middle classes who can are leaving en masse. Those who can’t flee have been reduced to poverty, and the working classes to savage penury.

Like all other massive crimes committed in Lebanon in recent decades — including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion that reduced much of the capital to smoldering ruins — there’s been no real effort to investigate or hold anyone accountable. But the de facto cover-up of this financial malfeasance raises particular problems because of the ripple effect into the economy as a whole.

Lebanon requires a bailout from the international community, especially banks and investors taking their cue from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which would have to be at the helm of a rescue. But, while there is every reason for the developed world to want to help save Lebanon, nobody wants to throw good money after bad. Reforms will be required, and before that, an accounting of exactly how much was stolen and by whom.

That places Salameh in the crosshairs. At least six European countries are actively investigating the heist. France, which has deep historical and colonial ties to Lebanon, issued an arrest warrant for him this month when he failed to attend a judicial hearing. So has Germany, which formally asked Interpol to apprehend him. Yet Lebanon does not extradite its citizens, and earlier this month a judge released Salameh from custody pending further investigation.

Salameh, who remains in his top post at the bank, isn’t just accused of participating in the heist to the tune of $300 million for himself. He allegedly oversaw the regulatory and institutional mechanisms that allowed wealthy Lebanese institutions and individuals to surreptitiously spirit billions out of the country. Even the terrorist group Hezbollah, which is allergic to any hint of economic — not to mention institutional or political — reform has said he should resign. He says he intends to step down when his term ends in July.

Salameh is supposedly being investigated by Lebanese authorities, who say they have confiscated his passport and forbidden him from traveling. But that conveniently protects him from real scrutiny in other countries, something he certainly won’t get at home. Growing pressure on the Lebanese state to do a more convincing job of at least pretending to investigate the decades of unimaginable theft is dovetailing with yet another crisis over the selection of a new president.

Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of the outgoing president, Michel Aoun, and target of significant US corruption sanctions, passionately wants to succeed his father-in-law. France has reportedly proposed a compromise: If Bassil will support the candidacy of his top rival, Sleiman Frangieh, he would be permitted to select the new governor of the Banque du Liban succeeding Salameh. But it doesn’t seem as if Bassil is willing to step aside.

In any case, an agreement along these lines would represent a meeting of the minds among Lebanese political elites to avoid any genuine investigation into this mind-boggling crime. They wouldn’t want Salameh to spill the beans.

The Catch-22 for Lebanese power centers is that to admit that the Banque du Liban house of cards collapsed along with the economy would be a confession of the profound corruption in which they are all implicated. But without some accountability, there won’t be an international bailout, and they can continue to lord it over an increasingly hollow, decimated society.

The Catch-22 for the West and the international community is that Lebanon remains strategically and politically well worth saving. Yet there is no real reason to think the Lebanese political class is capable of contemplating, let alone undertaking, the necessary investigations and reforms, beginning with an audit of the bank.

Lebanon will have to be saved, not exactly from itself, but from a united front among its politically dominant factions. Right now, it’s hard to imagine where that even starts.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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