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All Is Not Well with Uber Lebanon

Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Lebanon
Published on 11.11.2022
Reading time: 10 minutes

Rebecca Rykes’ murder put the spotlight on Uber for all the wrong reasons, while the Uber Files show how the giant firm lobbied hard to force its way into Lebanon. Many people claim the firm still does not meet rules and regulations. Yet Uber denies it operates outside the law.

It has been nearly five years since Rebecca Dykes was murdered by a Lebanese Uber driver. Raped and strangled, the 30-year-old British diplomat’s body was found dumped at a roadside outside Beirut on December 16, 2017. 

The killer, Tariq Houshieh, was arrested shortly after. He remains incarcerated and on death row. There is little doubt he is the culprit, as he confessed. Yet many questions remain. Most importantly: how could he have been hired, as he had a criminal record and served time for assault and drug offenses?

But that is not all. Findings from the Uber Files show the American  firm entered the Lebanese market following a lobbying campaign to circumvent taxi drivers’ concerns. Moreover, it seems Uber does not have a physical presence in Lebanon and does not meet the country’s rules and regulations governing the transport sector. 

The Uber Files is a transnational investigative project based on a trove of over 124,000 leaked documents, including 83,000 emails, that were leaked to British newspaper The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its partners, including Daraj. 

The files span four years from 2013 and 2017,  the period in which Uber transformed from a startup to a global behemoth, and cover 40 countries, including Lebanon. 

And Thus It Began

Uber entered into Lebanon’s Commercial Register on July 7, 2014, as “UBER LEBANON S.A.R.L,” a limited liability company (LLC) part of Uber International B.V. and Uber International Holding B.V.

In addition to Travis Kalanick, co-founder and former CEO of Uber, the register names Chucri Robert El Khoury, a Lebanese lawyer, an associate of Bank Audi CEO Samir N. Hanna’s sons Walid (via Trinec Fusion Holding SAL) and Samer (via Claims Express CE SAL Holding).

Also mentioned are Anthony El Khoury, Uber Middle East’s regional manager from January 2017 to May 2019, and Bassam Tlais, Head of the Land Transport Union. 

In an interview with Daraj, Tlais claimed he had never met with any Uber representative. He also claimed the company had not complied with Lebanese regulations governing public transport. “Where is its business license?” he asked.  

Public Affairs

The Uber Files show that, before starting operations in Lebanon in 2014, the firm was groomed key players in sectors relevant to its business. 

“The major problem in Beirut is…. ‘public affairs’ in many (most) cases involves ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’,” wrote a high-level Uber employee in one of the leaked documents. The term public affairs refers to an organization’s engagement efforts with the public, often in the context of building governmental relationships.

Uber had hired public affairs consultancy company Fipra International to develop strategies for each city in which the company planned to operate. For its services in Lebanon, Fipra received a monthly fee of €5,000. 

“It was a grey area where contacts and the ability to ‘thank’ influencers was the mainstay,” reads an email drafted by a high-level Uber employee in an exchange between Fibra and Uber. “Despite there now being many global PR and advertising agencies, I sense that in the PA arena, little has changed.””

The main reason for Uber’s initial troubles in Lebanon was opposition from the General Syndicate of the Lebanese Taxi Drivers (GSLTD) headed by Charles Abou Harb, who also owns the Charlie Taxi company. GSLTD filed two legal complaints against Uber.

“We didn’t expect Lebanon to get messy so quickly; this is clearly a result of the political influence of Taxi in the local market,”  reads an internal Uber memo prepared by a high-level employee. “. Clearly, there are certain connections that cause the police to act more quickly than I have ever witnessed in Lebanon’s history,” “We will need the strongest political support possible, since now the taxi monopolies have started to show their teeth, both with the police and with the media.”

“We both knowhow Lebanon works sometimes,” an Uber employee stated in  October 2014. “It would have been naive to think we would not have to do the onerous political engagement; but you and I were hoping that day wouldn’t come so soon.”.”

Political Affairs

The Uber Files show that Uber hired Lebanese PR firm Strategic Communication Consultancy (S2C) to help navigate the country’s troubled political waters. S2C was founded in 2002 by Ramsay G. Najjar, who passed away in 2020 as a result of Covid. 

For a monthly fee of $15,000, S2C assisted Uber by setting up meetings with influential politicians, including Michel Pharaon, Lebanon’s minister of tourism at the time. 

He felt Lebanon would benefit from Uber’s presence in the country. However, he warned it would pose a problem for the “aggressive and powerful” taxi owners association (GSLTD). 

“The minister implores us to operate within the boundaries of the law, as he does not want to endanger his position nor his constituency,” the leaked documents state. “Furthermore, he advises that we include taxis whenever possible because our presence ‘will ruin the taxi companies.’ However, we must ensure our work benefits the Lebanese and not other communities in Lebanon (i.e. Syrians).”

Daraj sent Pharaon a series of queries, yet he failed to respond

Politicians and Celebrities

Uber then met with the former Minister of Economy Alain Hakim through Maroun Chammas, General Manager of oil and gas company MEDCO Holdings and former President of The Association of Petroleum Importing Companies. 

Uber also met with Samir and Jean Baroudi, the lawyers representing former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Ghazi Zaiter, whose names frequently appear in the investigation regarding the 2020 Beirut Port explosion. 

That meeting’s main goal was a meeting with minister Zaiter, since he in 2014 had threatened to shut down Uber Lebanon. According to the leaked documents, the meeting was very  productive. The lawyers even informed Uber they would be happy to assist the firm in meeting other ministers.

Uber also met with former MP Robert Fadel. Internal company records contain a full account of the meeting. However, in response to Daraj’s questions, Fadel claimed “a mistake” must have been made, for he had never taken part in any Uber activities in Lebanon. 

“This email may have been sent to the wrong person,” he replied. Adding: “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance, but I don’t know much about Uber Lebanon. I’ve never used it in Lebanon, while I always use it abroad.”

According to Executive Magazine, Uber furthermore enlisted the aid of two famous influencers in Lebanon: actor Daniella Rahme and TV host Pierre Rabbat. It also ran ads in the Middle East Airlines magazine, while BLOM Bank  facilitated its payments.

The above shows how Uber used lobbying to further its interests. Although this is not illegal, it appears a key component in the company’s strategy to get around domestic rules and regulations. 

Sebastien Wakim, Uber Lebanon’s general manager from June 2014 until April 2017, failed to respond to Daraj’s questions.  

The Murder’s Aftermath

“I strongly advise people in Lebanon not to use this means of transport [Uber] because we deem it insecure,” said former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk following Rebecca Dykes’ murder.  “Dealing with Uber is dangerous, therefore we better get back to the traditional way.”

GSLTD head Abou Harb issued a similar warning regarding the Uber and Careem apps. “These companies are unlicensed, employ private cars that are not registered by the authorities, often use forged plates, while the drivers are mostly non-Lebanese,” he said. 

“Why do we want to revive the dead?” Abou Harb replied when Daraj approached him for an interview. “Uber has been over in Lebanon for a long time. And so the subject is over for us.”

Contrary to Abou Harb’s claims, however, Uber is still operational in Lebanon and many Lebanese continue using it. Two years after Dykes’ murder, in September 2019, public transport employees and taxi drivers in Beirut held a demonstration against the use of ridesharing apps

“Safety has always been a top priority for us,” Uber Middle East replied in response to Daraj. “We have substantially invested in technology to help keep drivers and passengers safe.”

“All drivers in Lebanon using our platform must have licenses, which require government checks,” it added. “In addition, we conduct our own background checks. We also require drivers to submit a supplementary background check conducted by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) at least twice a year. At the time of the devastating Rebecca Dykes incident, we collaborated closely with the authorities to aid the investigation.” 

Lawsuits

Upon entering Lebanon, Uber sought legal advice from multiple law firms, as the country’s taxi drivers posed the biggest challenge. In an interview with Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper, GSLTD head Abou Harb claimed Uber violates Lebanese law. 

“The company [Uber] operates in violation of Lebanon’s transportation law,” he said. “The law obliges business owners to obtain 10 public license plates and register at least five employees for insurance, whereas Uber does not even have a phone number.”

He confirmed that the taxi drivers syndicate (GSLTD) had filed two complaints against Uber demanding the company to be shut down as it violated the law.

However, one judge ruled that the matter was not within his jurisdiction, while the other dismissed the case because Uber is an “electronic intermediary,” or ridesharing app, rather than a transport company.

Abou Harb deemed this “a heresy,” as Lebanon has no law governing ride-sharing.  His concerns were shared by a study conducted by the Beirut Arab University in October 2018.

“Uber continues to operate in Lebanon without the required licenses, making its activities illegal and producing a certain insecurity for passengers,” the survey concluded. “Lebanese lawmakers are therefore requested to adopt an appropriate legal framework for transport services provided by apps or adapt the existing rules.” 

The Uber Middle East office denied it operated outside Lebanese law and told Daraj is fully committed to complying with rules and regulations wherever it operates, including Lebanon.

“Uber Lebanon was established in compliance with Lebanese law,” Uber Middle East claimed.  “Uber has never allied with, and has absolutely no intention of allying with, any political party. We face cases in Lebanese courts, as is common for companies wherever they operate.”

Where did the Uber Office Go?

Following the Dykes murder, the An Nahar newspaper at the end of 2017 described searching for the Uber offices in Lebanon as “looking for a needle in a haystack.” 

In March 2018, Uber organized an “Open Media Day” in an effort to promote itself and demonstrate the company met Lebanese regulations in terms of having an office. However, the latter “disappeared” soon after and the company website still does not list a phone number. 

When we recently visited the company headquarters in central Beirut, we found a young man and woman working in an office without any furniture other than a few chairs. The young man introduced himself as being responsible for the night-time shift. 

We asked him a few questions, but he refused to comment, referring us to Uber’s regional office in Dubai instead. He confirmed the Beirut office has no phone number and operates solely through the app. 

The 2018 Beirut Arab University study also mentioned that when its researchers visited the Uber office, they found it empty, without furniture or staff. “The premises were merely used to finalize the procedures required to establish the company,” the study concluded.

Today, the company still does not have an office in Beirut. Uber drivers say they have no other way to communicate with the company than using the app. Uber Lebanon’s first general manager, Sebastien Wakim, did not respond to Daraj’s questions.

“Our office in Lebanon was established to provide personal support to the drivers,” the Uber Middle East office told Daraj. “During the Covid-19 pandemic, Uber temporarily closed all its support centers globally. In markets where personal support was no longer required, we stopped using centers on-site while continuing to support drivers remotely. One such center was the one in Lebanon.” 

Uber in Lebanon Today

In an interview with Daraj, Head of the Land Transport Union

Bassam Tlais discussed the transport sector’s many problems, including a lack of state backing and the skyrocketing prices of fuel and car parts, all of which are purchased in dollars. 

Uber drivers complain the company charges drivers 25% of the value of each trip, while it does not contribute to the rising costs they face. With an eye on the ongoing economic crisis, drivers have tried to communicate with the company but to no avail, one Uber driver told Daraj.

However, Uber in March 2022 sent out an email to its customers saying: “In the light of rising fuel prices, we have revised the estimated fare to help drivers continue to make sustainable profits, while thousands of passengers can continue to move around cities at a reasonable cost.” 

In response to Daraj’ questions Uber Middle East replied: “We have consistently made a lot of effort to strengthen our relationship with drivers, have innovated to make their daily interactions with Uber even better, listened to their feedback, and have lobbied on a worldwide scale for additional benefits and protection.” 

The story of Uber in Lebanon may not come as a surprise to most Lebanese who, unfortunately, have become used to tales of bribery, nepotism, and corruption. Yet it is our responsibility, both as journalists and citizens, to expose the activities of foreign companies in our countries, in particular show they rely on a network of powerful individuals to advance their interests, often at the expense of the law, safety and citizens’ rights.

Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Lebanon
Published on 11.11.2022
Reading time: 10 minutes

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