Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
In a galaxy in which taxi drivers are universally acknowledged as the founts of all wisdom, Lebanon is the mother ship. AFP
In a galaxy in which taxi drivers are universally acknowledged as the founts of all wisdom, Lebanon is the mother ship. AFP

Lebanese cabbies know it all - shame about their vehicles

Cabbies in Lebanon come in a wide variety, as do their cars. But calls to standardise taxis will do little to change that, writes Michael Karam.

In a galaxy in which taxi drivers are universally acknowledged as the founts of all wisdom, Lebanon is the mother ship. Nowhere have I come across cabbies with such a fantastic range of theories on how the world functions.

Clearly, the rule of thumb is that the smaller the country, the more its people take an interest in world affairs as they are more likely to feel the trickle-down effect of foreign policy, and hence the reason many Americans know about nothing beyond their neighbourhood.

To make things more interesting, Lebanon, like most Middle East nations, is a hotbed of conspiracy theories. Add to this the fact that many Lebanese taxi drivers know a smattering of foreign languages and one gets all the ingredients for a spontaneous lecture on global politics.

They know who was behind the September 11 attacks on the US and they are convinced that Diana, the princess of Wales, died because she was dallying with an Egyptian.

The classic chauffeur from central casting drives a 40-year-old Mercedes-Benz in various states of disrepair. I am surely not the only one to have been in the front seat of a Lebanese cab and seen the road whizz by under my feet due to a gaping hole in the floor.

There is however a new generation of cabbie, a hungrier, cheekier species who drives the newer and much-coveted Toyota Avenza, and there are the private taxi companies staffed by part-timers with their own cars, who undercut the regular taxis and, to be honest, offer a safer ride.

There is also the female-only Banet Taxi, a company born out Lebanese women's frustration at being ogled by toothless septuagenarians. And then there are the private solo operators - such as the coiffeured owner of Elvis Taxi, who parks his gleaming Mercedes near my home.

The latter cater to long-cultivated private customers: elderly women who don't drive and foreign correspondents who hire them at lucrative day rates that are claimed back on expenses.

All of these and more will be rubbing their hands with glee at last week's decision by parliament to award the country's 40,000 taxi and minibus drivers three-monthly subsidies of between 350,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh850) and 470,000 pounds, a cost to the state of about 48 billion pounds. The money is meant to offset the burden of rising fuel costs.

Opponents of the decision argue that the payments are a waste of money and point to a still-born 2004 transport plan that proposed adding about 250 new, or newish, buses to what is an ageing government fleet.

This we are told would have been four times cheaper than the subsidies and eased Lebanon's chronic traffic problem because it would have encouraged people to take the bus.

But what is most alarming, or amusing depending on one's mood, is that the head of the taxi and minibus drivers union, flush from his victory at securing the subsidy, is also calling for regulation of the sector, in particular of what he calls non-licensed taxis.

Anyone who has taken enough licensed Lebanese taxis will have horror stories.

Many cars, like overburdened Japanese businessmen (although that is where the similarity ends), simply expire while at work, leaving customers to find alternative ways of getting to point B and the driver prodding at the metal carcass of a once proud German piece of auto engineering. Yes, they are the licensed ones.

Licensed in Lebanon does not mean roadworthy. Owning the coveted red licence plate appears to override all else, including it seems Lebanese law, which stipulates all cars over four years old must undergo a roadworthiness test.

And a very rigid test it is too. I once had to replace the brake light on my 2005 VW. Fair enough you might think, but thousands of cars across Lebanon do not even have lights let alone brake lights (in fact a lot do not even have brakes) and yet they are still on the road. Law enforcement is clearly a moveable feast.

So here is my point: surely the government, before it shells out millions to Lebanon's cabbies and minibus drivers, should make as a prerequisite for receiving payment a car with a clean bill of health; and by that I mean they must present the car along with the certificate.

The current situation simply perpetuates a culture of danger: danger to pedestrians and other road users and a danger to environment (and anyone who has been in Lebanon for over a day will testify to the plumes of black smoke that swirl out of a staggering number of the nation's cars and buses).

Almost every European and American that visits the country not only goes away with a warm sense of hospitality and vibrancy but also permanent mental trauma from having endured the mayhem on our roads.

Yes it may cost a bit more to create a system of inspection for Lebanon's taxis, but in the long run the expense will be well worth it.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 The Greens, villas: Q1 no change. 3BR - Dh210-250,000. 4BR - Dh210-260,000. 5BR - Dh220-300,000. Q1 2013-Q1 2014 5% rise. Pawan Singh / The National

In pictures: Where Dubai rents have risen and fallen, Q1 2014

Find out how rental prices in the prime locations in Dubai have altered during the first three months of the year and the current rates you will pay according to data provided by Asteco.

 Miele coffee maker making Cappuccino at Miele Gallery in Sama Tower in Dubai. The cost of this coffee maker is around Dh 17,000. Pawan Singh / The National

Space-age coffee comes at a price from Miele

Miele have taken the coffee machine to a new level with its Dh17,000 offering that is built into your kitchen.

 The bridge of Seajacks Hydra, as the wind farm installation vessel undergoes finishing touches and testing works at Lamprell’s Hamriyah facility in Sharjah before its planned delivery on June 2, 2014. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Building the Seajacks Hydra

The Seajacks Hydra, a wind farm installation vessel, is undergoing finishing touches and testing works at Lamprell’s Hamriyah facility in Sharjah before its planned delivery on June 2, 2014.

 The Wind, Energy, Technology and Environment Exhibition takes place from April 14 to April 16. Above, the Dewa showroom during last year’s Wetex. Jaime Puebla / The National

April corporate and economic calendar for the UAE and overseas

From Cityscape to Wetex to stock-market holidays to nations reporting first-quarter GDP figures, here is our helpful calendar of April's business events in the UAE and internationally.

 The rush of new supply of hotel rooms pushed Dubai occupancy rates down to 87 per cent. Sarah Dea / The National

Dubai hotel room rates rise 10 per cent

The rush of new supply pushed occupancy rates down to 87 per cent, a dip of 2.6 per cent from the previous year. Winter months are the strongest for Dubai hotels, with occupancy and prices falling to half their peaks by July.

 Get the latest information on credit cards, bank accounts and loan products in the UAE. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

Rates report: Latest on UAE loans, accounts and credit cards

Souqamal.com brings you the latest interest rates on banking products in the UAE.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National