Hell’s angels

Illegal trade to bolster motorbike sales

Can any trade sector survive without governing laws? In Lebanon yes, it is possible, yet some business owners struggle to keep their companies as legitimate as needed. It does sound ironic, but at all times in this country you have to fight your way into legality. Legal and governmental institutions have been formatted to accept and contain illegitimate businesses and offer them the same privileges — or perhaps even more — as those offered to business owners who took the choice of investing in an institution that naturally contributes to the growth of the local economy.

Over the past few years, motorcycle trade in Lebanon has grown beyond expectations, following global growth in this specific automotive sector. International brand names like Harley-Davidson, Piaggio, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, BMW and many others have partnered with local franchisees and worked on introducing a new trend of responsible motorcycling in Lebanon. On the other hand, however, a number of individuals sniffed out opportunities to manipulate the import and trade laws in order to practice the worst form of unlawful competition. Small motorcycle vendors have made their way into the city, and container loads of cheap products that are banned from importation into most countries have flooded the market. The lack of homologation standards and the incompetence of border authorities have served to facilitate the process for any individual trader who sees an opportunity for an easy buck in this particular sector.

Lebanon welcomes everything, from expired foods to counterfeit medicine, and just like the motorcycle import process, their sales process will follow suit. Most gray importers use fake documentation and invoicing to reduce their import taxes and duties, and they don’t like keeping import records, so why would they want to keep sales records? The bottom line is that those motorcycles end up on the streets without registration, legalization or even proof of ownership in the hands of unknown owners, some of whom are pickpockets, thieves and even terrorists.

Curbing the gray dealers

A recent statistic released by the ISF counted 609 robberies in Lebanon throughout 2014. Some 226 were carried out on motorcycles, of which, none were purchased through an authorized brand dealer. Subsequently, the governor of Mount Lebanon ordered a night curfew on motorcycles, a decision taken in an attempt to limit the crime rate, although it mainly affected legitimate dealers. Customers of legal traders make up the majority of lawful citizens who own motorcycles, for either commuting to work or as a hobby. Meanwhile, gray dealers are still importing junk and providing for law-abusing motorcyclists.

Last September, representatives of all recognized brands rallied their groups and headed to the departure point at the Beirut Waterfront, where the Beirut Bike Festival organizers and the ISF called for a thunder parade in an effort to raise their collective voice against the negative stereotypes of motorcyclists. Over 1,400 lawful bikers hit the streets of Beirut, led by 50 police motorcycles under the banner “In recognition of the Lebanese Traffic Police’s efforts”.

The local bikers’ community has also matured in the past five years. Groups have become larger and more organized, although only a few have obtained legal licenses from the Ministry of Interior, such as the Harley-Davidson Owners Group, operating as MTCL, and A.N. Boukather for the Vespa and Piaggio group. Recently, an association for importers was founded under the banner of the Lebanese Association for Motorcycle Agents (LAMA) and is acting as the governing body for all brand name motorcycle importers. LAMA has taken the initiative of raising awareness towards enforcing laws governing imports and traffic safety. The association has sided with NGOs who are lobbying for the new traffic law to be implemented immediately, after it was unconstitutionally put on hold for political reasons despite passing the parliament vote and being published in the Official Gazette two years ago. This sets another example of how governing laws are dismissed and, while trade gremlins flourish, the national trade industry suffers; limiting the possibilities of growth for any legitimate business.

Marwan Tarraf is the owner and managing director of Bikers Inc., the official distributor of Harley-Davidson in Lebanon, and the president of the Lebanese Association for Motorcycle Agents