Lebanon’s university students turn to crypto as hyperinflation roils the country

Quick Take

  • Amid a devastating financial crisis and hyperinflation in Lebanon, the American University of Beirut has been putting together a courseload focusing on cryptocurrency and blockchain applications. 
  • One year in, the program is continuing to expand, even as the university itself is trying to adjust to the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

In a tan stone building with a widescreen view of the Mediterranean, the American University in Beirut houses the premier business school in the Middle East. 

But the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business has fallen on hard times, as has the rest of the country. 

Last year, a gunfight broke out between Hezbollah and Christian-backed militias over investigations into the Beirut port explosion. Many feared a return of the bloody civil war of the 80s. AUB canceled midterms. 

Mercifully, Lebanon did not descend into war. But the crisis continues. For AUB, pound-denominated tuition and professors’ salaries have dropped by roughly 90%. While Beirut has long been one of the Arab world’s cultural hubs, recent years have seen Lebanon’s economy racked by cronyism, corruption and some of the worst hyperinflation in the world. 

The Lebanese lira remains officially pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1,500 to 1, but the black-market exchange rate is more like 30,000 to 1. And banks have indefinitely frozen customer withdrawals on pre-crisis dollar accounts, cratering faith in them as an institution.

Amid such a crisis, Lebanon’s future business leaders are turning to blockchain tech.

“The crazy thing is,” says Harry Halpin. “Walking through Beirut, it doesn’t feel like chaos. It feels like this could totally happen in New York.”

A founding programmer of privacy-focused Nym Technologies, Halpin, an American, found himself in residence at the beginning of last semester. He taught the inaugural “Blockchain for Business” course.

The blockchain program is new to the university. By his own account, Halpin drew inspiration from current chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission Gary Gensler’s courses at MIT, which Halpin took while working at the university. 

The first semester of the blockchain course culminated in several students pitching LebAid, a platform for refugee remittances, to the business school’s start-up accelerator. 

A hackathon at the end of May saw competing teams, including a third of the undergraduate students from the fall semester, propose solutions for Lebanon’s particular problems. One team that is now in the university’s incubator program put together a system of prepaid cards, which scratch off to reveal private keys granting holders access to USDT wallets with small balances. 

The new curriculum was enough of a success that the university has expanded, adding a DeFi module for professionals starting in July, and aiming to set up separate courses for graduate students with more of a programming background.

“What you really need is skilled programmers who can apply those skills to practical problems that they understand better than anyone else, in the language they speak — like Arabic,” Halpin says.

Meanwhile, however, the AUB is struggling to maintain its current staffing, given the collapsing value of professor salaries. The university is even considering switching its tuition from pounds to dollars — which would then make it prohibitive for a huge chunk of prospective students. 

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