Qatar increases its influence in Lebanon amid multiple crises

BEIRUT (AP) — Most of the wealthy Gulf Arab states have followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in recent years, ostracizing a crisis-ridden Lebanon over the growing influence of the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. The exception was Qatar.

Doha has quietly extended its influence in Lebanon. He continued to receive Lebanese leaders and pumped out tens of millions of dollars to help the country’s armed forces amid a historic economic collapse.

The tiny gas-rich nation began to see the fruits of its investments in late January when state-owned Qatar Energy replaced a Russian company in an international consortium that will explore for gas in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Lebanon.

And on Monday, Qatar will take part in a meeting in Paris for the first time, with representatives from France, Saudi Arabia and the United States, to discuss the political and economic crisis in Lebanon.

Qatar presents itself as a more neutral force in a country where outside powers have for decades used Lebanon’s sectarian divisions to wage their proxy struggles. Saudi Arabia has long supported Sunni Muslim factions in Lebanon and has sought to oust Iran’s influence through Shia Hezbollah. The rivalry has repeatedly brought Lebanon to the brink of armed conflict.

Qatar, which has good relations with Iran, has tried to advance negotiations between Tehran and the Gulf states. Its inclusion in the upcoming talks “is a signal that Iran will not be completely excluded from this meeting and an acknowledgment of the influence Tehran has over Lebanon”, said Mohamad Bazzi, professor and director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center. for Near Eastern studies. at New York University.

“With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries becoming less involved in Lebanon, Qatar is trying to reinvigorate its mediating role in the country,” he said.

Yet Qatar – one of the wealthiest countries in the world with its natural gas wealth – has so far “shown few signs of being ready to bail out Lebanon on its own”, Bazzi said.

Since late 2019, the Lebanese economy has collapsed under the weight of widespread corruption and mismanagement. The currency has lost over 90% of its value, leaving most of the population in poverty. International donors, including Qatar, have urged the government to implement reforms to unlock around $11 billion in loans and grants. But Lebanese politicians resisted because the reforms would weaken their power in the country.

Qatar’s involvement in Lebanon is not new.

After the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, Qatar helped rebuild several badly damaged towns and villages in southern Lebanon. Huge billboards with signs reading “Thank you Qatar” have popped up across Lebanon.

In May 2008, after Hezbollah and its allies fought their Western-backed rivals in Beirut’s worst fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanese politicians flew to Qatar, where they concluded a agreement known as the “Doha Accords”. East. The deal ended an 18-month stalemate and saw the election of a new president and the formation of a new government. In the ensuing lull, massive foreign investment flowed in and the Lebanese economy grew by an average of 9% for three years.

In December 2018, then-President Michel Aoun inaugurated the newly renovated National Library of Lebanon in Beirut, funded by Qatar to the tune of $25 million. The current emir’s mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, laid the foundation stone for the project in the heart of Beirut in 2009.

Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from Lebanon in recent years as Hezbollah’s power has grown. Last year, the main Saudi ally in Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Lebanese-Saudi dual citizen, announced that he would stop his political work.

In 2020, Riyadh banned imports of Lebanese products after a Lebanese official mocked the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Several other Gulf states have followed suit, but not Qatar.

Qatar doubled its investments as the Lebanese economy collapsed.

Investors from Qatar bought the famous Le Vendome hotel in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in 2020. Doha is reportedly planning to pump money into Lebanon’s struggling banking sector to buy one of the country’s lenders.

In June, Qatar donated $60 million to support the salaries of Lebanese army personnel. He was already supporting the army with monthly food deliveries. Strengthening the Lebanese army has long been a US policy, which sees force as a counterweight to Hezbollah.

A week ago, three months after Lebanon and Israel signed a US-brokered maritime border accord, Qatari Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi met with Lebanese officials in Beirut for a signing ceremony of an agreement granting Qatar a 30% stake in a consortium for oil and gas exploration in Lebanese waters.

“For us in Qatar, this important agreement gives us the opportunity to support Lebanon’s economic development during this critical turning point,” al-Kaabi said at the event. “Qatar is always there to support a better future for Lebanon and its people.”

Under the terms of this agreement, Qatar Energy will take over the 20% sold by the Russian Novatek, to which will be added 5% each of the Italian giant ENI and the French TotalEnergies, leaving the Arab company with 30% of the capital. Total and ENI will each hold 35% of the shares.

“It’s a win-win situation for Lebanon and Qatar,” said former Lebanese energy minister Cesar Abi Khalil. Qatar will receive an interest in possible gas resources in Lebanese waters, while Lebanon will receive the credibility of a Qatari company in the project.

In the political sphere, Qatar has not openly supported any party. However, he reportedly backs Lebanese army commander General Joseph Aoun, who is expected to become the country’s next president. Aoun, who is not related to the incumbent president, was invited to visit Qatar in December and met with senior officials. Hezbollah is believed to be against him.

As often, Qatar represents its economic and political interests together, said Lebanese economist Antoine Farah. It secures the returns on its investments while acquiring a political role in the country in which it invests.

But Ali Hamade, a journalist with the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, said Qatar, like other Gulf countries, will want Lebanese political leaders to enact serious reforms.

“Lebanon should help itself so that the Arabs help Lebanon. Lebanese politicians cannot sit and wait for money to fall from the sky,” Hamade said.


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