Qatar finds a new role in Lebanon at the expense of Saudi Arabia

Doha calls for the speedy formation of a government while it reassures Paris of its support to French initiative.
Wednesday 10/02/2021
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, meets with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 9, 2021. (REUTERS)
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, meets with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 9, 2021. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT - Qatar is seeking to play an active role in Lebanon by helping the cash-strapped country with money and investments, in a move that seems to be green-lighted by most regional and local actors, especially Hezbollah, which sees itself benefiting from any Qatari role that has the support of Iran.

On Tuesday while visiting Beirut, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani expressed his country's readiness to extend support to Lebanon through economic projects, provided that a government is formed. Sharp political disagreements have prevented Lebanon from forming a government for months now. The Qatari foreign minister also sought to reassure the French that Qatar's role would not come at the expense of their initiative.

Qatar's intervention is encouraged by Turkey, which will seek to benefit from Qatari investments to consolidate its presence in Lebanon's Sunni regions at the expense of Saudi Arabia's traditional role there. Riyadh is also likely to be affected by the multiple foreign interventions in Lebanon's crisis, and supporters of Saudi Arabia will refrain from expressing their objections to Qatar's moves due to the conciliatory mood among Gulf countries after the Al-Ula summit.

The Qatari foreign minister's visit coincided with Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari's return to Beirut after a more than three month absence.

In the meantime, it has become clear that Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is continuing efforts to form a cabinet, seeking Egyptian-French backing while he coordinates with the UAE.

Hariri arrived in Paris from Abu Dhabi, where he spent a few days after a visit to Cairo during which he met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

It is not clear to what extent Qatar's efforts align with the French-Egyptian moves, especially after the recent improvement of Doha's relations with both Cairo and Riyadh.

After meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, the Qatari foreign minister said during a press conference in Beirut that his country's policy "is not to provide financial support but (to give such support) through projects ... which will make a difference in the state's economy."

"This matter requires an independent government with which to work," he added, stressing that "once a government is formed, the State of Qatar is ready to study all options."

"We are talking about an integrated economic program to support Lebanon," he pointed out.

In a statement after the meeting, the Lebanese presidency expressed its "appreciation of the assistance and job opportunities that Qatar offers to the Lebanese residing there considering the difficult economic conditions that Lebanon is going through."

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, speaks after meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 9, 2021. (REUTERS)
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, speaks after meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 9, 2021. (Reuters)

The Qatari foreign minister stressed that Qatar's intervention will not be at the expense of the French initiative. "We do not seek to undermine the French initiative, but rather we are working to supplement international efforts aimed at forming a Lebanese government," he said.

However, he did not hide Doha’s desire to host Lebanese-Lebanese negotiations similar to the 2008 talks.

In response to a question about whether there is similar Qatari mediation efforts going on right now, the foreign minister said, "There is no initiative to invite politicians to Doha now," but the Lebanese are always welcome in Doha.

After a severe political crisis that culminated in May 2008 clashes between Hezbollah and its allies on the one hand and supporters of a government affiliated at that time with the anti-Syrian majority on the other hand, Doha hosted a dialogue conference attended by representatives of various Lebanese parties.

The Doha agreement resulted in the election of Michel Suleiman as president and the formation of a government in which Hezbollah and its allies had a blocking third, in accordance with what the militant party had demanded from the onset but had been rejected by others.

Qatar's role has, however, gradually declined over the years, especially as tensions grew between Doha and other Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese observers say that the Qatari role will find strong support from Lebanese parties, especially Hezbollah, which has previously benefited from its funds, including to help in reconstruction efforts after the 2006 war.

The close relations between Qatar and Iran will also encourage Hezbollah to welcome Qatari investment in Lebanon.

Despite international pressure led by France, Lebanese political forces have been unable since the port explosion to form a government that could implement the reforms required by the international community to provide assistance.

The efforts of Hariri, who was tasked on October 22 with forming the government, have not yielded any tangible results so far, amid political divisions and mutual accusations between him and the president of impeding government formation efforts.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Beirut twice after the Beirut blast in an attempt to advance reform efforts, has canceled a third visit that was scheduled to take place at the end of the year due to his COVID-19 contamination.

Last week, six-months after the blast, Paris considered it "unacceptable that Lebanon is still without a government that would manage the health and social crisis and start implementing the necessary structural reforms towards the country's recovery and stability."

Since the summer of 2019, Lebanon has faced its worst economic crisis. This has led the local currency to slide by more than 80% of its value against the dollar. It has also exacerbated inflation and caused tens of thousands of Lebanese to lose their jobs and sources of revenue.