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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

OPINION: Could Qatar be Lebanon’s last hope?


Lebanon is now grappling with its worst economic crisis in years, which worsened after the coronavirus outbreak as well as the deadly explosion at the Beirut port, writes Dr Ali Bakir.

On 6 July, Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani visited Lebanon. He met with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and Army Chief General Joseph Aoun.

The visit comes as Lebanon inches towards total collapse. For some time, the country has been suffering a compound crisis of political, economic, financial, and social nature. The coronavirus pandemic last year and the subsequent devastating explosion at Beirut port have only exacerbated the situation. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s severe economic and financial crisis is one of the worst the world has seen in the past 150 years.

The current crisis threatening to turn Lebanon into an irremediable failed state is the outcome of long years of chronic mismanagement, corruption of the political elite and the dysfunctional Lebanese system that works along sectarian lines.

In the last two decades or so, this system has been under heavy influence from Iran and its Lebanese allies. Recently, several countries, including the former colonial power France, have tried in vain to persuade the Lebanese parties to adopt a reform roadmap to unlock international aid.

Qatar sends first batch of food aid to crises-hit Lebanon

Almost a year ago, the World Bank, United Nations, and European Union developed the 3RF initiative, “Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework,” to address the Lebanese crisis. However, the international community demanded the Lebanese authorities to form a new capable non-partisan, and technocrat government to ensure the plan is implemented and the financial support is spent correctly. Yet, no progress has been made since then. 

Typically, Qatar is known to succeed where heavy-weight players fail. In the Lebanese case, Qatar has vast experience in reconciling the conflicting parties. In 2008, Doha hosted Lebanon’s feuding leaders and reconciled them, ending 18 months of political conflict and avoiding a descent into civil war.

After the Al-Ula agreement, Doha re-activated its median effort and humanitarian diplomacy to help stabilise the region. Recently, Doha deployed several diplomatic initiatives to help reconcile the conflicting parties including in Somalia and between Somalia and Kenya, the US and Taliban as well as Hamas and Israel.

Moreover, Doha offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the US and Hamas and even Sudan and Ethiopia.

Read also: Qatar ‘ready to support Lebanon’ on all levels to end crisis: Lebanese presidency

For quite some time, Doha has been calling on the conflicting Lebanese fractions to prioritise the national interest and put Lebanon above their tight political calculations to get through this ordeal. Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister’s visit to Beirut is the second in five months. During his February visit, he stressed the necessity to form a new government to enable the donors and the international community to support Lebanon. 

Last week, Sheikh Mohammed renewed Doha’s efforts and support. He encouraged the Lebanese to unlock the political deadlock and facilitate a rapid transition towards implementing the 3RF initiative. During his visit, the Qatari minister expressed his country’s readiness to assist Lebanon in resolving the crisis by every possible means.

However, for Doha to be able to do that, there is a need to form the intended government and implement the needed reforms.

Qatar has always been a close friend and loyal supporter of Lebanon in hard times. Even when Doha was facing a severe blockade, Qatar granted the Lebanese a visa-free visit in 2017.

In 2019, Amir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was the only Gulf leader to attend the Arab Economic and Development Summit in Lebanon and break Beirut’s isolation. Doha bought $500 million of the Lebanese bonds to support its struggling economy and supported Lebanon politically, economically, and socially. 

During the pandemic, Lebanon received support from Doha to alleviate the situation.

In the aftermath of the port explosion, Qatar was the first country to offer direct help and support for the Lebanese. It deployed field hospitals and offered medical and food aid as well as more than $70 million in donations. The Qatari government pledged to rebuild the governmental schools and damaged hospitals.

Read also: Qatar to reconstruct Lebanon hospital after devastating Beirut port explosion

Doha has strong connections with the conflicting Lebanese parties.

It enjoys a history of neutrality and effective mediation there. Yet, this time the challenge is unprecedented. The Lebanese parties do not seem to realise the depth of the crisis.

In the last three years, Lebanon’s GDP dropped from around $55 billion in 2018 to an estimated $33 billion in 2020, while GDP per capita fell by around 40% in dollar terms. The latest UN report warns that 77 percent of households in Lebanon do not have enough food or enough money to buy food. This percentage increases in Syrian refugee households to reach 99 percent.

Furthermore, while Qatar enjoys a unique position through its various connections with the countries influencing the political parties in Lebanon, Doha is in no position to decide on behalf of the Lebanese parties and is unwilling to do so.

The crisis is much bigger than what one country can handle, no matter how big, powerful, or rich it is. Therefore, Qatar’s role has its own limits, especially if the Lebanese are unwilling to assist themselves.

Qatar’s effort to alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese people and protect what is left of the state institutions should not be taken for granted. It is both a warning of what is coming if they are not willing to act and a message of hope if they showed seriousness and put the national interest above the political feuds.

Ali Bakir is a political analyst and researcher. He is a regular commentator on Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.

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