Aoun’s trip to Qatar cannot change Lebanon’s fortunes; for that, he must look further east

December 05 2021

Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s trip to Qatar for help can only be a placebo for his country’s woes. To jumpstart Lebanon’s recovery, he needs to be prepared to realign with new regional actors.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun heads to Doha to seek urgent help from Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. But Qatar can provide little compared to three other Asian powers.Photo Credit: The Cradle

By Giorgio Cafiero

The crisis in Lebanon goes from bad to worse. Rolling blackouts and soaring gas prices are just some of the ordeals people face day to day. They are buying less meat while pleading with family and friends abroad to send them medicine. Much of Lebanon’s middle class has sunk into poverty. The Lebanese Lira has lost nearly all value while health crises continue to plague the country. And as the crisis grows beyond all expectations, so does public anger.

It is within this context that Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun paid a visit to Qatar on 29 November. While in Doha, Aoun met with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to discuss Lebanon’s internal crises, as well as the diplomatic row between Beirut and four of Qatar’s fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The dispute erupted in October after a Qatari news program aired comments made by Lebanon’s former Information Minister George Kordahi, criticizing the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen.

After weeks of undue pressure from Riyadh, which at times was described as tantamount to a war declaration, Kordahi was ultimately forced to resign on 3 December.

For his part Aoun, one of Hezbollah’s political allies, said he wanted Beirut’s relationship with Riyadh to improve significantly. The president of Lebanon and the emir of Qatar have both said that Arab nations need to stand by Lebanon and “overcome any flaws that might face these relations.”

What can Qatar do for Lebanon?

At this juncture questions remain about how much the Lebanese can count on Qatar for help. Doha will likely provide some form of aid, but this kind of assistance or investments are unlikely to generate much change in the Levantine nation. And while the Qataris may be able to ease some friction between Beirut and its GCC partners, it is far from clear if any Qatari mediation can help loosen the Saudi chokehold on Lebanon.

Ryan Bohl, a West Asia analyst at risk consultancy agency Stratfor/Rane, told The Cradle that Aoun’s trip to Doha could open the doors for Lebanon to receive “some humanitarian aid, especially as Qatar looks to keep its human rights defender reputation ahead of the World Cup in 2022.”

Nonetheless, Bohl also believes that there are significant limits to what Lebanon can expect from Qatar at this point. “Doha knows that Lebanon is a financial black hole, and so boosting Lebanon’s currency reserves or providing any other aid beyond humanitarian support is unlikely.”

What has become readily apparent is that GCC states have given up on Lebanon in many respects. And while Doha remains determined to assert some degree of influence through their unique history of building networks in the country, the Qataris are fully aware that Lebanon has undergone changes that make it less important to Gulf monarchies.

“[Although Doha] might agree to pay salaries of certain state employees, or [members of] the military, or potentially put some money into the central bank like the Qataris have done before, it’s unlikely to be a major investment that’s going to turn things around for Lebanon,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told The Cradle.

“The Qataris are aware that there are issues of corruption [in Beirut]. You’re unlikely to get very good returns on your investments,” Dr. Krieg pointed out.

As far as the diplomatic crisis goes, Qatari officials are looking to mediate between Beirut and the rest of the GCC states in an attempt to have all sides reach a consensual position to restore working relations.

This is a role Doha has been trying to play since the Saudis took it upon themselves to create a rift between its closest GCC allies and crisis-hit Lebanon.

Dr. Krieg also explained how, despite going on record to condemn the comments made by Lebanon’s former Information Minister, the Qataris also took it upon themselves to resolve the row.

“The Qataris very early on went to the Saudis and other GCC partners saying ‘we’re happy to mediate [and try] to find a solution to this,’” Dr. Krieg explains. “They received tacit approval from the Saudis to do that. So, the foreign minister was supposed to go to Lebanon. In the end he didn’t. But I think with the Lebanese president coming to Doha, this is also part of that [Qatari effort] to find a way to explore opportunities for a mediation process.”

According to West Asian analyst Ryan Bohl, Doha’s attempt to dial down the tensions “would once again serve Qatar’s ambition of being a diplomatic powerhouse and mediator as well as a humanitarian facilitator.”

But mediation by Qatar might prove unmanageable considering the firm stance Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken against Hezbollah, as they consider the resistance group to represent Iran’s influence inside Lebanon. The clear trend among Gulf nations to withdraw resources and energy from Lebanon is not one anyone expects Qatar to reverse.

Saudi influence in Lebanon has been declining for quite some time. Nonetheless, it’s safe to conclude that neither Qatar nor any other GCC member seeks to take over Riyadh’s historic role in Lebanon. “Qatar is neither interested in a proxy struggle with Iran nor … in taking up that role of throwing good money after bad in Beirut,” Bohl says.

Yet Doha is not without experience or networks in Lebanon. Back in the 2000s, the Qataris were involved in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon and took part in mediation efforts between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.

Today, Doha could build on those networks which position it as a Gulf state with a non-sectarian agenda in the Levantine nation and which has working relations with all major communities in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s bleak situation atop the rift between Beirut and four GCC states offer Doha an opportunity to assert further influence in the country.

Looking east, toward rising economies

Lebanon, in its current form, will likely experience a future where neither western nor GCC states are going to be willing to help with its crises. It might therefore be easy to imagine influential Lebanese figures joining Hassan Nasrallah in the belief that Lebanon must pivot to Chinese and Russian orbits of influence.

Tehran’s influence in Beirut is not a factor that would deter either Beijing or Moscow from assisting Lebanon. This constitutes a major contrast to western powers and most GCC states which consider any influence from Iran in the Mediterranean country a serious issue, a fact made evident by how much Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign harmed the Lebanese economy.

A Lebanon that looks towards the east could therefore complicate its relations with western governments. To be sure, if Lebanon does move closer to China, the country will not only remain a hotspot in the Iranian­–Saudi rivalry, but could also become an arena where the friction between Beijing and western powers plays out in increasingly tense ways.

Over recent years China has deepened its influence in numerous West Asian states, such as the UAE, and even in Israel, by developing their networks and strengthening ties in ways that alarm Washington.

Beijing’s incursion into Lebanon and its image as a possible savior could result in weakening US–Lebanon ties. Washington’s ambassador to Beirut Dorothy Shea has already warned of consequences if Beirut turns to China for investment relief, saying such a move could come “at the expense of the country’s prosperity, stability or fiscal viability or its long-standing relations with the United States.”

Doubtless, China is likely to find ways to benefit from a deeper partnership with Lebanon, especially in light of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This mega-infrastructure project alone has officials in western governments questioning whether Lebanon can remain what the Foreign Policy columnist Anchal Vohra recently described as “an outpost of Western values and influence in [West Asia].”

Russia is also an essential element of the ‘look east’ approach supported by Hezbollah and others in Lebanon. However, the Russians have far less economic influence in Lebanon compared to the Chinese, which remains the country’s largest trading partner, even prior to the economic crisis.

Yet Moscow remains important to Lebanon in matters of diplomacy, energy, and mainly security, given the Kremlin’s ongoing military presence in neighboring Syria.

Mindful of Washington’s crippling sanctions against the Syrian government and certain actors in Lebanon, Russian companies, many of which are also sanctioned by the US, have much experience operating in the so-called ‘gray sphere.’ This means Russian firms might possess unique advantages that Lebanese businesses and individuals would find appealing, particularly in their ability to circumvent sanctions for trade and transactions involving Syria.

Looking ahead, a Lebanon that moves closer to China and Russia could create a new period of uncertainty for Beirut as it finds new footholds in an increasingly multipolar world.

The risks and rewards of such a pivot to the east are likely to remain the source of debate for many in Lebanon who are looking for help from any country willing to assist it during a crisis that has been described as the worst of the modern era.

Ultimately, while Aoun’s latest trip abroad was to Doha, many Lebanese may be holding on to hope that his next one will be either to Beijing or Moscow.The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.

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