On December 3, George Kordahi resigned from his position as Lebanon’s minister of information after months of a diplomatic crisis with several Gulf states. His resignation came after a request for his resignation from France before the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Riyadh. On October 25, Kordahi made a comment criticizing Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war. In response, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait recalled their diplomats from Beirut and barred their citizens from traveling to Lebanon. This followed an incident in May when Lebanese Foreign Minister Charles Wehbe insulted the Gulf states in a meeting by calling them “Bedouins,” and accusing them of creating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In response, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait all summoned the Lebanese ambassadors in their countries, condemning Wehbe’s insults. The comments from Lebanese ministers have further deepened tensions with historical allies at a time of economic meltdown and political instability.
Lebanon and the Gulf states have a long history of alliance and support. After the civil war from 1975-90, Lebanon relied heavily on loans and investments from the Gulf, among other sources, to balance its budget and help rebuild the country. In this earlier era, Gulf tourism, including among royals, was also pivotal. The surging level of Gulf investment continued from the early 2000s to 2016, buttressed for a period by billions in Saudi assistance for Lebanon’s military and internal security forces.
Many Gulf Arab governments seem increasingly averse to providing further support to a country that appears unable to undertake genuine structural reforms. And with Hezbollah’s long dominant – and increasing – political influence in the troubled Lebanese state, Gulf actors seem reluctant about immediate reengagement, a position that may not change, given the prospects for continuing Hezbollah pivotal influence. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have historically sought to secure greater influence in Lebanon, and the improving financial positions of these oil- and gas-producing states may again provide the economic means for various forms of engagement. In some ways, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are turning away from Lebanon, Qatar seems best positioned to expand aid, although Saudi support and Emirati investment (in tandem with heavy Saudi political involvement) dwarfed previous Qatari efforts.
The role of the UAE in Lebanon is largely focused on maintaining the status quo and checking the power of Hezbollah. In July 2020, the UAE warned Lebanon that Hezbollah’s influence over the state was causing the deterioration of ties with Gulf countries. In August 2020, the Emirati government provided 40 tons of humanitarian aid, including medical equipment and food supplies, to the victims of the Beirut explosion. The UAE government has been making efforts to increase its influence in the Levant, but the direct recipient of these efforts is not Lebanon. In September 2020, the UAE government signed the Abraham Accords agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. This has prompted concerns in Lebanon that investments, mainly in the tourism and real estate sectors that historically benefited from Gulf investment, will be diverted from Lebanon to Israel; Lebanon’s refusal to work with Israel threatens to keep Beirut out of new partnerships.
The UAE’s economy is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, forecast to grow 4.2% in 2022. But the UAE is enhancing ties with larger, more stable markets like those of the United Kingdom, China, and Turkey, leaving Lebanon out of the UAE’s foreign investment priorities. The UAE government stated that it would support a plan of action to strengthen Lebanon’s economy – if major powers and allies were involved. In June, the UAE sent financial aid to families suffering from the economic crisis. Aside from these gestures of support, UAE engagement with Lebanon will likely remain limited as long as Hezbollah is growing in power.
Lebanon Turns to Qatar?
After years of political instability, Lebanon’s new government faces critical economic and political challenges. As the government works to address these challenges, most Gulf ties to Lebanon are likely to remain strained. The strengthening of Hezbollah and the shifting focus of Saudi and UAE economic policies elsewhere means Lebanon will likely of necessity turn more to Qatar as it seeks to bolster Gulf partnerships where it can.
Qatar has sought to carve out a global position for itself as a neutral mediator and has shown a willingness to ally with contentious state and nonstate actors. This is clear in its efforts to facilitate U.S. negotiations with the Taliban and increase cooperation with Turkey and Iran. This has extended to Qatar’s relationship with Lebanon. In 2019, Qatar’s emir was the only leader from the Gulf Arab states to attend Beirut’s Economic and Social Development Summit. As far back as 2008, Qatar hosted rival Lebanese political groups for negotiations in Doha helping the parties reach an agreement resolving a political deadlock after the expiration of President Emile Lahoud’s term at the end of November 2007.
Qatar has also long offered economic support to Lebanon. In the summer of 2006, Qatar provided aid for the country’s reconstruction after the war with Israel. In 2019, Qatar purchased $500 million worth of bonds to provide a desperately needed cash infusion for the Lebanese economy. Although the step was a minor one in relation to Lebanon’s broader economic needs, it demonstrated good faith and a willingness by the Qataris to intervene and stabilize the financial sector, as they also did with Turkey. And, after the explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, Qatar was quick to provide assistance and has continued to make aid shipments.
Qatar had promised further aid to Lebanon through economic projects following the formation of the new government. And with rising energy prices producing budget surpluses, the Qatari government is in a better position to offer foreign aid. However, Qatar and the United States have imposed sanctions on Hezbollah’s financial network in the Gulf, suggesting that Qatar may tread carefully concerning greater engagement with Lebanon and substate actors.
For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, long patrons of Lebanon, Hezbollah influence has reached levels that seem to have convinced them that any effort to help Lebanon involves, in the first instance, helping Hezbollah (and indirectly empowering it to offer local assistance that entrenches such influence). While France may succeed in easing the starkness of the current rupture, Lebanon seems to have lost its allure with a new generation of younger Gulf leaders who see mostly a downside to engagement and have none of the history or attachment of an older generation of Gulf leadership to Lebanon.