Qatar boosts influence in Lebanon amid multiple crises

BEIRUT (AP) — Most wealthy Gulf Arab nations followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in recent years and ostracized crisis-hit Lebanon because of the growing influence of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. The exception was Qatar.

Doha has been silently expanding its influence in Lebanon. It continued receiving Lebanese leaders and pumped tens millions of dollars into helping the country’s armed forces amid a historic economic meltdown.

The small, gas-rich nation in late January began seeing the fruits of its investment, when state-owned Qatar Energy replaced a Russian firm in an international consortium that will search for gas in the Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon’s coast.

And on Monday, Qatar will for the first time join a meeting in Paris along with officials from France, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for discussions focusing on Lebanon’s political and economic crises.

Qatar portrays itself as a more neutral force in a country where for decades outside powers have used Lebanon’s sectarian divisions to fight their proxy battles. Saudi Arabia long backed Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim factions and tried to push out Iran’s influence through Shiite Hezbollah. The rivalry repeatedly pushed Lebanon to the brink of armed conflict.

Qatar, which has good ties with Iran, has been trying to advance negotiations between Tehran and Gulf nations. Its inclusion in the upcoming talks “is a signal that Iran will not be completely left out of that meeting and a recognition of the influence that Tehran has over Lebanon,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a professor and director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.

“With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states less heavily involved in Lebanon, Qatar is trying to revive its mediator role in the country,” he said.

Still, Qatar – one of the richest countries in the world with its natural gas wealth – so far “has shown little sign of being willing to bail out Lebanon on its own,” Bazzi said.

Since late 2019, Lebanon’s economy has collapsed under the weight of widespread corruption and mismanagement. The currency has lost more than 90% of its value, throwing most of the population into poverty. International donors, including Qatar, have been demanding the government implement reforms to release some $11 billion in loans and grants. But Lebanon’s politicians have resisted because reforms would weaken their grip 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 towns and villages that suffered major destruction in southern Lebanon. Giant billboards with signs reading “Thank You Qatar” popped up around Lebanon.

In May 2008, after Hezbollah and its allies battled their Western-backed rivals in Beirut’s worst fighting since the 1975-90 civil war, Lebanese political leaders flew to Qatar, where they reached a deal known as the “Doha Agreement.” The deal ended an 18-month deadlock and brought the election of a new president and formation of a new government. In the calm that followed, massive foreign investment flowed in, and Lebanon’s economy grew at an average of 9% for three years.

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

Saudi Arabia pulled back from Lebanon in recent years as Hezbollah’s power grew. Last year, the main Saudi ally in Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, announced he is suspending his work in politics.

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

Qatar doubled down on its investment as Lebanon’s economy melted down.

Qatari investors bought the famous Beirut Le Vendome hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in 2020. There are reports that Doha plans 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 members of the Lebanese army. It was already supporting the army with monthly supplies of food. Strengthening Lebanon’s military has long been a policy of the United States, which sees the force as a counterbalance to Hezbollah.

A week ago, three months after Lebanon and Israel signed a U.S.-mediated maritime border agreement, Qatari Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi joined Lebanese officials in Beirut for a ceremony inking an agreement for Qatar to take a 30% share in a consortium for oil and gas exploration in Lebanese waters.

“For us in Qatar, this important agreement gives us an opportunity to support economic developments in Lebanon during this critical turn,” al-Kaabi said at the event. “Qatar is always present to support a better future for Lebanon and its people.”

According to the agreement, Qatar Energy will take over the 20% stake vacated by Russia’s Novatek in addition to 5% each from Italy’s giant ENI and France’s TotalEnergies leaving the Arab company with a stake of 30%. Total and ENI will have 35% stakes each.

“This is a win-win situation for Lebanon and Qatar,” said Lebanon’s former energy minister, Cesar Abi Khalil. Qatar gets a stake in the possible gas resources in Lebanese waters, while Lebanon gets the credibility of a Qatari company in the project.

In the political field, Qatar has not openly backed any party. But it reportedly supports the Lebanese Army commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, to become the country’s next president. Aoun, who is not related to the outgoing president, was invited to visit Qatar in December and met with high-level officials. Hezbollah is believed to oppose him.

As it often does, Qatar is advancing its economic and political interests together, said Lebanese economist Antoine Farah. It is ensuring income from its investments while gaining a political role in the country where it invests.

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

“Lebanon should help itself in order for Arabs to help Lebanon. Lebanese politicians cannot sit and wait for money to rain from the sky,” Hamade said.

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