Thursday, 24th January 2019

Doha fashions an entrance in Beirut, perhaps at Riyadh’s expense

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani’s unexpected arrival in Beirut for the Arab Economic and Development Summit on 20 January – followed shortly afterwards by a promise to buy $500m-worth of Lebanese sovereign bonds – revealed a bold move by Doha to put a wedge between Beirut and its traditional Gulf patron Saudi Arabia. At a poorly attended summit, whose only other visiting head of state was Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz, Tamim’s attendance inevitably drew considerable attention.

Analysts and governments were quick to question Qatar’s motives for potentially building a closer relationship with crisis-torn Lebanon, which has gone eight months without a functioning government and whose ability to finance its expanding deficit is in serious question. The country’s sovereign credit rating was cut by Moody’s Investors Service to Caa1 on 21 January, amid concerns it may be forced into a default.

Qatari mediation has played a useful role in Lebanon in the past, for example in helping end a tense stand-off between Hizbollah and rival political forces in May 2008, which enabled a unity government to be formed after talks held in Doha. Qatari mediators did help to end a hostage crisis between exiled Syrian Nusra Front militia and Lebanese security forces in 2015 in the north-east of the country, tapping into Doha’s links to Islamist elements in Syria. However, Qatar has otherwise played a reduced role in recent years.

Doha has not directly supported the debt-wracked Beirut government before and Tamim’s decision to attend the summit, when the consensus among Gulf leaderships was to give the League of Arab States-backed event a wide berth, has inevitably sparked speculation that a more intense relationship is in the offing. Meeting with Lebanon’s octogenarian President Michel Aoun, rather than Saudi-aligned acting prime minister Saad Hariri, Tamim demonstrated to Beirut that it should not feel isolated within the Arab League – despite the lack of high-level participants at the summit – while also showing that Qatar is prepared to support its fragile economy at a time when similar support was evidently not forthcoming from Saudi Arabia.

Amid suggestions that Lebanese officials had worked the phones hard to ensure Tamim’s presence, it is unclear whether the Qatari intervention is the harbinger of a much closer engagement that could ultimately rival Saudi influence in Beirut. Doha may believe there is now space for it to play a bigger role in Lebanon.

Hariri has devoted considerable energy to rebuilding relations with the Saudi leadership after his detention on Saudi soil in November 2017 (GSN 1,048/14). The PM supported the official Saudi line on Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s lack of involvement in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But this support not been reciprocated by the Saudis and Riyadh’s interest in Lebanon has appeared muted recently.

Finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan headed the Saudi delegation to the Beirut summit, where he gave only lukewarm backing to President Aoun’s main announcement, that an Arab bank for reconstruction and development would be created. Taking the same nomenclature as the London-based multilateral created to rebuild eastern Europe after the fall of communism, this is a potentially major initiative. But key players seemed hardly enthused: the Saudi finance minister confined himself to saying that “Saudi Arabia will support all that is in the interest of the Arab world”. However, no doubt alive to the risk of being outmanoeuvred by Doha, Al-Jadaan was more forthcoming a few days later, telling TV channel CNBC on 23 January that Riyadh is “interested to see stability in Lebanon and we will support Lebanon all the way.

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