Analysts question whether the Gulf state can help facilitate yet another agreement for Beirut, similar to the historic 2008 deal.
Reports over a high-profile meeting in Paris over Lebanon’s multi-faceted crisis have dominated headlines since the start of the year.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and France are all meeting in the French capital on 6 February in an effort to break years of deadlock, per a statement by the foreign ministry in Paris.
News on the meeting has raised various speculations over its potential outcomes – filling up the Lebanese presidency seat, cabinet shuffles, and a rescue plan that would help the crises-hit country stay afloat.
Officials involved in the meeting appear to have an uphill battle ahead, with sectarianism, layers of corruption that continue to be unveiled by watchdogs, together with collapsing institutions leaving Lebanon deep in crises.
Having mediated in Lebanon for the past decade while also serving as an effective lifeline throughout its economic turmoil, analysts believe Qatar has its own strategic role.
“Qatar has a history of diplomacy in trying to play the role of the convenor of dialogue in Lebanon, traditionally it has played this role,” Halim Shebaya, non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, told Doha News.
With high hopes for a political roadmap drawn up in Paris, the Lebanese economy is also a key issue.
Lebanon is currently facing its worst economic crisis in decades. Since 2019, the currency has lost more than 90% of its value to the US dollar, leaving many families living in poverty.
A collapsed economy, coupled with the Covid-19 outbreak and the Beirut blast, have plunged Lebanon into a long state of paralysis.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the third-worst in the world, Qatar was the first country to offer direct support to Lebanon of more than $70 million. It also sent aircrafts carrying fully equipped field hospitals with 500 beds straight to Beirut.
The Gulf state also dispatched personnel from the Qatari Search and Rescue Team of the Lekhwiya, or Internal Security Force, to help with emergency rescue operations as many remained trapped under the rubble.
“Lebanon does not have a good track record in negotiating agreements that take justice into account”Halim Shebaya
More recently, Doha stepped in as part of a tripartite consortium of oil and gas exploration in Lebanon after the years-long maritime dispute with Israel was resolved.
Doha’s state-owned energy company, QatarEnergy, acquired a 30% stake, representing a crucial point in kickstarting exploration in blocks 9 and 4.
However, on the political front, Qatar’s role of mediation in Lebanon goes back years.
In 2008, Qatar succeeded at holding talks that resulted in an agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah following an 18-month political crisis.
More than 60 people were killed during the round of violence, which raised fears over yet another civil war that would bring forth similar scenes from 1975-1990.
The 2008 talks in Doha were the first to bring all Lebanese parties onto a single table to negotiate despite the deep divide between all sides.
The Qatar-mediated agreement stipulated that parties decide on an electoral law, with General Michel Suleiman being named as the country’s president at the time. During the lull in fighting, Lebanon witnessed positive developments, including economic growth.
Nadim Shehadi, Executive Director of Lebanese American University’s New York Headquarters, believed that while the agreement broke Lebanon’s deadlock, it had also consolidated Hezbollah’s control over the country.
“The Doha agreement consolidated Hezbollah’s hold on the country, it gave it the veto power and it could paralyse everything until it gets what it wants,” Shehadi told Doha News.
Fingers were also pointed at Hezbollah in the immediate aftermath of the Beirut Port blast, with many citing the movement’s calls for the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar, who was leading the investigation into the incident.
While Bitar has recently resumed his position in the probe, Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat ordered the release of all suspects linked to the case.
Regional proxy arena
Meanwhile, Lebanon has long been an arena where rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has played out for years; Riyadh backs some Sunni and Maronite groups while Tehran supports the Shia Hezbollah movement.
In 2017, that foreign interference became more apparent than ever when then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia and reportedly forced to resign.
Shehadi noted that while an economic bailout in Lebanon “can be easily done” the greater issue that remains is the grip of Hezbollah,.
“The problem is the Arab countries have given up and strengthened the grip of Iran and Hezbollah. The future would be very bleak if Iran has all the cards in Palestine, in Syria, in Lebanon[…]it’s the wrong strategy to abandon every country where Iran has a role,” he said.
Unlike some regional members which turned away, Qatar continued its efforts in Lebanon with frequent meetings taking place between officials of both countries.
In 2019, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was the only Gulf leader to attend the Arab Economic and Development Summit in Lebanon.
Seeking to alleviate Beirut’s economic suffering, Doha bought $500 million of Lebanese bonds. Then during the pandemic, Lebanon continued to receive aid from Qatar while sending monetary support to help support the Lebanese army.
In June last year, Qatar donated $60 million to pay the salaries of the Lebanese army.
During a brief diplomatic rift in 2021, triggered by remarks made by Lebanon’s former Information Minister George Kordahi, countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council withdrew their ambassadors. However, Qatar opted to leave its envoy.
Analysts have also pointed to Qatar having more leverage with Hezbollah, citing its cordial ties with Iran as well as its restored ties with Saudi Arabia following the 2017 GCC Crisis.
“I don’t know what it [Paris meeting] could lead to, because there’s no more compromise to be done. We can’t be handed over to Iran more than this. That’s why I think if there is a solution, it has to be a balanced one and one in which the GCC countries work together to help Lebanon get out of this,” Shehadi said.
Echoing similar sentiments, Shebaya noted that Qatar is able to serve the role of the “convenor of dialogue” now that it is no longer dealing with the regional crisis – citing the illegal air, land and sea blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.
“Given that they have relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, they perhaps feel that they can play a role with parties in Lebanon together on a short-term settlement, or if you want to call it a short-term presidential settlement,” Shebaya noted.
With regards to Iran, Doha has also played a key role in attempting to bridge regional differences by repeatedly offering to host talks between the GCC and Tehran.
Lebanon is made up of various segments, including Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze, Maronites, and other sects of Christianity.
In 1975, various sides engaged in a bloody civil war that lasted for 15 years. The war came to an end with the help of the 1989 Taif Agreement, negotiated in Saudi Arabia at the time.
“The GCC, if they come together, they can solve most of the problems of the region[…]they have to realise that Lebanon is a strategically important place for the stability of the whole region,” Shehadi said.
Although the civil war ended, its remnants have lingered.
Several assassinations of top officials have rocked the country, the most prominent of which was former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri who was killed in a car explosion in 2005.
Then in 2019, mass protests broke out in Lebanon over the lack of basic resources. Demonstrators flocked to the streets to demand change with chants of “all means all” (kellon ya’ani kellon), calling on leaders to step down.
Although Lebanon held elections last year, it did little to change the ruling elite.
“The elections of 2022 legitimised the traditional political party, because largely all political parties survived the elections and once again I think the ruling political class is in a much better position than it was in 2019,” Shebaya said.
Meanwhile, the General Joseph Aoun, who is not related to the former president, has emerged as a possible candidate for the presidency. Qatar’s support for the army commander general was questioned when he visited the Gulf state in December last year.
During his trip, he met with several Qatari officials including Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.
“The name that is being discussed the most in the news reports is Joseph Aoun. So is this the name that Qatar is trying to get the internal parties around? The other question is who will be the prime minister?,”Shebaya said, questioning whether Qatar’s role is as central as it was in 2008.
Aside from hopes tied to the international intervention in Lebanon’s stalemate, the population remains wary of whether the Lebanese political parties will be able to hold proper dialogue that yields promising results.
Citing Lebanon’s turbulent past, Shebaya noted that the Lebanese parties are still incapable of centering justice and democracy in their talks.
“Lebanon does not have a good track record in negotiating agreements that take justice into account. The very parties to a potential dialogue are at the present time the main obstacle to its success,” Shebaya wrote for the Arab Center Washington DC last week.