There has been an apparent growing frustration over the stalemate in Lebanon’s political situation.
Reports on Qatar allegedly moving towards replacing the French political initiative in Lebanon have resurfaced in recent weeks, with analysts speculating the move is likely due to the Gulf state’s “credibility” among Beirut’s divided parties.
Speculations on the potential shift in roles in the Lebanese presidency file have spiked in recent weeks despite months-long efforts led by French Presidential Envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian to elect a new Lebanese leader.
In February, a quintet group—consisting of five parties including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and France— convened in an attempt to break the months-long impasse to push for the election of a new president. The group then met for the second time in Doha in July.
However, with no breakthrough being made, the US is now reportedly handing the reins over to Qatar, Lebanese Hezbollah affiliated broadcaster, Al Manar, reported on Wednesday.
The report highlighted a “reluctance” among the quintet to meet at the French permanent mission to the United Nations in New York due to “divisions” between the members, pointing to “an American objection to the French management of the Lebanese issue”.
“The meeting’s deliberations were contrary to the Saudi-French vibe that prevailed in Beirut during Le Drian’s presence. It was clear that the Americans, who were pushing to assign the mission to Qatar, didn’t support the French-Saudi rapprochement that Le Drian and [Waleed] Al-Bukhari [Saudi envoy to Beirut] were eager to show,” according to leaks quoted by Al Manar.
The Lebanese outlet added that Qatar’s Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulaziz bin Saleh Al Khulaifi also attended the reported meeting in New York, which had ended without a final statement.
However, Al Manar sources dismissed reported claims on a Qatari delegation arriving in Beirut this week “to develop an internal understanding”.
Instead, the sources said the Qataris had postponed their visit until the first week of October, coinciding with the French envoy’s anticipated visit to Lebanon.
A separate report by Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar stated that the Americans are “clearly pushing for assigning the mission” of the presidency talks to their Gulf ally, Qatar.
Lebanon’s elongated political stalemate stems from deep divides between the different parties as well as a lack of agreements over a presidential candidate.
The crises-stricken country has failed to elect a president at least 12 times since former President Aoun left office, with each party pushing for its own preferred candidate.
The issue dominated the agenda at the Doha meeting in July, in which the group stressed “the urgent need for Lebanon’s leadership to expedite presidential elections” and discussed the implementation of much-needed “imperative economic reform”.
The quintet also took on “concrete options with respect to implementing measures against those who are blocking progress” in the election of a president.
More recently, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani stressed the need for international solidarity in Lebanon’s multifaceted crisis.
“In brotherly Lebanon, where danger hangs over the state’s institutions, we stress the need for finding a sustainable solution to the political vacuum, introducing mechanisms that thwart its recurrence, and forming a government capable of addressing the aspirations of the Lebanese people and getting them out of their economic and developmental crises,” Sheikh Tamim told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday night.
The Qatari leader added: “The prolonged suffering of these brotherly people, caused by political and personal calculations, is regrettable.”
Also in New York, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met on Wednesday with Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“During the meeting, they discussed cooperation ties between the two countries and ways to support and strengthen them, as well as regional and international issues of common concern, in addition to discussing outcomes of the Quintet Meeting on Lebanon hosted by Doha,” the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement.
The statement added that Sheikh Mohammed has voiced his country’s “firm position towards Lebanon, its unity and territorial integrity, and the State of Qatar’s constant support for the fraternal Lebanese people.”
‘France burned its bridges’
Commenting on the latest developments in the Lebanese political arena, analysts believe that “it is quite possible” for Qatar to take charge of the French initiative.
“France appears to have burned its bridges with many of Lebanon’s political factions because it sought to accommodate Hezbollah’s demands. Qatar has credibility with everyone and has helped before in orchestrating a solution for another political crisis in 2008,” Dr. Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center in Washington DC, virtually told Doha News.
In 2008, Qatar held talks that resulted in an agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah following an 18-month political crisis that had raised fears over another deadly civil war.
The agreement had stipulated that the parties would decide on an electoral law, with General Michel Suleiman being named as the country’s president at the time.
Dr. Harb noted that the heavyweight Gulf mediator “also takes middle of the road positions that seek workable compromises.”
The small Gulf state’s major diplomatic power was highlighted on Monday with a historic prisoner exchange between Iranian and American rivals following two years of talks. The Qatari mediation also led to the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds which were previously held in South Korea.
Qatar’s previous diplomatic wins were also seen through other mediation efforts over the past decade, most notably the talks between the US and the Taliban in 2020.
Doha assumed a pivotal role the following year by evacuating more than 80,000 Afghans and foreigners from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on 15 August 2021.
Qatar’s key role earned it the designation of the Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) by the US last year.
“Qatar has represented American interests in other complicated issues, such as in Afghanistan where it plays a mediating role between the US and the Taliban. Qatar is also a Major Non-NATO Ally, which means that its interests align perfectly with those of the United States,” Dr. Harb explained.
Since the start of the year, potential candidates have emerged, including Army Commander General Joseph Aoun, seen by Lebanese media as the “preferred” candidate by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
However, Qatar has repeatedly dismissed such claims and stressed the decision for who takes leadership remains in the hands of the Lebanese.
Dr. Harb believes Qatar would likely push for the election of Aoun, who is not related to the former Lebanese president.
“Qatar is likely to push for the election of the Commander of the Lebanese Army, General Joseph Aoun, who is preferred by the United States as well. Qatar also has good relations with Aoun because it has helped fund the army over the last few years of financial hardship. Aoun is a good compromise candidate Qatar and the Arab world may find to be a great future president,” the DC-based analyst said.
Qatar has been lending a helping hand to key Lebanese institutions through monetary aid amid its worst economic downfall.
In July, the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) announced a $30 million fuel aid package for the Lebanese army under a six-month arrangement. Qatar also pledged $60 million to the Lebanese military in 2022, increasing its financial commitment to Lebanon.
Analysts believe breaking Lebanon’s political impasse is imperative to resolving the country’s economic crisis, the worst since the 1975 Lebanese civil war. Over the course of four years, the Lebanese Lira has lost more than 90% of its value to the US dollar.