Lebanon’s neighbors stirred into action under French initiative

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Saudi Arabia concluded with an agreement to extend economic aid to Lebanon. The development comes after a series of disagreements between the Lebanese and Saudi governments revealed that the relationship between the two has deteriorated significantly. Most recently, Saudi officials were angered by former Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi’s statements of support for the Houthis in Yemen, leading to the expulsion of the Lebanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the withdrawal from Lebanon of the Saudi ambassador and those of other Arab countries. 

Mr. Macron’s visit was aimed at restoring those ties, although it is not yet clear whether or when relations between the Arab countries and Lebanon will normalize. In the meantime, the French president’s tour of the Middle East is seen, as this editorial by The National attests, as an important signal of France’s much welcomed reengagement in the region: “As Mr. Macron’s words suggest, affairs in the Middle East and the West do not occur in isolation. A host of challenges – from an ongoing migration crisis to the proliferation of armed extremist groups – are shared by both regions and require joint strategies and common resolve to address. … As the world seeks to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and turn its attention to broader issues, such as climate change, its leaders must bear in mind that stability – whether in the Middle East or Europe – is a holistic endeavor, one that goes well beyond security co-operation.” 

Reflecting specifically on the French-Saudi efforts to mitigate Lebanon’s economic collapse and diplomatic isolation, The National’s Aya Iskandarani characterized the mood in Lebanon as one of “cautious optimism” in looking towards the treacherous path ahead: “Any initiative to fully restore ties with Gulf states, historically investors and aid donors for the country, will face hurdles because of Hezbollah’s strong influence in Lebanese state institutions and government. … Paris’ mediation could unblock aid packages from the Gulf that are modest compared to Lebanon’s economic needs. … Any assistance also faces a difficult political environment within Lebanon. Work on reforms has stalled because the government has not met since October after Hezbollah ministers threatened to boycott sessions.” 

According to Najia Houssari, writing for Arab News, Lebanese government officials reacted immediately to register their support for the initiative, with most of the early attention directed at the possibility of the restoration of ties between Lebanon and its Arab allies: “Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati … said that his joint phone call on Saturday with Saudi and French leaders was ‘an important step toward restoring historic brotherly relations with Riyadh.’ …  Mikati called both President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and briefed them on the phone call. Mikati’s media office said that Aoun and Berri ‘expressed their satisfaction and stressed their adherence to the best relations with Saudi Arabia and all brotherly Arab countries, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.’ … The Saudi position toward Lebanon left the Lebanese anxiously relieved about the extent of the seriousness of the ruling authority in implementing what was agreed on in Jeddah between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” 

Despite the early enthusiasm, some are still uncertain about the immediate impact of the agreement, despite the resignation of the Lebanese information minister, whose firing seems to have constituted a sine qua non for the Saudi government. In an op-ed for Al Bawaba, Marwan Asma addresses these concerns, while cautioning from the start not to be “too optimistic. The resignation of George Kordahi as the Lebanese Minister of Information may not have the desired effect it is intended to. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries of Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait may not ‘unfreeze’ the diplomatic relations just yet. … Still, with the willing removal of Kordahi, this is likely to be seen one … problem that is likely to be out of the way. His removal or apparent willing resignation may likely now start the diplomatic ball rolling. And in fact, this has already started as per the meetings of Macron with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with promises of more talks between Paris, Riyadh and Beirut. This in itself strikes a positive tone, but it also suggests there is an uphill struggle involved even if relations are restored quickly. There are terms to be sorted out and new understandings to be fashioned.” 

Meanwhile, as Rita Boulos Chahwan reports in this Al Ahram article, the economic crisis in Lebanon continues unabated, and many fear a large exodus of businesses and qualified workers from Lebanon in search of more stable markets and working conditions: “Approximately 1.7 million people are now estimated as falling under the poverty line in Lebanon, of whom 841,000 are under the food poverty line. … Sources in Lebanon told the Weekly that because of the crisis with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Lebanese businesses are planning to move to Oman, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt where conditions are easier in terms of taxes and the minimum wage. … Should there be an exodus of business from the country, there are important questions regarding the government’s future options. It has no real plans to develop the agricultural, educational or hospitality sectors, and even tourists are now in short supply in Lebanon owing to present conditions.” 

It seems, however, that the impact of the French-Saudi agreement may soon be amplified by an offer of economic aid from Egypt. With winter approaching, of particular interest for Lebanese officials is the securing of gas imports, which the Egyptian government has promised to deliver in the coming days: “Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati  hailed Egypt’s eagerness to assist Lebanon through its critical times, most notably during the coronavirus  pandemic and last year’s massive explosion in Beirut. … As part of a previously agreed upon roadmap to ease Lebanon’s crippling crisis, Egypt will export gas to Lebanon soon through Syria and Jordan. … PM Mikati said the gas imports are expected to be delayed for six weeks due to needed repairs to the pipeline that connects the Syrian-Lebanese borders. He also praised the development projects carried out in Egypt under the leadership of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.”  

But, as Dania Koleilat Khatib points out in a recent Arab News op-ed, the Egyptian aid may come with a caveat, which lays bare the contradictory nature of the relations in the region: “Gas will be flowing to Lebanon in the next three months. … However, it is interesting to see where this gas will come from. The current U.S. government does not want to give a lifeline to the corrupt Lebanese government, but it wants to make the life of the people bearable. So it came up with the idea of supplying Lebanon with gas from Egypt. … However, Egypt receives natural gas from Israel. … The irony is that Hezbollah, which has shown ‘resistance’ to Lebanon’s talks with Israel over maritime demarcation — that could lead to a deal that would allow Lebanon to extract gas from its own waters — under the pretext of refusing any dealings with the ‘Zionist enemy,’ seems OK with a deal that involves importing Israeli gas.” 

The anticipated rapprochement between Lebanon and its Arab neighbors, as this not-so-subtle Tehran Times op-ed by A. Bassam shows, has raised concerns in Iran, seemingly about the prospect of Lebanon moving away from Iran’s direct control:During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1989), the first time Lebanon suffered from the collapse of its Lira was when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) departed the country in 1982, after the Israeli invasion. The Lebanese lira’s price fell from 3 to 3000 against the American dollar in one go. However, at that time no one felt that the Lebanese existence as an independent state was in jeopardy. Nowadays we live in different times; it is clear that Lebanon’s fate is now in question. … Lebanon is heading towards the abyss every day. And on a daily basis, people ask what is next. It seems that with the lack of solutions, we are about to reach the bottom, except that the bottom is not known yet. Lebanon is under a vicious kind of undeclared siege. Everybody loves Lebanon, and everybody wants to save Lebanon, but the humongous dilemma is that Lebanon doesn’t want to save itself and head east.” 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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