Why Gulf states are rekindling ties with Lebanon
Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Yemen in April announced the return of their ambassadors to Lebanon, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have yet to return their envoys to the country.
The re-engagement came after diplomatic tensions had escalated in October 2021 following Lebanese information minister George Kordahi's criticism of the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen.
Although Kordahi made those comments before being appointed minister, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states withdrew their envoys from Beirut after recordings of the criticism resurfaced.
But besides Kordahi's criticism, who subsequently resigned, there were other reasons that led Gulf countries to cut ties with Lebanon temporarily.
In particular, Saudi Arabia was concerned about Lebanon's involvement in smuggling the illegal amphetamine known as Captagon into the Gulf, which is produced mainly in Syria and smuggled into Gulf countries through Lebanon.
"The Saudis understand that the policy of isolation hasn't changed anything in Lebanon. Therefore, they are more willing to create a constituency in Lebanon of political players that have good ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf"
Furthermore, the kingdom was concerned about the growing influence of Hezbollah in the country, designated a terrorist organisation by the Arab League in 2016.
The relationship between Gulf countries and Lebanon has been problematic for several years due to Hezbollah’s dominant role as a political force in the country.
Following the Gulf-Lebanon row, France has played a significant role in rekindling Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's ties, most notably during a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah in December 2021.
To re-establish diplomatic ties with Gulf states, the Lebanese government led by Najib Mikati has also carried out a series of actions to mend relations, including operations to control the smuggling of Captagon and measures to contain anti-Saudi rhetoric within the country.
But the reason behind Gulf re-engagement with Lebanon goes beyond just diplomatic relations.
The return of Gulf envoys to Beirut comes just weeks before Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, scheduled on 15 May.
According to some experts, Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are trying to adopt a different approach towards Lebanon.
Instead of isolating Lebanon from the political life of the Middle East, Gulf countries may aim to establish room for manoeuvre within Lebanon's domestic politics to limit Iran's influence in the country through Hezbollah.
Imad Salamey, associate professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University (LAU), told The New Arab that Saudi Arabia’s timing is to ensure that any political outcomes of the general election won't be disadvantageous for Gulf countries.
"Saudi Arabia wants to find out if the political battleground in Lebanon will give some benefits from its allies through its interventions. The kingdom is actively engaging the electoral process and would like to seek the support of anti-Hezbollah candidates," he said.
Michael Young, senior editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New Arab that Gulf countries are adopting a policy of engagement with political actors in Lebanon rather than re-engaging with the Lebanese state.
"The Saudis understand that the policy of isolation hasn't changed anything in Lebanon. Therefore, they are more willing to create a constituency in Lebanon of political players that have good ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States," he said.
The Saudi sphere of influence in Lebanon is, in fact, not limited to the Sunni community.
The withdrawal of Saad Hariri from politics in January, and his stepping down as leader of the Future Movement party, fragmented the Sunni political community.
As a result, Saudi Arabia may interact with a variety of political actors that have ties with the kingdom and are anti-Hezbollah.
These include the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party led by Samir Geagea, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by Walid Joumblatt and other parties and candidates from the 14th March alliance, who have been vocal about rekindling Gulf ties with Lebanon.
"Gulf countries are adopting a policy of engagement with political actors in Lebanon rather than re-engaging with the Lebanese state"
However, it is still too early to assess the impact of this new approach to Lebanon in the upcoming elections. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Gulf countries are willing to enact a policy of spending on Lebanese candidacies to push their political agenda.
"The Gulf countries' attitude towards their allies in Lebanon is opening contact with all Sunni representatives in Lebanon, including those that in the past were close to Syria and those who are relatively closed to Hezbollah,” Young told TNA.
“Today's idea is not to run a policy only for one political party. Rather, it is running political relations with all communities, giving them a certain amount of flexibility," he said.
From the Gulf perspective, approaching Sunni candidates with ties to Hezbollah or Syria could be a strategic move to ensure that whoever is in power following the election will aim to develop good relations with Gulf countries.
However, the outcome of such a flexible approach can only be evaluated once the election results have been analysed.
Moreover, Hezbollah wouldn’t want Gulf countries to develop a sphere of influence in Lebanon.
"They want to control the country by themselves. However, if a number of Sunnis that come to power have relations with Syria or Hezbollah, these Sunnis will also be those who want to defend good relations with Arab countries,” Young added.
“In such a way, although Gulf countries will widen their influence in Lebanon, Hezbollah won't be ending up fighting against them," he said.
But the return of Gulf envoys to Beirut also goes beyond Lebanon's domestic politics, Professor Imad Salamey says. It also represents an anticipation of Arab rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
"Saudi Arabia wants to build up momentum to create a wedge between Syria and Iran,” he told TNA.
“The kingdom sees a new role for Syria to undermine Hezbollah and Iran. Saudis are betting on Syria and providing them with some incentives to get good relations with the Arab Gulf, detaching it from Iran and Hezbollah."
According to Young, if Gulf countries want to contain Iran in the region, they need to reopen ties and rebuild their stakes in countries like Syria and Lebanon, particularly if the Iran nuclear agreement is signed.
"Saudi Arabia wants to build up momentum to create a wedge between Syria and Iran"
This would explain the policy shift from isolating Lebanon towards building up new alliances with various political actors in the country.
In economic terms, Gulf diplomatic re-engagement with Lebanon came on the same day that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reached an agreement with the Lebanese government.
Gulf countries, which were once major donors to cash-strapped Lebanon, could play a significant role in reviving the Lebanese economy, but only when Lebanon reaches a final agreement with the IMF.
"Lebanon has to implement several reforms to get a deal with the IMF. Gulf countries will not help Lebanon before implementing them and reaching an agreement with the IMF, as there is zero trust in the Lebanese political class," Young said.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi