It was the early period of 2020 when Beirut hosted the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit. Its goal should have been to dehydrate support from Arab giants to aid Lebanon in tackling economic challenges. Lebanon is one of the world’s nations sinking deep in debt, with a credit rating on par with countries such as Gabon, Zambia, and Iraq. Lebanon is almost on its knees. Debt, corruption, and money that falls so much against the dollar that it is practically worthless. Protests are going on across the country. People in Lebanon are already feeling the crisis getting worse. Since the protest began, the value of Lebanon’s currency is fallen by 60%. Banks are already limiting cash withdrawals to about $200/week. The crises have resulted in a fall in exports, foreign investment and tourism. Adding turmoil is the 3,000 tones of the Ammonium Nitrate explosion stored in a warehouse at the Beirut’s port.
But, protests were going on before COVID-19. Protestors were furious with a lot of things. The economy, high taxes, the rise of unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and most of it the rampant corruption, which, according to protestors, thrive under the sectarian political system. But, what exactly is Lebanon’s political structure?
It was Lebanon’s civil war, which started in 1975 and went on for 15 years. Militias from different groups and sects fought each other for dominance and power. Then Syria and Israel got involved and the situation became even worse. The Taif agreement proved to be the end of the civil war, after which every domestic political power took a slice of power. This became the basis for Lebanon’s political system today. A Maronite Christian has to be the President, the Prime Minister has to be a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament has to be the Shia Muslim. Parliament seats are shared 50/50 between Muslims and Christians.
Two prominent political alliances include parties from different sects. Each has foreign powers backing them. The former Prime Minister Saad Hariri block has the backing of Saudia Arabia and the USA. March 8 is the block that includes Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun’s party and Hezbollah. It has Syria and Iran’s support. But the issue is, the political parties used to be militias. Sects are not fighting in Lebanon. It is the opposing warlords backing by the opposing foreign powers.
The protest from citizens brought some fruits. In 2019, the Saudi backed Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. After months of talks, Hassan Diab, who is a computer engineer, took over as the new Prime Minister and established his government. According to Diab, his government is made up of technocrats, with no political loyalties and allegiance. Talk of the town is that many of the technocrats have the support of the alliance that includes Hezbollah, backed and sponsored by Iran. Here sprawls the problem. Hezbollah is the Shia Muslim political group and plausibly Lebanon’s most influential player. It has a military wing the size of a small army funded by Iran.US considered Hezbollah as a terrorist group. EU also has blacklisted the armed wing of Hezbollah. With Hezbollah pulling strings will create hurdles for the foreign aid and funding i-e loans, which Lebanon needs badly to rebuild its economy. Here springs in Qatar.
Doha hosted all major Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah, in 2008 for the Doha Agreement that many credited with preventing a 2nd Lebanese civil war. The most prominent stance that empowered Hezbollah was in 2010, when the former Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bins Khalifa Al Thani, visited the south of Lebanon, which is a Hezbollah stronghold. He toured the villages that Qatar contributed to reconstructing after the war with Israel in 2006. Hezbollah organized a massive reception for the emir in its defense, Bint Jbeil. The visit to southern Lebanon at that time gave a great impetus to Hezbollah’s propaganda, which aimed for Syria, Iran and Qatar to become a regional center line in the face of the Arab restraint. Qatar played a vital role in helping southern Lebanon recover from the 2006 conflict with Israel, which required Doha to engage with Hezbollah and other groups affiliated with it. Such engagement hinted on Qatar’ s-Lebanon foreign policy to be ‘pro-Hezbollah’ or ‘pro-Shia.’
But the trend was not similar in the case of Syria. At earlier stages in the Syrian crisis, Qatar’s government was sponsoring Sunni militias that were at war with Hezbollah and other pro-Assad Shia militias. To play at both sides of the wicket painted Qatar’s image in Washington, Brussels and other power capitals as guilty of ‘doublespeak.’
Already Qatar and some other GCC members have sent aid to Lebanon in the aftermath of this month’s chemical explosion to help with humanitarian relief. Yet there is good reason to expect some Arab countries in the Gulf to avoid providing more comfort to Lebanon. This is because Hezbollah possesses so much power and influence in Lebanon, which has been especially true for the past three years. Some GCC states would see their aid going to Lebanon as merely empowering their enemies Hezbollah and indirectly to Iran.
The fact of the matter is that the Lebanese will desperately require help from other countries as they cope with the damage caused by the explosion. Adding icing to the cake are the significant socio-political and economic challenges while arguably are Lebanon’s reason for quickly becoming a “failed state.” The latest report published by the UN fears that almost 50% of locals will sink in hunger. Perhaps Qatar, already guilty of sponsoring the Hezbollah, could approach Lebanon independently from its fellow GCC members and give Beirut massive aid at this challenging time.
If that scenario unfolds, there is every reason to bet that Qatar is a Hezbollah ally and is filling the political vacuum in Lebanon by supporting Hassan Diab technocratic government-backed indirectly by Iran. It will continue to be spread as part of a scheme to isolate Doha. This is all part of a plan aimed at convincing Washington that Qatar has taken Iran’s side in the Middle East. What will happen in the tussle of regional giants? Time will tell.
Ali Asad has completed his masters in Political Studies from the University of the Punjab. His main area of interest is in capacity building, governance, education, human development, socio-political and socio-economic state of affairs in South East Asian region; focusing Pakistan. He is pursuing M Phil in Public Policy.