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Lebanon should be wary of Qataris bearing gifts

The average Lebanese was looking forward to the Arab economic summit that was held in Beirut at the weekend to maybe offer relief to the country’s ailing economy, which has been under severe strain due to many months of governmental void. But Lebanese internal disagreements about inviting Syria and Libya to the summit led to many countries downgrading their representation to mere ministerial or ambassadorial level.

The Qatari emir and Mauritania’s president were the only heads of state who decided to attend. The former stole the limelight when his government announced that Doha is to purchase $500 million of government bonds in debt-ridden Lebanon.

Lebanon’s economy has looked to be on the brink of collapse for some time, but a Paris conference last April made aid pledges worth $11 billion. However, France last month warned that Beirut could lose those pledges if it continued to be without a government following almost eight months of political disputes following the general election.

The Qatari bond purchase may also have wider political implications. Qatar is at the center of a bitter dispute with Egypt and three neighboring Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally a backer of Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. Since June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and seeking closer relations with Iran.

Some Lebanese also never forget that Doha tried to defend and rehabilitate the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad, when the international community tried but failed to sanction his regime and hold it responsible for the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Since then, Qatar has sided with the Lebanese political umbrella group the March 8 Alliance, which is close to Tehran and Damascus, and serves as a political bloc that advances Hezbollah’s agenda in Lebanon, as dictated by Syria and Iran at the expense of its national interests and fragile democracy.

Since the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar has been seen as an agent promoting groupings affiliated with political Islam, namely the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and even Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

Though Lebanon is the weakest link in this Middle East conflict, the desperate Lebanese people seem to be keen to welcome this Qatari assistance to their economy, especially after the finance minister spooked Lebanese markets earlier this month with comments about the country’s public debt, which is among the worst in the world.

But, like everything in the region and Beirut especially, the step by Qatar risks pulling Lebanon further into its sphere of influence and alienating core supporters like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have paid billions of dollars over the years to ensure Lebanon enjoyed financial stability and national cohesion despite the divisive rhetoric promoted by groups supported by Qatar, Iran and Syria.

The Qatari bond purchase, as helpful as it may appear from the outside, might have serious implications and push core Gulf supporters like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE into shying away from supporting Lebanon in the future. Beirut must quickly clarify its position and allay its traditional allies’ fears that it will not be pulled into the Syrian-Iranian-Qatari political sphere.
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