Arab summit shows a Lebanon at the mercy of disinterested regional powers

Out in the cold

The Arab League Economic and Social Development summit hosted in Beirut in late January produced at least one solid takeaway: the reiterated recognition that Lebanon does not hold the keys to its own future and so must ride the bench during this economically and politically pivotal time for the region. With a government finally formed on January 31, Lebanon finds itself engulfed in domestic and regional uncertainties and struggling on a tightrope to maintain its balance.

The mid-January summit was viewed by some observers as an unsuccessful event when measured against hoped-for outcomes for the host country, which included: a resolution to the myriad and competing perspectives on Arab states’ relations with Syria, the provision of financial or other support to refugees, and a decision regarding the general direction for Lebanon in 2019. According to Paul Salem, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, in a late-January Weekly Briefing published by the think tank: “The large number of no-shows reflects a general view among many Arab heads of state that Lebanon is too deeply under the political and security sway of Iran and Hezbollah. It might also reflect a slowing down of the momentum to normalize ties with the Assad regime, and a desire to avoid giving political support to the Lebanese president and his allies, who would like to see the Arab League end its suspension of Syria.”

False hopes

Much of the final communique from the summit comprised of reiterations of previous promises, though there was a new proposal for a $200 million technology and digital economy investment fund for the region. Lebanon’s president called for the creation of an Arab Bank for Reconstruction and Development that would serve as a funding structure for the reconstruction of wartorn Arab states, while Qatar committed to purchase $500 million worth of Lebanese sovereign debt.

What is Qatar actually buying with this offer to purchase government bonds? Perhaps it is backdoor access to Arab decision-making. Before 2010, the political influence of Qatar in Lebanon was mainly limited to the former employing a fraction of their surplus petroleum revenues to help rebuild the latter after the 2006 war with Israel. During the Arab Spring, Qatar placed its bet on the Syrian opposition and supported political Islam in the region (both losing wagers), and has maintained ties with Iran to the ire of Arab counterparts—the latter two Qatari decisions, along with inter-GCC rivalries, were the major driving impulses behind the Saudi-led blockade in 2017. Less than a day after the Qatari bond-buying commitment, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister said at the World Economic Forum that the Kingdom was poised to “support Lebanon all the way,” but did not offer specifics.

Should the Lebanese have hoped for more tangible outcomes? The results of this summit have historically been weak, both in terms of effecting change at the regional level, in either a political or economic sense, and in the fulfillment of past promises made.

In 2007, there was a consensus movement by Gulf countries to try to gather the region together, evidenced by the proposal to integrate the region into a monetary union, borne of the traumatic experience of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Plans to form an Arab customs union and integrate scientific research were announced during the 2009 summit, but as soon as the Arab Spring erupted this consensus evaporated, leaving regional integration proposals still on the table.

When compared with other regional political blocs, the Arab League is often characterized as a political tiger that roars, but whose measures rarely have teeth. The regional body has traditionally been propelled on the strength of the Saudis’ financial clout and Egypt’s political persuasion; when the interests of those two countries aligned, the institution worked.

In the current environment, there is an alignment of Egyptian and Saudi interests in countering Iran and opposing Qatar, but when it comes to solutions for Syria’s war and readmittance of Syria into the body, there seems to be disunity. On the question of discourse at a lower level, it appears that the Arab League is still very far from having an interest-driven joint position, and this is visible when one looks at how Lebanon has reacted to issues such as the Libyan question and Syrian conundrum. The Lebanese position has been internally divided and not based on prioritizing national practical interests, but rather on the political positions of individual parties, and the reemergence of decades-old grievances.

Given the unfulfilled promises of past summits, what could the Beirut summit have produced for Lebanon, within a fragmented region, in which multiple countries see increasing inequality, poverty, and specters of civil unrest? One might have hoped that even if only minor economic solutions were on offer to Lebanon, then outside powers could perhaps have spurred on a political agreement to form cabinet prior to the gathering. But any hope of that was dashed by the maneuvering of various political factions in the lead up to the summit.

Tangled loyalties

While there may still be emotional pain in Lebanon over the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr 41 years ago, Lebanese political factions’ punishment of Libya for the evils of the Gaddafi regime—and Libya’s subsequent boycott of January’s summit—does not bode well for the future improvement of Lebanon’s regional role and interactivity with other Arab states. If there is any potential for Lebanon to be an actor on the regional stage rather than a pawn thrown around by outside forces, can Beirut afford to harbor such extreme resentment over past injustices?

When it comes to relations with Syria, some observers believed Bashar al-Assad was blocking the formation of Lebanon’s government. The fact that this could even be a possibility, that Assad could theoretically exert such pressure on Lebanon, is because the Lebanese state and its representatives are subsidiary to the links between communities and foreign interests. The Lebanese state may not as driven by foreign interests as it was during and after the civil war, but tribal linkages in society and pressure groups still exert a powerful influence capable of incapacitating the state and preventing it from undertaking activity vital for its survival. Because these groups can basically make the state impotent or operationally dysfunctional, how can Lebanon be made more immune to these pressures?

Despite the Qatari offer, Lebanon walks away from the summit with more questions than answers, or solutions. The country is in a difficult position as domestic economic pressures mount and trust in the country’s financial system erodes. Unfortunately, the post-summit sentiment is that nothing will be decided in Lebanon, or for Lebanon, until foreign-sponsored gatherings shape the future political and economic direction of the region.

Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's in house energy and public policy analyst.

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