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Is Kuwait’s Initiative to End GCC-Lebanon Rift Realistic?

The efforts to end the rift between Lebanon and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states continue through Kuwaiti diplomacy. While these efforts seem to lead nowhere, the GCC states are presumably putting pressure on the Lebanese ruling parties and state along the lines recently proposed by the Kuwaiti foreign minister. The Foreign Minister, Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, demanded Lebanon implement three UN Security Council’s resolutions, demanding the disbanding of armed groups. The Foreign Minister framed it as Arab and international demand, not just a GCC initiative. The Kuwaiti initiative speaks mainly to Hezbollah’s role in Syria and Yemen, and the group’s narcotics production and smuggling to the GCC states. Kuwait presented “measures and ideas” to rebuild confidence between a number of GCC states and Lebanon.

The Kuwaiti initiative follows the failure of similar attempts by Qatar to repair relations between Lebanon and the GCC states. They had severely worsened after the former Lebanese Minister of Information criticized the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Kuwait proposed to restore Arab and European economic and fiscal support to Lebanon, whose currency has lost 90 percent of its value in two years. While Beirut submitted its answer to the Kuwaiti initiative in the Arab Foreign Ministers Meeting on January 29, 2022, the details of the initiative and the Lebanese response have not been yet disclosed. Drawing on comment by the Kuwait foreign minister, the proposal calls for tightening controls on Lebanese exports to the Gulf states, security cooperation between the parties to prevent drug smuggling, and the application of UN resolutions, including Resolution 1959, which stipulates banning the role of armed militias by states— a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and a Path out of the Crisis

The Gulf-Lebanese crisis began after the then Lebanese Minister of Information, George Qardahi, made statements on a program broadcast on social media that condemned GCC involvement in the Yemeni war. Shortly after Qardahi’s statements were broadcast, Saudi Arabia suddenly recalled its ambassador to Beirut, asked the Lebanese ambassador to leave Riyadh, and halted all Lebanese imports into the Kingdom. Even before the crisis, Riyadh and other GCC states had blocked many imports from Lebanon because of narcotic smuggling from the country, but Qardahi’s statements were the final straw.

In the statement issued on October 29, 2021, the Saudi Foreign Ministry claimed that Qardahi’s statements demonstrated “a clear bias towards the terrorist Houthi militia that threatens the security and stability of the region.” Despite the Lebanese government’s efforts to denounce and distance itself from Qardahi’s statements, the GCC states showed solidarity with Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, the UAE, and Bahrain took positions similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Although Qatar also denounced Qardahi’s positions, Doha called for calm and for all parties to “[hasten] to heal the rift between the brothers.” Qardahi submitted his resignation in early December, before French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

Preceding the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister’s trip, the GCC called on Lebanon last December to prevent Iranian-backed Hezbollah from carrying out terrorist operations, to strengthen the government’s armed forces, and to ensure that weapons remain in the hands of the state. The reasons for GCC concern are obvious; Hezbollah provides technical and training support to the Houthis in Yemen, and the Houthis mouthpiece, Al-Masirah channel, broadcasts from Hezbollah’s TV studios AlManar in Beirut.

Washington shares many of the GCC states’ interests vis-a-vis Hezbollah, which the U.S. and many GCC states have classified a terrorist organization. In January 2022, the United States sanctioned three Lebanese businessmen and ten companies, which it described as part of an international network that enables Hezbollah to evade sanctions. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian Nelson, said “[The Department of the] Treasury is committed to disrupting Hezbollah’s illicit activity and attempts to circumvent sanctions through business networks while intensifying sponsorship of patronage and corruption networks in Lebanon.”

Prospects for the Kuwaiti initiative’s success are poor. Hezbollah, which maintains significant control of state institutions and in the country through its trained militiamen and missile arsenal, has not retreated from extremist policies. Moreover, Hezbollah circles have rejected the initiative out of hand and the group views the demands of the GCC states as yet another example of the Gulf states’ long battle against the militia. To make matters even more precarious, the conditions proposed by the GCC states come at a sensitive time—just four months before the next parliamentary elections in Lebanon. Within this context, Hezbollah views the GCC effort as a way to curtail the political power of the party or to change the political makeup of parliament, thus influencing Lebanon’s ruling coalition and Beirut’s foreign policy.

Lebanese Crises and the Need for Support

The Kuwaiti efforts at rapprochement must be set against the backdrop of a series of shocks and crises that have struck Lebanon. The economic and social situation in Lebanon has been worsening since 2019, sparked by mounting debts. The Lebanese lira plunged to new depths in January 2022, and large sectors of the population have fallen into poverty. Yet, until this day, Lebanese political parties and leaders are running in the upcoming parliamentary elections using the same old sectarian rhetoric that will only exacerbate state fragility.

Recently published research entitled “Lebanon on Life Support: How Politics Made a Sick Nation,” conducted by King’s College London in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the American University of Beirut, shows how a long series of politically motivated crises contributed to the creation of a failed state in Lebanon, as well as a public health disaster. The research focuses on how to achieve universal health coverage, prioritizing spending and change in the health sector in Lebanon. The report indicates that it is difficult for Lebanon not to turn into a failed state when half of the population cannot access health care, and three-quarters of them are on the poverty line.

Currently, basic services are suffering, and the rule of law is crumbling day by day—strengthening the argument that Lebanon teeters on the edge of state collapse. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), in its report entitled “Multidimensional Poverty in Lebanon: A Dire Reality and Ambiguous Prospects,” indicated that the multidimensional poverty rate—defined as access to education, healthcare, public services, housing, assets, and basic property—doubled from 42% in 2019 to 82 % today, while extreme multidimensional poverty affects a third of the population.

Finally, before fixing its relations with the GCC states, Lebanon needs to restore function to the institutions that can lift the country from its economic crisis and political unrest. More importantly, the country must demonstrate accountability, now completely missing in the country. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020. Lebanon must give priority to these measures to restore trust between state and society, and in order to resolve its foreign policy dilemmas. Regarding the Lebanese-GCC relations, unfortunately, neither the GCC states nor Lebanese officials can stop Hezbollah’s support to the Houthis; only Tehran can influence Hezbollah’s decision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

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