Beirut, Lebanon – Recent improvements in relations between Lebanon and Gulf states have relieved the cash-strapped country’s politicians.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait returned their ambassadors to Beirut in a move that slowly thaws a diplomatic crisis that has strained Lebanon since last October, sparked by critical comments of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.
Saudi Ambassador Waleed Bukhari hosted a dinner at his residence on Monday, receiving Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Lebanese political allies, Hezbollah-backed Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj-Hassan, and the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Mikati announced he will visit Riyadh this month, while Bukhari said the kingdom and France will go ahead with humanitarian assistance for Lebanon, where about three-quarters of the population live in poverty, and food-price inflation is among the highest worldwide.
“The relationship that brings us together is exceptional through common interests when it comes to economy, finance, services, and even Arab unity,” Energy Minister Fayyad told Al Jazeera. “I think the natural course of ties between Lebanon and Arab countries is for them to flourish, especially with the Gulf countries.”
Lebanon’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were severely strained during the past year. The kingdom has especially been concerned about the smuggling of the illegal amphetamine Captagon pills into the Gulf, and the growing influence of the Iran-backed Shia movement Hezbollah, designated a “terrorist” organisation by Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia once invested billions of dollars in the country and bolstered its luxury tourism economy. The diplomatic crisis, which included a blanket ban of Lebanese exports into the kingdom, crippled Lebanese industrialists already struggling to keep their factories open.
Though not all of the measures have been lifted, the developments of the past few days are extremely promising, senior parliamentarian Alain Aoun said.
“These are positive signs towards [the full] normalisation of relationships,” said Aoun, adding he hopes that political leaders will next convene. “[Next step is] restoring dialogue at the highest level.”
However, some officials are sceptical of the extent Lebanon can fully restore ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, especially with Hezbollah and its allies boasting the most political power in the country.
Billionaire business magnate and Member of Parliament Fouad Makhzoumi, a supporter of Riyadh and a staunch critic of Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera the recent development is a “valuable opportunity” for Lebanon, and accused Hezbollah and its allies in power of trying to sever ties with the Gulf.
“All that the ruling class under the control of Hezbollah has done is attack Arab and Gulf states, export Captagon, support the Houthis, involve Lebanon in absurd battles, and make it an unwanted arena for wars,” Makhzoumi said.
“But the most important question is does Mikati have the will and ability to implement reforms in the light of the presence of the Hezbollah militia that controls the state’s decisions? We hope so.”
The ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have still not returned to Lebanon.
Relations further soured after comments made by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen were broadcast last October. The former celebrity game show host and presenter made the statement one month before joining the Lebanese government, calling the long-running war “futile”, adding the Iran-aligned Houthis are “defending themselves … against an external aggression”.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has since slammed Saudi Arabia, accusing it of “terrorism” and trying to stir a civil war in Lebanon, further fanning the flames.
Kordahi resigned in December, but it was not until Kuwait offered a series of confidence-building measures to the Lebanese government in January that the situation slowly began to improve. The moves included Lebanon holding timely parliamentary elections, implementing its commitment to UN Security Council resolutions – including those that require disarming Hezbollah’s powerful paramilitary force – and halting the flow of illicit drugs into Gulf states.
Imad Salamey, associate profeessor of Middle East political affairs at the Lebanese American University, said Lebanese politicians toned down what he described as a “growing anti-GCC campaign and negative rhetoric”, which has reassured Saudi Arabia and alleviated its allies’ fears of a complete withdrawal from the country.
“Anti-GCC rhetoric has ended, the Lebanese government has pledged to seek positive relations and cooperation [with Gulf countries], and it has cracked down on [drug] smuggling operations,” Salamey told Al Jazeera. “I believe the government of Lebanon has taken various refraining steps to the satisfaction of the GCC.”
Though Hezbollah still possesses its arms, plans for parliamentary elections next month are on schedule, and Lebanese security agencies have thwarted numerous drug smuggling attempts to the Gulf. In one case, security agencies foiled the smuggling of nine million Captagon pills hidden in boxes of fake oranges at the Beirut Port that were headed to Kuwait.
The timing of Riyadh’s rapprochement, just weeks before the vote, is not a coincidence, analysts say.
“We have always had an increase in foreign meddling and interventions in the weeks and months preceding the elections,” Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University.
“In this case, the return of Gulf ambassadors to Beirut and the signals they are sending to reengage with Lebanon probably aims at preventing Hezbollah from making forays into the Sunni community, and increasing its sway on the Lebanese state.”
Saudi Arabia’s key Sunni ally in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad Hariri, suspended his political career in January.
Bitar said the slow recovery of ties with Riyadh and other Gulf countries could contribute to legitimising the nation’s governing political parties right before millions of disgruntled Lebanese take to the polls.
“So many groups in the Lebanese opposition today are very worried about these foreign attempts at revamping the Lebanese political establishment.”