Saudi Arabia, France launch humanitarian projects in Lebanon

Agreement will provide about $32m for projects focusing on food security and the battered healthcare system.

Beirut port
A makeshift monument is seen in front of the towering grain silos gutted by the massive August 2020 port explosion in Beirut [File: Hussein Malla/AP]

Beirut, Lebanon – Saudi Arabia and France pledged an initial $32m to launch a series of humanitarian projects in Lebanon to help alleviate its crushing financial crisis.

The agreement on Tuesday – made among the French foreign ministry, the French Development Agency, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre – will provide almost 30 million euros ($31.9m) for the first humanitarian initiatives with more expected to come.

“This support comes as Saudi Arabia and France’s commitment to stand with the Lebanese people and to contribute to its stability and development,” Saudi Ambassador Waleed Bukhari said at a news conference. “The kingdom is striving to support anything that eases the suffering of those in need.”

The first programme will focus on food security and the country’s paralysed healthcare system, providing monthly cash assistance for food targeting 7,500 people, supporting hospitals in Tripoli and across northern Lebanon, and distributing baby formula to families in need.

The remaining programmes will focus on education, energy, water, and Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces.

Lebanon has been in throes of a crippling economic crisis that has decimated lives and livelihoods across the past two years. More than three-quarters of the population lives in poverty, while the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and its eye-watering inflation is among the highest worldwide.

France and Saudi Arabia in late February agreed to set up a joint aid mechanism for Lebanon.

The deal comes two weeks after Saudi Arabia returned its ambassador to Lebanon as it slowly rekindles ties with the crisis-hit country.

“The French-Saudi initiative indicates France and Saudi Arabia’s desire to be involved stakeholders in the Lebanon file,” Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Chatham House Lina Khatib told Al Jazeera.

“But it does not mean that either country will offer Lebanon a comprehensive financial rescue package, or that they will prioritise Lebanon on their foreign affairs agendas.”

‘Rehabilitate its image’

Riyadh was once a key political and economic patron of Beirut, where it invested billions of dollars to bolster its tourism economy.

However, it has especially been concerned with Iran-backed Hezbollah’s growing political power and influence in the country in recent years and has taken a step back.

Political analyst Bachar el-Halabi said Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian initiative will help “rehabilitate its image” among the Lebanese, especially the Sunni population, as they struggle to cope with the financial crisis.

“This aid will allow them to rebuild their social and political capital,” el-Halabi told Al Jazeera.

Relations between the kingdom and Beirut soured after comments by Lebanon’s former Information Minister George Kordahi critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen were broadcast last October.

The former celebrity television presenter made the statement one month before joining the Lebanese government, calling the long-running war “futile”, adding the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen are “defending themselves … against an external aggression”. He resigned in December.

Riyadh’s key political ally, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his political career in February, and his party the Future Movement will not take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 15.

Analysts have said Lebanon’s efforts to thwart drug smuggling into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, minimise anti-Gulf Cooperation Council rhetoric, and pledges to improve bilateral ties may have reassured the kingdom.

But experts also said Saudi Arabia is still biding its time before committing to a new political strategy in Lebanon, at least until after the country’s parliamentary elections in just more than two weeks.

“They’re monitoring the political landscape ahead of the elections,” el-Halabi said. “The kind of parliament that emerges after the elections will dictate what kind of role Saudi wants to play in Lebanon.”

Source: Al Jazeera