Hot take: Top Kuwaiti diplomat offers Gulf lifeline to help end Lebanon crisis
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, in Beirut on Jan. 22-23, presented Lebanese leaders with a 12-point Gulf proposal to end the political crisis there, saying that Lebanon cannot “be a platform for any aggression – verbal or actual.“
Rebuilding Trust: The visit by Al-Sabah was the first by a Gulf official since October, when diplomatic ties between Lebanon and the Gulf were fractured over comments by the then-Information Minister Georges Kordahi criticizing Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen.
Last month French President Emmanuel Macron brokered a deal in which Kordahi resigned in return for the kingdom restoring diplomatic ties.
“We are now taking steps towards building trust … which doesn’t happen overnight,” said Al-Sabah, who noted that Kuwait never broke ties with Lebanon, despite recalling its ambassador. “We want Lebanon as it has been for more than 73 years: radiant, iconic and a distinctive symbolism in the world and in the Arab Mashreq.”
Focus on Iran, Hezbollah. The comments by Kordahi reflect a deeper concern of the Gulf states about the influence of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah as an instrument of Iran, which has had acrimonious ties with the Gulf. When Gulf officials refer to “verbal” aggression, or “non-interference,” which they often do, it’s code for Iran and Hezbollah.
In January Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah slammed Saudi Arabia for spreading an “extremist ideology.”
Hezbollah won 12 seats in the 2018 Lebanese general election, but its so-called March 8 Alliance, which includes other Shiite, Christian and independent parties, has a total of 76 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament, making it a de facto power broker.
The crux of the Gulf proposal, as reported, seeks to constrain anti-Gulf statements and actions by Hezbollah, disarm militias according to UNSC resolutions, and in return provide Lebanon assistance in dealing with the World Bank to alleviate Lebanon’s economic and banking crisis.
Coincidence?: The day after Al-Sabah’s visit, three-time former PM Saad Hariri, who had close ties to Saudi Arabia, said he is stepping back from politics because of Iranian influence and encouraged his Future Party, which holds 20 seats in the parliament, to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2022.
Lebanon needs help: Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted after the meeting that he sought the “best relations” with the Gulf states.
The Gulf offers of support could be timely for Lebanon. The country has been in a political and economic crisis since Aug. 4, 2020, when ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded, killing at least 218, injuring 7,000, causing US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 homeless.
In October 2021, two-time former Prime Minister Najib Mikati ended a 13-month political stalemate following the explosion and formed a new government.
The World Bank describes the economic crisis as contributing “to the disintegration of key pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war political economy… manifested by a collapse of the most basic public services; persistent and debilitating internal political discord; and mass brain drain,” with the poor and middle class suffering disproportionally.
What’s next: Kuwait will host an Arab foreign ministers summit at the end of the month to take up Lebanon’s response to the Gulf proposal and weigh next steps. Here are three trends we’re watching:
Diplomacy in Lebanon can’t be separated from the ongoing talks in Vienna on an Iran nuclear deal. Iran, and by extension Hezbollah, will weigh its next steps in Lebanon and the region based on the outcome of the Vienna talks.
Hariri quitting the day after Al-Sabah’s visit signals a shakeup in the Gulf’s approach to Lebanon — which historically worked with and through Hariri. That channel is now closed, and there is a new Gulf approach to Lebanon on the table.
Kuwait is well suited, on behalf of the GCC, to play a key role in Lebanon, with its reputation as a respected low-key, high-impact player, working with and through the Gulf consensus.
Read more: The Gulf proposal calls for adherence to the Taif Accords of 1989, which sought to end the 15-year civil war by transferring power away from the Presidency and in a cabinet equally divided between Muslims and Christians, as well as a Syrian-Lebanese agreement for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and, most importantly for the Gulf, the disarmament and disbandment of all militias — which, in the Gulf view, would include Hezbollah. Read the Taif Accords here.
From our regional correspondents:
1. Egypt’s water poverty problem
Egypt is suffering from what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently described as water poverty, with the North African country lacking sufficient water resources to meet its citizens’ drinking and food needs. Egyptian officials say the country’s water scarcity problem is made worse by Ethiopia’s continued work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). But as a former irrigation minister told Baher al-Kady, Egypt’s freshwater supplies have been dwindling for decades.
2. Iraq escalates water dispute with Iran
Iranian officials are pushing back on Iraq’s complaints that Iran is cutting into its water share. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources announced this month plans to file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice against Tehran, which Baghdad accuses of diverting water flows from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Muhammad Jawad Adib takes a closer look at Iraq’s allegations that its upstream neighbor’s recent spate of dam building has decreased the water supply. For its part, Iran has blamed Iraq’s water shortages on climate change.
3. China appoints Horn of Africa envoy
China has emerged as a key player in the Horn of Africa region, where it recently appointed a special envoy “to coordinate actions” as Ethiopia’s war against Tigrayan rebels continues. Beijing has backed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and expressed support for Addis Ababa’s completion of the GERD. China has also wielded its veto on the UN Security Council to block attempts at sanctions on Ethiopia. For more on China’s role and interests in the region, read Ayah Aman’s latest.
4. Turkish pop queen under fire for lyrics
Sezen Aksu, the reclusive diva of Turkish pop, had drawn the ire of conservatives in Turkey who are accusing her of blasphemy. Earlier this month, the legendary singer uploaded to YouTube a long-forgotten song she wrote in 2017, which Turkey’s nationalist Islamist groups claimed insults the biblical Adam and Eve. As Nazlan Ertan reports, the song quickly went viral and triggered a fiery online debate over freedom of expression in Turkey.
5. Egypt’s 'Temple of Millions of Years'
Archaeologists have unearthed two massive sphinx-shaped statues of Amenhotep III, the powerful king who ruled Egypt for nearly four decades. Within Amenhotep’s mortuary temple in western Luxor — known by the ancient Egyptians as the “Temple of Millions of Years” — the Egyptian-German archeological mission has also discovered the remains of columns and walls decorated with ritual scenes. As Muhammed Magdy reports, the new discoveries come as archeologists are having to contend with water damage caused by the nearby Nile River.
Multimedia this week: Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, Syria snowstorms, Oman’s foreign policy
Watch: Gilles Kepel’s latest Reading The Middle East guest is former Saudi intelligence chief HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud. He discusses his new book, The Afghanistan File, a firsthand account of the kingdom’s dealings with Afghanistan from 1979 to 2001. Link here.
Listen: In this week’s On The Middle East podcast, Andrew Parasiliti interviews Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi about developments in Oman and the Gulf, including Iran, Yemen and Syria. Link here.
Watch: Severe snowstorms and freezing temperatures in northwest Syria have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis for those living in displaced camps. Coming soon here.
Listen: Ben Caspit and veteran Israeli attorney Amit Becher discuss the possibility that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could sign a plea bargain to escape prison time. Link here.
Marita Kassis contributed to this report.