Historically, the Lebanese have been more inclined toward francophone rather than anglophone culture. France colonized Lebanon in the early 1890s, and oversaw the planning of its big entity by appending its four districts to Mount Lebanon, which was called small Lebanon. This led to deep interaction among the new Phoenician generations living on the ancient bank of the Mediterranean Sea, which extends to its new bank — Europe, at the heart of which is Paris.
Beirut does not have an intimate relationship with London, as it does with Paris. But in the last few decades, the flowers of francophone culture began to wither in Lebanon. Anglophone culture established a rapidly growing presence at the expense of francophone culture. The reason is the rise of the US model of culture and lifestyle (not politics) in the Levant, rather than the British model.
The land of fog, and an isolated and conservative island, does not appeal to the Lebanese, who are passionate about interacting with open territories and peoples who can easily be communicated with. They also have an inherent desire to respond to globalization, commercially, culturally, and in terms of lifestyle.
This week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Lebanon. The visit was pre-scheduled, which means that it was not a special mission necessitated by events, but aimed at strengthen the relationship between the two countries.
According to Al-Monitor’s sources, there are several reasons for the visit, most notably that London is establishing a special relationship with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati regarding important issues in Lebanon that have strategic regional dimensions. Among these issues are the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, regarding which there has been joint cooperation for close to two years between London and Mikati with the aim of adjusting the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to become more consistent with the final arrangements required by any comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli settlement in the future.
Mikati is following up on this issue with London apart from the complex internal debates in Lebanon, which are characterized by redundancy and sharp contradictions.
Information indicates that Mikati appointed a special envoy to coordinate gradual steps with London regarding Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. These steps include reaching a legal settlement on the status of around 12,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Ain al-Hilweh camp who are wanted by the Lebanese courts. Settling their legal status would ease the tension inside the camp and decrease the possibility of these militants resorting to radical Islamist Palestinian forces for protection.
These steps also include the reparation of the statistical information infrastructure of the Lebanese General Security regarding the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their conditions. The Lebanese General Security has launched a digital information project about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. One of the project’s long-term goals is to grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon Palestinian National Authority passports. A medium-term goal is to finance the construction of productive institutions and medium-sized commercial and industrial projects inside these camps to alleviate the extreme state of poverty and help create a middle class in them. This would contribute to combating extremism inside these camps, given the objective link between extremism and poverty.
Today, the silent Mikati-London plan faces a serious challenge. Events in Syria have disrupted its implementation, although it originally faced complications resulting from sharp differences within the Lebanese government headed by Mikati, as well as severe political conflicts inside the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which are a reflection of the conflicts between Hamas and Fatah.
However, the biggest emerging challenge as a result of the events in Syria is the growing migration of Palestinian refugees from Syria to Lebanon, whose number — according to Palestinian estimates — have reached almost 30,000. This number is expected to rise in the event of continued clashes in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and its surroundings, between the armed Syrian opposition, which is backed by Palestinian militants, and Syrian regime forces.
Britain is said to be currently coordinating closely to help Lebanon in stopping the flow of Palestinian refugees from Syria to its territory through one of two options. The first is reaching a truce inside the Yarmouk refugee camp, which would allow the return of all Palestinian refugees according to a plan that would make it an arms-free zone. This plan is currently under discussion in Damascus. The second option is to find additional support mechanisms for Lebanon, so it can attract the Palestinian refugees coming from Syria and contain them within the Mikati-London plan, by rearranging the Palestinian refugee issue in Lebanon in a way that is consistent with the requirements of a future final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
There is another issue of interest to Britain in Lebanon, which is securing a place for its companies on the contracting list of the prospective Lebanese Energy Authority to search for the newly discovered gas on the Lebanese coast. A British company, Spectrum, is currently in charge of conducting land surveys for oil and gas exploration. The same company is also conducting two- and three-dimensional surveys of Lebanese waters constituting the exclusive economic zone.
However, the overall gas exploration project in Lebanon is no longer seen as an urgent matter by the international community. This is because international plans to accelerate exploration in the newly discovered gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, which were led by US Ambassador Frederick Hoff, have been postponed or frozen. A source told Al-Monitor that the reason is that Russia does not favor beginning exploration in the Mediterranean Sea before the end of the Syrian crisis, which is a partner — along with Israel and Cyprus — in the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as in Bar al-Mashriq.
While Paris is reserving an economic and political role for itself in the future of the Levant through its important presence as a key partner in the UNIFIL force stationed in southern Lebanon since 2006 — whose mission is to protect the applications of UN Resolution 1701, calling for helping the Lebanese army extend its authority in the border area with Israel and monitor the end of "hostilities" between Hezbollah and the Israeli army — Britain is reserving a role for itself in the future of the Levant, through the secretive strategic task it is undertaking in full partnership with Mikati with regard to rearranging the future of the Palestinian refugees consistent with a final settlement of the Palestinian-Syrian-Lebanese conflict with Israel, when the time is ripe.
Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.