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Qatar's recent investments and humanitarian efforts in Lebanon and Syria have raised concerns about its political influence in the region.
This article was translated from Arabic.
Qatar has recently intensified its efforts to bolster its presence in Lebanon and Syria, primarily through investment activities and humanitarian aid. While these initiatives have been primarily focused on economic and relief efforts, they have nevertheless increased Qatar’s political influence in both countries.
These developments raise concerns about the impact it will have on Qatar’s relations with the most influential nations involved in the affairs of Lebanon and Syria, such as Iran and France in the case of Lebanon, and Iran, Türkiye, and Russia in the case of Syria.
Moreover, given the political impasses and economic crises facing both countries, it is important to consider how Qatar’s involvement will impact the prospects for political settlement. The complexity and far-reaching implications of these crises also highlight the significance of Qatar’s entry into these files.
Qatar’s investment presence in Lebanon
Lebanon’s current financial collapse has made it an uninviting environment for foreign investment. The current financial collapse has rendered the banking system unable to support, with monetary chaos posing significant risks for any balanced investment operations.
Monetary chaos raises significant challenges to balanced investment operations because it is difficult to guarantee the availability of hard currency at stable prices in the medium term.
Simultaneously, contracting with the Lebanese state carries increased risks due to its default status and its failure to pay its foreign currency debts for almost three years without restructuring them. The risks of security events and social upheavals are also on the rise due to the high levels of poverty and unemployment and the deterioration of state institutions.
This dismal situation has resulted in the exclusion of all international funds and companies from the Lebanese market since the end of 2019, resulting in a near absence of foreign investment flows to Lebanon. Countries have also halted all potential investments, waiting for the Lebanese state to sign an agreement with the IMF, which is expected to guarantee Lebanon’s progress through a clear recovery plan.
Qatar stands out as the only country going in the opposite direction by pursuing new and balanced investments in Lebanon, despite the repercussions of the financial crisis. In late January 2023, Qatar Energy became an official 30 per cent partner in the gas exploration and extraction consortium in Lebanese Blocks 4 and 9, highlighting their commitment to investing in Lebanon’s future.
The Qatari government-owned Qatar Energy Company’s entry into the consortium came after the Russian company Novatek withdrew, leaving a vacuum in the partnership. The French company Total and the Italian company Eni, who had held these shares ever since the awarding of blocks 4 and 9 in 2017 before the financial collapse, are now partners with Qatar Energy.
It is noteworthy that only one foreign energy company, Qatar Energy Company, expressed interest in buying the stake Russian firm Novatek abandoned, preserving hydrocarbon operations in Blocks 4 and 9. Other foreign energy companies left Lebanon in 2019, including all oil and gas blocks, and their departure covered all petroleum-related activities in Lebanon, not just Novatek’s shares.
Qatar’s investment in the Lebanese market extends beyond the energy sector and includes the real estate and hotel sectors, despite the limited profitability of real estate in Lebanon. Furthermore, Qatar has recently been gathering information on the financial status of several struggling Lebanese banks in preparation for acquiring shares during their restructuring process.
Aid and donations to Lebanese state institutions
Qatar’s interest in Lebanon also has a focus on providing aid packages to state institutions suffering from complete paralysis due to the financial crisis. The Qatari government granted the Lebanese army successive packages of cash aid in U.S. dollars to enable the distribution of part of soldiers’ salaries in hard currency after the value of the Lebanese pound collapsed.
In addition, Qatar provided aid to state institutions in the education, health, media and environment sectors, as well as directed humanitarian aid to remote areas through the Qatar Charity Association. The Qatar Fund for Development entered the line of distributing monthly cash allocations to Syrian refugees in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Most of this aid was given directly to the Lebanese state or to eligible groups, avoiding international coordination mechanisms that France and Saudi Arabia attempted to impose to unify aid and provide it collectively to Lebanon. Qatar aimed to differentiate itself from other international parties in its relationship with Lebanon, possibly to strengthen the bilateral relationship with the Lebanese state without linking it to other parties’ accounts.
Investment projects and aid in northern Syria
The scenario is comparable to that in Syria’s northern regions, which are governed by armed opposition organizations. In order to meet the high demand for housing caused by the dense population in these regions, Qatar started investing in real estate and construction projects in late 2022.
In addition, Qatar and Türkiye are working together to start initiatives in the fields of industry, electricity production, healthcare, industry, and education, capitalizing on the acute lack of investment in these areas.
In regards to humanitarian and relief efforts, the Qatar Charity Association initiated the “City of Dignity” project in northern Syria in February 2023. This project seeks to establish residential complexes capable of housing 600 families affected by the recent earthquake.
Additionally, the Qatari government announced the shipment of 10,000 units of mobile homes and cabins, previously used during the World Cup, to northern Syria with the aim of providing shelter to refugees who lost their homes in the earthquake.
In all of these initiatives, Qatar leveraged its close relationship with the Turkish government, which wields significant military influence and maintains a presence in northern Syria, as well as its influence over the militias that control the region.
Consequently, Qatar’s projects in northern Syria formed a crucial component of the agreements reached between Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their direct meeting in October 2023.
It is worth mentioning that Qatar has implemented many of its humanitarian projects in northern Syria in partnership with Türkiye, such as the housing project near the city of Al-Bab, which was carried out by the Qatar Red Crescent in collaboration with the Turkish Authority for Disaster and Emergency Response.
While Qatar sought to increase its direct presence in northern Syria through these projects, the Turkish side also benefited from the ability of these initiatives to provide housing and other basic services to Syrian refugees within the region. This helped to alleviate the burden on Türkiye, which has hosted millions of Syrian refugees, by reducing the number of Syrians seeking refuge within its borders.
Strengthening its political presence in Lebanon and Syria
Qatar’s political presence and sway in Lebanon and Syria increased as it enhanced its investments and humanitarian assistance. By assisting the United States in resolving contract-related details that stalled the talks, Qatar significantly contributed to the demarcation of the maritime borders between Israel and Lebanon. In spite of the fact that the Qatar Energy Company did not yet own a stake in Blocks 4 and 9, Amos Hochstein, the American mediator in this case, traveled to Qatar as a side trip to the indirect talks he held in Tel Aviv and Beirut.
In February 2023, Qatar and France jointly initiated the five-party Paris meeting, attended by diplomatic delegations from France, Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The meeting was aimed at creating an international working group to mediate a solution to the Lebanese political crisis, end the presidential vacuum, and initiate the necessary economic reforms to emerge from the financial collapse. As a consequence, along with other typically influential nations, Qatar has once again emerged as one of the key players in the Lebanese crisis.
In all of these roles related to Lebanon, Qatar leveraged its strong relationships with Western partners who are invested in the Lebanese file, particularly the United States and France. Qatar’s foreign policy is characterized by pragmatism and flexibility, allowing it to build a broad network of relations with the vast majority of Lebanese political parties. This sets it apart from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which in recent years has boycotted significant portions of the Lebanese political forces that do not align with the Kingdom’s position on regional political issues.
However, at the same time, Qatar is careful not to undermine its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by avoiding any settlements or understandings that may contradict the kingdom’s stance on the Lebanese file. This explains Qatar’s decision to invite the kingdom to the Paris five-party meeting, despite the meeting being supported by Western powers such as the United States and France.
Moreover, Qatar benefits from its positive relations with Iran which allow it to play a crucial role in mediating solutions to various Lebanese issues, as Iran has significant influence over Hezbollah’s foreign relations. This positions Qatar as a valuable mediator for Western countries involved in the Lebanese file.
On the political front in Syria, Qatar has established strong ties with the armed opposition factions, and its recent investments and aid have further strengthened this relationship. Qatar is also working to maintain its longstanding alliance with Türkiye and cooperating with Erdoğan on all political matters related to Syria. At the same time, Qatar is attempting to utilize its presence in Syria to slow down Türkiye’s movement toward normalizing relations with the Assad regime or hinder it altogether.
It is expected that Qatar will continue to strengthen its economic and investment presence in both Syria and Lebanon, especially since the recent surge in gas prices has provided the country with significant financial surpluses, driving it to seek out more investment opportunities worldwide.
With these financial resources, Qatar will be able to maintain its direct humanitarian aid to both countries, thereby consolidating its political influence in the region. Consequently, Qatar is likely to play a significant role in resolving political issues that have stalled in recent months, similar to its role in the Lebanese presidential crisis.