After months of a diplomatic row between Lebanon and Gulf countries and the withdrawal of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ambassadors from Beirut, political and media reports revealed that the Saudi ambassador Walid Bukhari could return to Lebanon. There is no confirmed date yet, but the French diplomatic effort, and exchange of friendlier statements between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati, validate these reports.
Amid the crisis, GCC countries presented to Lebanon – via the Kuwaiti foreign minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah - a list of conditions to be fulfilled for the ambassadors to return, most of which are complicated, such as the implementation of UNSCR 1559 and disarming Hezbollah. It did not implement the requirements. Hezbollah continues to use Lebanon as a springboard to support the Houthis in Yemen.
The return of the ambassadors does not mean that relationships are going back to where they were. That will take a long time, and Lebanon still has to show signs of cooperation. However, the return of the ambassadors to Lebanon could be beneficial on two levels - politically support and assure a fragmented Sunni community and some opposition groups ahead of elections, and make sure Iran doesn’t fill all the void left by international actors. Eventually, Lebanon could be part of a new regional approach to confront Iran, and some Gulf presence could come in handy.
A regional effort to confront Iran seems to be in the making, and it could become clear after following the conclusion of the Vienna talks, with a new deal signed. The several meetings in the region, with strong participation of the UAE, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, reflect a broader strategic shift among regional players from dependency on the US to self-reliance. It could translate this regional shift into a more robust strategy in Iran’s headquarters in Lebanon. Only in this context the return of the ambassadors makes sense.
From Sharm el-Sheik to al-Aqaba, and then the Negev, it has become evident that a regional coalition is taking shape, with two priorities; economic cooperation and confronting Iran’s regional power and operations. It is too early to say if this coalition will be successful or not, and it is not sure if countries involved in this new regional partnership see Iran’s threat the same way or could even agree on ways to deal with Iran and its proxies. Regardless, a shift in the broader perspective has seen each country dealing with threats independently, and a decision to cooperate is confirmed.
Accordingly, the regional policy for Lebanon will also shift from complete abandonment and diplomatic boycott to a new form of confrontation, one that could be military, economic, or political. It is still early to assume what form this confrontation will take, depending on the many scenarios and elections outcomes. Still, one thing needs to be clear for both internal and regional actors: previous strategies failed because they mainly relied on money and political spending. Hezbollah won because they think long-term and understand how to build roots and grow organically. Whatever regional shifts are taking place, considering this is important.
Israel’s strategy in Lebanon focuses on security interests and military confrontations, and the Saudis on political spending.
Previous policies strengthened sectarian divides and indirectly ignored corruption. While many assisted several communities and institutions, this assistance was not sustainable and hinged on the Hariri political dynasty. None has weakened Iran in Lebanon or the region; therefore, any new plan needs to invest in building roots and confronting Hezbollah in spaces where it is vulnerable but also where the Lebanese people could benefit.
If the Gulf ambassadors return to Lebanon, and if this step was indeed part of a new regional policy that requires a diplomatic presence, it is vital to work outside and against the sectarian system which has led Lebanon to the current financial, economic, and political crises. It is also essential to think long-term and build sustainable policies that aim to strengthen institutions, not individuals, and help the people, not the old tired traditional parties that have failed to protect anyone but themselves.
As for the new French Gulf-Lebanon initiative, for it to work this time around, the French diplomatic effort needs to double down on urgent issues in Lebanon, such as corruption, port investigations, and elections transparency. This is in addition to tackling Gulf concerns, such as border control, smuggling, and Lebanon’s neutrality. President Emanuel Macron could look into the new EU framework to impose sanctions on individuals involved in corruption, smuggling, and obstructing justice. The framework is in place, and now is the perfect time to apply it.