ON GOOD TERMS

Lebanon 2017 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: REGIONAL RELATIONS

Looking to restore Lebanon's reputation as a credible mediator, stem the flow of refugees, and restart the flow of money, Lebanon's President Aoun takes a tour, following Lebanon's old money trails in hopes of sparking exchange with the Gulf states and bonding over shared concerns.

The Lebanese president is seeking to raise economic and cultural exchanges between Lebanon and the Gulf countries after the Gulf boycott of tourism as well as economic and government support. Two years ago, Saudi-Lebanese relations were strained, and Saudi Arabia froze USD3 billion in financial aid to the Lebanese army after misunderstandings caused by Lebanon's foreign positions and the perceived growing role of Hezbollah in Syria and interferences in other countries. Gulf states accuse Hezbollah of being pro-Iranian and dominating Lebanon's political decisions; they condemn its military intervention alongside the Assad regime and its support for the Houthi militias in Yemen.

Historically, Lebanon has maintained good relations with Arab countries, which have long considered Lebanon as a younger brother and a mediator country in reconciliations between Arab nations. In efforts to reset relations with Arab countries and other countries in the region—most especially Saudi Arabia and Iran—President Aoun has taken a conciliatory role. Elected in October 2016, President Aoun has conducted several visits throughout the region, first to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The main objective of Aoun's visits to Riyadh and Doha were to remove the confusion that has soured the Lebanese-Gulf relationship. Others believe that it sought to confirm that Lebanon is not a hostile foe of the Arab states.

Egypt and Jordan were also part of President Aoun's regional tour. Egypt is the largest Arab country, and Lebanon has long had political, economic, and cultural relations with the country. The geographic proximity of the two countries allows for important trade exchange between the two, and the Lebanese President's visit addressed the strengthening of the Lebanese-Egyptian Joint Higher Committee, which deals with the opening of Egyptian markets to Lebanese apples and the organization of agricultural trade. The Joint Higher Committee also handles cooperation in the fields of industry, tourism, environment, sports, security, SMEs, and intellectual property. However, the most important aspect of the diplomatic visit was the dialog opportunity on combating terrorism, a shared concern and challenge for both states.

Similarly, Jordan also faces crises in confronting terrorism and stemming the influx of Syrian refugees. Lebanon and Jordan are noteworthy stakeholders in the region as they share significant roles in Palestinian and Iraqi issues as well. On his tour, the Lebanese president stressed the need to establish safe areas in Syria to facilitate the return of refugees, emphasizing the stay and survival of Syrian refugees in Lebanon cannot last forever.
Lebanon hosts some 1.1 million Syrian refugees officially registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while official Lebanese sources say the actual number is more than 1.5 million. Jordan hosts more than 655,000 Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations. In fact, the European Commission has increased its support to both Lebanon and Jordan in response to refugee-related efforts. According to the European Commission, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan equal nearly 20% of their populations combined. Of the overall monetary support in response to the Syrian crisis, the European Commission has spent nearly half, or EUR1.14 billion, in Lebanon and Jordan.

Yet Hezbollah's support for Iran's policies in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain contradict the policies of the Gulf states and its interference in these conflicts interferes with Lebanon's foreign relations and could make President Aoun's conciliatory tour and efforts more difficult. Lebanon's diplomatic recent toils are a beginning of a new phase of relations that, hopefully, will be further consolidated and strengthened. The most important thing for the Gulf is that Lebanon remains neutral and balanced.