Hariri goes to Istanbul: Lebanon tests Turkish waters

Bassem Aly , Saturday 16 Jan 2021

The timing of former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri’s visit to Istanbul last week raises many political and economic questions

Erdogan and Al-Hariri
Erdogan and Al-Hariri at Vahdettin Mansion in Istanbul (photo: AFP)

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim leader Saad Al-Hariri had a business lunch with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday in Istanbul, in a meeting that neither man tried to keep secret. Soon after the talks, which lasted for a couple of hours, were concluded, both Al-Hariri and Erdogan posted notes on the meeting on social media.

The Turkish presidency website said the leaders had discussed “steps to enhance Turkey-Lebanon relations in political, economic, commercial and cultural areas as well as cooperation possibilities in regional issues.” Al-Hariri tweeted twice about the visit, saying that he and Erdogan had tackled issues relating to the reconstruction of Beirut after a new Lebanese government is formed.

The meeting is being seen as a sign of Lebanese-Turkish rapprochement, but the timing of the visit raises various political and economic questions.

Al-Hariri is currently facing tough times in forming a new ruling coalition in Lebanon, and it is no secret that Turkey is a foe of many Arab states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, which has conflicting policies over a number of Middle Eastern issues.

The domestic and regional outcomes of the visit will be something to watch out for in the coming period.

For Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University (LAU), Al-Hariri is “assessing his role” in local and regional dynamics and in the light of changes in the White House following the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president on 20 January as well as in the light of the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement.

Six days ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhad declared that the four-year political crisis between Qatar and four Arab states, the so-called Quartet, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, has reached an end. Trade and business links have been restored between Riyadh and Doha.

The Quartet had accused Qatar, a major regional ally of Turkey and its Islamist president, of backing Islamist and terrorist groups in the region.

Al-Hariri seems to be “testing the water” on whether the regional environment is ripe for a Lebanese-Turkish rapprochement, Salamey explained. He noted that Turkey’s support for Lebanon can only materialise in conjunction with Saudi and French efforts and through a comprehensive plan that would receive both US and Iranian backing, however.

“A convergence would require a far-reaching agreement and international sponsorship similar to the 1989 Taif Agreement” that ended the Lebanese Civil War, he said. “Al-Hariri feels that his best bet is to reposition himself between the Saudi, French and Turkish axes, which could give him leverage in pushing for a Sunni-Christian convergence and, consequently, in backing for his premiership,” Salamey said.

Salamey’s key concern was related to Lebanon’s domestic politics and not regional relations. Believing that Turkey “can indeed play a role in supporting Lebanon’s recovery,” Salamey said that this “would remain short of being welcomed by the Lebanese, especially the Christian and Armenian communities.”

Lebanon and Turkey have a long history of relations. Rafik Al-Hariri, Saad’s father and Lebanon’s former prime minister, officially visited Turkey in 2004 to discuss cooperation. In August 2019, Turkish top diplomat Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, both allies of the Iran-sponsored Hizbollah group, in Lebanon.

Further tensions with the Lebanese sects is the last thing that Al-Hariri, trying to lead a Lebanese government for the fourth time, would want to see. No progress on forming a new government has been made over the past four months, and while the same thing happened with Al-Hariri’s predecessor Mustafa Adib, who gave up after one month of his premiership after his appointment by Aoun, the situation is now even worse.

A war of words has emerged between Al-Hariri and Hizbullah allies over the deadlock, reportedly caused by a clash on who will get the majority of ministerial portfolios in a new government. In late December, Al-Hariri submitted a government lineup to Aoun. One week later, Al-Hariri’s office urged Aoun to “cooperate” and disregard party affiliations.

Aoun’s office responded by opposing Al-Hariri “going it alone in naming ministers, particularly Christians, without agreement from the president.” Accusing Al-Hariri of submitting a lineup different from the one discussed with Aoun, the latter’s office added that “the president never proposed the names of party candidates to be ministers and did not present the prime minister-designate with a list of names.”

It can take months to form a coalition government in Lebanon. However, there is now a new urgency given the country’s social and economic conditions, the Beirut port explosions last August that left 200 people dead, 6,000 injured and 300,000 homeless, and the country’s long-running rubbish crisis, continuous power cuts, and increases in the prices of basic goods.

Even before the port blasts, the Lebanese currency had lost about 80 per cent of its value. The country, which mainly relies on dollars, has been losing its foreign-currency reserves, and the banks have imposed restrictions on withdrawing the US currency.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made a bad situation worse. The government has expanded a nationwide lockdown that started last week following a rise in cases, and Lebanon is now facing an all-day shutdown for 11 days.

For all these reasons, Al-Hariri might be interested in getting closer to Ankara despite the latter’s ongoing economic challenges. Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University in the US, argues for the opposite, however.

“It’s always doubtful that a country such as Turkey can offer much financial support when it is embroiled in its own currency and financial crisis,” he said, believing that Lebanon needs a “currency board” to handle its own problems.

The Turkish lira declined in value by 25 per cent in October 2020, getting close to the $8 mark. The World Bank has warned that Turkey’s “overall macroeconomic picture is more vulnerable and uncertain” amid “rising inflation and unemployment, contracting investment, elevated corporate and financial sector vulnerabilities, and the patchy implementation of corrective policy actions and reforms.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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