Can Qatar really challenge Saudi Arabia’s influence over Lebanon?

lebanon qatar saudi arabia trade tourism
If trade still grows between Lebanon and Qatar, and between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Beirut is still waiting for Arab tourists' return. The 2000's dreamtime seem far far away. © Barthelemy Leyconie

Money always talks. Bilateral trade between Lebanon and Qatar grew by a record 48%: from $145,9 million in 2017 it rose to $216,2 million in 2018, said Sheikh Khalifa bin Jassim Al Thani, Chairman of Qatar Chamber (QC) during the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Doha, on March 19. While QC wants to boost trade between the two countries, Qatar does not seem to compete in the same category as Saudi Arabia. Here is a drill down on the facts and figures, according to the Lebanese customs.

In 2016
– Trade between Lebanon and Qatar: $93.5M (exp: 75.7 / imp: 17.8)
– Trade between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia: $637M (exp: 267 / imp: 371)

In 2017:
– Trade between Lebanon and Qatar: $114M (exp: 99 / imp: 15)
– Trade between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia: $626M (exp: 243 / imp: 383)

In 2018:
– Trade between Lebanon and Qatar: $172M (exp: 133,4 / imp: 38,6)
– Trade between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia: $714M (exp: 212 / imp: 502)

Qatar has its work cut out in order to compete with Saudi Arabia.

Boosting bilateral trade

During the meeting between Al Talani and the Lebanese trade delegation led by Agriculture Minister Hassan Al Lakis, an agreement was made to send a Qatari trade delegation to visit Lebanon in response to an invitation from Beirut, in a move that could potentially boost bilateral trade.

Although the Summit was not attended by many regional leaders, it was however attended by their representatives. The Summit with potentially vast economic benefits could have significantly contributed to the political and economic stability and prosperity. However Syria’s re-admittance to the Arab league played spoil sports.

The meet also reviewed bilateral trade and economic cooperation between Lebanon and Qatar, especially in the fields of trade and investment in agricultural and food products. Among the agenda that was discussed was the possibility of enhancing cooperation between Lebanese suppliers and importers of agricultural products from Qatari traders.

Speaking at the event, Sheikh Khalifa bin Jassim underscored existing bilateral relations between the two countries while reiterating the scope and the need to further enhance and strengthen the relations between Lebanese and their Qatari counterparts. He also highlighted that Lebanese agricultural and food products were in demand in Qatar, especially fruits of various kinds.

With regard to bilateral trade, Sheikh Khalifa bin Jassim underscored the fact that following the siege of Qatar, Doha’s imports of Lebanese products have jumped significantly. While earlier 95% of Qatar’s imports came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, following the blockade, Qatari imports, helped by its private sector, was able to turn an economic sirge into trade opportunities.

He went on to add, around 1,500 Lebanese-Qatari companies and 29 fully-owned Lebanese companies currently operate in various sectors in Qatar.

During the event, Al Lakis formally invited the Qatar Chamber to organize a Qatari trade delegation to visit Lebanon and enhance bilateral trade and its economic footprint in the agricultural and food industries.

Following the summit, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry announced that it would invest $500 million into Lebanon’s economy, in a strategic challenge to Saudi Arabia’s influence in the country. In turn, Saudi Arabia also announced that it would back its ally to the hilt.

These promises come at a time when Saudi influence in Lebanon is on the wane while Qatari influence is on the rise. Apart from viewing this development from the prism of geo-economics and bilateral trade, Qatar’s commitments to Lebanon, show it has the diplomatic will backed by financial commitments to support Lebanon during its financial crisis.

Last January during the failed Beirut economic summit, Qatar’s emir announced he would bolster Lebanese economy with $500 millions in US government bonds. A few days later at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Saudi minister Mohammed al Jadaan resumed control saying that “Saudis are interested in Lebanon and that they support Lebanon all the way”. Irrespective of Qatar’s opportunist move or Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic failings or hesitations, Lebanon is the beneficiary either way.