Turkish FM visits Beirut in midst of Lebanon-Gulf crisis

Turkish FM visits Beirut in midst of Lebanon-Gulf crisis
Turkey offered to mediate to help solve the growing diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and four Arab Gulf countries.
3 min read
16 November, 2021
Local media has speculated that Turkey’s visit is aimed at solidifying its political and cultural influence within the country [Getty]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with his Lebanese counterpart Abdullah Bou Habib on Tuesday and was scheduled to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati later in the day.

Çavuşoğlu expressed his support for Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2022, and indicated Turkey's readiness to help mediate between Lebanon and the Arab Gulf.

The visit comes as the Lebanon-Gulf crisis enters its third week.

Comments by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi expressing sympathies for the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen sparked a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Kordahi made those comments in an interview filmed before his taking office, but the interview was aired in mid-October.

Following the airing of the interview, four Gulf countries recalled their ambassadors from Beirut and Saudi Arabia has banned all imports from the Mediterranean country.

The Turkish FM said he was "saddened" by the spat between Lebanon and the Gulf countries, and said Ankara was "ready to do its part" to help alleviate the crisis.

The current crisis, however, would take "a longer process than short-term mediation", warned Mohaned Hage Ali, a research fellow with Carnegie Middle East Center.

"Ankara has the potential for a Turkish role here, however we haven’t seen any political will to play that role so far," Ali told The New Arab.

Both Ankara and Doha have offered to mediate between Lebanon and the four Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia – but thus far, the Saudi Foreign Minister has said he sees little point in engaging with Lebanon.

"We have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive and not helpful with Hezbollah's continuing dominance of the political scene," Saudi FM Prince Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud told CNBC in late October.  

The Turkish FM also expressed Turkey's willingness to cooperate with Lebanon on infrastructure projects within the country, specifically pointing to the country's assistance to Beirut after the August 2020 port explosion.

Lebanon's infrastructure has been crippled by years of mismanagement and state-sponsored graft. The national power grid provides at most three hours of electricity to the population and periodically shuts down completely.  

Turkish investments in Lebanon are generally relatively small in scale and concentrated on soft power rather than economic returns, with a hospital in Sidon and the restoration of an Ottoman-era Hijaz railway in Tripoli.

Turkey does have experience with large infrastructure projects, such as the Turkish power barges which used to supply about a quarter of Lebanon's power needs and Jordan's 300-km Disi water transfer pipeline.

Ankara has strengthened cultural ties with Lebanon's Sunni community in recent years, offering scholarships and citizenship to Lebanese Turkmen. Turkmen are descendants of Ottoman Turks and at about 88,000, are a minority within Lebanon. As of 2019, almost 10,000 Lebanese have been granted Turkish citizenship.

With elections around the corner and the Gulf diplomatic de-engagement from Lebanon, local media has speculated that Turkey’s visit is aimed at solidifying its political and cultural influence within the country.

Ali, while acknowledging that there is an "opportunity" for Turkey to play a role in Lebanon's upcoming elections, said that Ankara has yet to signal its desire to enter the Lebanese political fray.

"All the build-up in Turkish soft power could translate in elections, but we haven't seen any concrete steps in that direction yet and we are only months away from the March 27 vote," Ali added.