SOURCE: THE NATIONAL
BY: GARETH BROWNE
International donors pledged more than $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) for Lebanon at a conference in Paris, as global actors jostled for influence in a country that has borne much of the weight of the conflict in Syria.
The Cedre conference was billed as an event to show international support for a small nation that has an estimated population of six million with at least 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that the world is helping the region by supporting Lebanon.
“Lebanon must be a pole of stability in the region … it is no longer about grants, it’s about investments and structural reforms,” he told the conference on Friday.
Going into the session, western diplomats were sceptical that the gathering would be a success, doubting its capacity to come close to the requirements of Lebanon’s $16bn investment programme. They were wrong.
The re-pledging of a $1bn credit line from Saudi Arabia — which was offered and subsequently withdrawn some 10 years ago — and $670 million from France helped the conference exceed even the most optimistic of Lebanese estimates. Other pledges included $1.35bn in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and $500m from The Kuwait Fund for Development.
Pledges from non-state financial institutions were also significant with the World Bank announcing $4bn in soft loans and the Islamic Development Bank pledging $750m.
Kristalina Georgieva, chief executive of the World Bank, said that “Lebanon has done its duty to the world, and it is time for the world to do its duty for Lebanon”.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that his country had long endured the burdens of other countries as he asked for increased international support.
“We are a very small country, hosting 1.5 million refugees,” he said. “We bear the weight of many nations.
“Lebanon has history of at one point facing civil war, and being refugees ourselves. This does not mean we can do it forever.”
Officials from 50 countries gave a standing ovation as Mr Macron announced the final figure exceeded $11bn.
He and Mr Hariri, however, emphasised this was not a call for aid — though around $860m of the pledges were grants, much of the cash came with strings attached; namely reform and transparency.
“It is important to continue reforms in the coming months, we will be by your side,” Mr Macron said.
Mr Hariri said the conference was the first step to modernise the Lebanese economy, renovate its infrastructure and allow for the private sector to flourish.
He said he aimed to reduce the country’s swollen budget deficit by five per cent in the next five years.
The amount raised on Friday was far from the total at the first investment session organised for Lebanon in Paris in 2001, which saw donations of less than $1bn.
As France under Mr Macron attempted to increase its engagement with Lebanon, over which it held mandate power in the first half of the 20th century, many believe the influence of Saudi Arabia, whose royal family is close to the Hariri clan, has waned in recent years.
In February 2016, the kingdom scrapped $4bn worth of military aid to Lebanon, whose government includes members of the Tehran-backed Hezbollah group, over what it described as the “seizure by what is called Lebanese Hezbollah of the state administration”.
Some also accused Saudi Arabia of being behind Mr Hariri’s surprise resignation from Riyadh, which he later withdrew. Saudi officials have rejected the accusations, labelling them “ridiculous”.
Mr Macron’s success in bringing Mr Hariri to France immediately after the resignation was regarded by many as a diplomatic coup, and a sign that Paris was looking to reassert itself both in Lebanon and the region, said Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
“Macron is definitely trying to fill in the gap that was left by US retrenchment,” he told The National.
“He managed the Hariri situation well … Now he is trying to use political and economic leverage to play a wider role, but also to reflect [France’s] own interests.
“As he said in his speech — your security is our security. This is not just altruistic.”
Just weeks before Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in almost a decade, Mr Hariri will return to Beirut with a portfolio of pledges. However, the money is still not in Lebanese hands and must first be agreed upon and ratified by parliament, which itself has struggled to pass critical decisions. In 2017, it passed the country’s first budget since 2005 after years of arguing between rival parties.
Despite his promise to “fast-track” the pledges, Mr Hariri will have his work cut out for him as he races to ratify at least some of the loans before next month’s election.